What decorating and getting dressed helped me learn about creative writing

by Meredith Resnick

When we moved my sister, who is an interior decorator, helped me set up our house. Set up as in decorate.

I, alone, can tell you when a finished room looks good, but I can’t begin to tell you how to put it together. My spatial skills are barely adequate. She, on the other hand, can eyeball a room, go to the store and tell you what will fit where, and what will go with it. When you get the furniture home, it works.

The problem with how I “decorate” is that I tend to make everything the same – even if each piece is utterly unique. Too much color, too much busy, too much monochromatic – fill in your own “too much.” I do mosaics, and I love them, and I’d decorate my entire house with them – which I kind of did in our last place. But even I noticed, before we moved, it was getting difficult to “see” them as individuals, and worse, they started competing with each other for attention. Instead of my eye glancing around the room, it was more like a ping pong ball (pardon the cliche). Not a federal offense, but not great, either.

“It’s hard to know what’s important to look at in the room when everything is in it is the same,” my sister told me. “Then nothing is important, and it defeats the purpose for having an important piece.”

a-HA!

As I get inside long-form writing, I need different ways of looking at the different elements that are essential to writing well. Basically, I’m willful, and I want to write what I want to write, and I want people to like it. But it doesn’t work that way, just like it doesn’t work when you’re decorating your home. People will come over and tell you they love your mosaic table, or your this or that – individual things…but what you (I) really want is for the visitor to tell me they love my house, that it’s a place they want to stay, to relax in, to spend time. I want people to say this about my book/manuscript. More than telling me they love my writing (though who doesn’t love that?), I want them to love the story I’m writing, to want to read it, to say it moved them, that it was unforgettable in the best possible way. Don’t you?

Since my sister started to help me decorate I’ve been thinking about “show, don’t tell” differently. When I go into the manuscript, I try to see where the expository parts include information that is essential to the reader knowing the character and to moving the story along. Some exposition is appropriate to inform, info that’s not going to be shown in a scene because it’s not happening in the real time of the manuscript. I do this when I’m editing, not when I’ve writing. To use the decorating analogy, I bring the chair home and see how it looks next to the window, or I move it to the bedroom. Sometimes I return it, and buy something else. The goal is for it to fit, to look great in its place. If it is meant to be the focal point, that it should do that very, very well.

If the decorating analogy doesn’t strike a chord, maybe my “getting-dressed” one will. Exposition can be like buttons and button holes – they help close the garment in order for it to be wearable. The buttons should be attractive, too, but they don’t need to be the entire length of material that makes the shirt. They simply close gaps. However, if the focal point of the story is the garment being torn off, those buttons better pop in the most spectacular way.

How do you think about the elements of writing to support your storytelling?

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sheryl

i love your analogies – what a clever way to approach writing. I’m going to keep these things in mind. They are good visual reminders!

Kerry Dexter

good analogies, Meredith — I’d never heard these ideas about structure expressed in this way.

as to your question, one thing I do is think about the arc of the story I’m telling — where it begins and where I want it to end. once I have those ideas in mind, I work on varied ways to make that journey.

Jane Boursaw

I don’t really “think.” I just start writing and go with whatever comes out. It’s all intuitive on my part.

Vera Marie Badertscher

Great analogies for writing. It makes me think–and not just for long form, but for Ancestors in Aprons, where I get so excited about my ancestors that I want to tell you EVERYTHING instead of just what you need to hear in order to “know” them. I need to “dress” my characters more carefully, so they don’t look like they stepped out of the thrift shop.

Alexandra

I never thought about writing this way. Very helpful. I liked the “buttons popping in a spectacular way,” too.

Pat Jackson-Colando

your insightful analogies are re-mapping my writing/editing decisions…’busting my buttons’, you are!

HeatherL

How thoughtful to relate decorating to writing.

ruth pennebaker

I agree with Jane. I never know what I think till I write it.

Roxanne

Maybe I’m a terrible decorator, but the button analogy works better for me. Though, I definitely get the idea that if everything screams for attention, then nothing is seen clearly. I wish I had more time to play with long form writing. Everything I’m assigned is so short these days. I don’t much get the chance to air things out in my day-to-day work.

Living Large

Like Roxanne, most of the things I do these days in the form of writing are short pieces designed for the attention span of the internet reader or lists. I like these analogies though.

Jeanine Barone

Such creative and appropriate analogies. I’m all about not self-editing. I often just free write to start and the piece takes shape before my eyes.

Amy Wallen

I will never button a blouse or buy a piece of furniture without thinking of exposition vs narrative now. I love this. I also will share with all my students because they often ask when do we know when to use exposition and when to use narrative. You, Meredith, just answered them most succinctly. Thank you. Writing is never so willy nilly as may appear at first glance.

Liz Zuercher

I love this! Having just survived my own major downsizing move, I have another moving/writing connection for you. After thirty plus years of accumulating stuff, I had to switch gears and throw stuff away. It started slowly, with much emotion and hesitation, but as the moving date deadline approached I became more ruthless, finally paring down our belongings to just fit our new, much smaller place. It dawned on me that I need to do this with my novel. I’ve been accumulating words for nearly seven years. It’s time to throw out a few and keep only the ones that really matter.

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