by Annie Scholl
Author Jane Anne Staw’s life changed when she began thinking small. She shares the impact of this shift in her new book, Small: The Little We Need for Happiness, (Shanti Arts Publishing, 2018). Staw, who lives in Berkeley, California, has taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Stanford University, the University of San Francisco, and for more than 20 years at The University of California at Berkeley Extension. She’s also been a writing coach for the past 15 years. Her other books are Parsnips in the Snow: Talks with Midwestern Gardeners(with Mary Swander, University of Iowa Press, 1990), and Unstuck: A Supportive and Practical Guide to Working Through Writer’s Block (St. Martin’s Press, 2003).
How did the idea for Small land on you?
I’ve always been a worrier, and prone to anxiety. Any little thing could set me off and running: a class I taught that didn’t go well, a dinner party I was hosting (I’m a perfectionist), an essay I was writing that wasn’t flowing, a conversation that took a turn that made me uncomfortable. And I would feed that worry for days, until it nearly took over my life.
Then one afternoon several years ago, I was walking my dog Daphne around the block, when I looked down and saw a dried sycamore leaf curled on the sidewalk. Oh, that is so beautiful, I thought. And instead of walking on, I stood and admired the balletic grace of the leaf. After a few moments, I continued walking, still thinking about the leaf and the pleasure it had offered me. When I got back home, I realized that the pleasure had followed me all around the block. The next thing I knew, a voice in my head was telling me: You should think small for a year and see what happens. That was it. I never questioned the voice. At that very moment, I committed to making a practice of seeing and thinking small. Which I did. And since I am a writer, it was natural for me to begin writing about my experiences.
You have talked about this book coming out of inspiration, but you’re not one to wait for inspiration to write. You show up daily to write. Talk about why you take that approach as a writer and what your writing life looks like.
I was a very blocked writer in college. The process started when I began writing poetry, which, I now realize, is the kingdom of small. For a poem, you write one word and then another and another. Slowly, I worked my way to writing entire essays.
Because I was so intimately familiar with the anxiety that can prevent us from writing, I quickly understood it was important not to let too much time go by in between writing sessions. And that waiting to feel inspired was actually a form of procrastination.
If you establish a regular writing practice, you don’t give your anxiety time to build. You also gather momentum for what you are writing. I’ve discovered the more frequently I write, the more I have to say.
What is the overarching value or benefit of thinking small? How does it affect all areas of your life, especially your writing life?
The deepest and broadest value of small is happiness. It’s that simple. Practicing thinking small intensively for a year showed me so much unexpected beauty in the world and connected me more deeply with all people. Learning to value the smallest moment of beauty or the tiniest bit of grace within another person led me to see and value all the good around me.
What do you love about this book and what do you hope readers will love about it?
Isolating what I love about my book is nearly impossible. If I have to answer this question, I’d say that what makes me happiest is my book exists in the world and that readers engage with it in a very deep and personal way.
What was your hope for Small? How has your hope for it met up with the reality of it out in the world?
To be completely honest, I hoped word of my book would spread nationally. I know how much thinking small helped me and I wanted people across the United States to discover that help. What writer doesn’t hold the dream of national recognition? As you might expect, so far, this is not what has happened. I’ve gotten great local response, and the reviews and reports I’ve received have been very fulfilling. Readers tell me how much they love the book and how very helpful they are finding the practice of seeing small.
How has your writing changed (or have you changed as a writer) since this discovery?
I don’t think I’ve changed as a writer. In fact, what I discovered when I started practicing small was that, as far as my writing goes, I’ve been thinking small ever since I began working my way through my writing block. I simply hadn’t labeled it this way. But as I said earlier, writing poetry is a way of writing small—one word, after another, after another—until you accumulate verses, stanzas, and eventually an entire poem.
How has this change in focus influenced your work as a teacher and writing coach?
Without being conscious of it, I’ve been using small in my coaching for years, especially with writers who are struggling with block. I work with them to reduce their wild ambitions and the pressure they place on themselves, by at first minimizing the amount of time they write at a sitting. One of my clients nearly completed an entire novel writing only 10 minutes a day. I also work with clients on reducing the population of their writing universe, encouraging them to disinvite all the critics in their heads. And I talk a great deal about focusing on the sentence, the paragraph, the plot point, the particular idea they are writing on at any given moment.
How do you think thinking and seeing small can be especially helpful to writers?
Most writing block and inhibitions come from thinking much too big. We sit down to write the first words of our novel, short story, essay or poem and we’re already thinking about what people will say, whether or not we will be published, if we will win awards, how long it will take to finish. All of these worries are ways of thinking much too big, and stir up a great deal of anxiety, whether we’re aware of it or not. Learning to rein in our focus closes the door on all these sources of writing anxiety, and most of my clients find that, at last, they are able to write.
You said you realized that you had known about and practiced small for many years in your writing. Talk about that – and also elaborate on why, perhaps, that realization didn’t land on you sooner… and how it might have helped you if it had.
As I mentioned earlier, I only realized several years ago, that by writing poetry, I was writing small. One reason it took so very long for this realization to offer itself to me was that it was many years before I understand that I wasn’t a bad writer in college; I was a blocked writer. After I understood that I had been blocked, I was more able to see my writing life clearly. Overcoming the block completely took years and years. Once I was able to write, it took a long time for me to fully emerge on the page, to allow my most authentic voice to speak. In fact, although I’ve published two other books, I feel that in writing Small I met up with the real me, the narrator who best represents who I am, how I think, and how I best express myself.
Where are you now in thinking small? Has it become easier or more challenging since you began this journey?
Thinking small was nearly automatic while I was writing my book. Since then, even though I spend a great deal of time talking and thinking about it, I have to make a conscious decision to think small. My first response is, once again, to worry or become anxious about many situations each week. Now, when I start to react intensely, I’m able to catch myself. Not always immediately, but soon. And I hear myself saying: You know what to do now, Jane Anne: think small. And it always works.
Shortly after my launch at Mrs. Dalloway’s Bookstore in Berkeley—which was fabulous, by the way—I began thinking about all those friends and students who hadn’t been there. This, even though the store had been jammed that evening. For a day, on and off, I found myself remembering yet another person I hadn’t seen that night.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I remembered to think small. To do this, I conjured the front row of chairs, in my mind’s eye. Then, thinking even smaller, I zoomed in on the face of a dear friend, who had been there, beaming at me the entire evening. That was all I had to do. My friend’s face stayed with me the entire day, and I stopped obsessing about the negative.
How challenging was it to find a publisher for the book? Anything you’d like to share about this process?
It was very challenging. When my agent, who is also a dear friend, read the book, she phoned and told me, “I’m so sorry, but I cannot represent this book. It’s a perfect jewel, but the market has become so difficult, we’re going to have trouble finding a publisher. And to be honest, I can’t face the struggle. The last few years have been too miserable.”
I wasn’t surprised at my agent’s response. I work with writers and was fully aware of the market, which now cares mainly about platform and social media presence. My only platform was as a writer who had published only two previous books. And I had done nothing over the years to generate a following.
So, I began researching small publishers, who don’t care so much about platforms and social media. I created a list and committed to submitting to each and every publisher on the list. The process took about a year, but in the end, three publishers responded positively. I chose Shanti Arts Publishing, and was very pleased with the publishing process, which turned out to be pleasantly interactive. They even let me suggest a cover.
The positive reviews feel wonderful. Each time somebody posts on Amazon or sends me a response, I am deeply moved that my book touches readers. Just yesterday, a woman in charge of an event where I will be speaking next month told me she keeps Small by her bedside and reads one essay each night before she goes to sleep. What more could a writer ask for?
What’s next for you as a writer?
I’m working on a book about meditating on the Buddhist metta, or loving kindness meditation, each day. I’ve been doing this for some months, and already have completed about 40 short essays. For some reason, these essays have wanted to be shorter than the essays in Small. These new pieces are two to two and a half pages, and I’ve permitted them their natural breadth. I’m a firm believer in allowing the writing to take the lead, and not forcing it in a direction we think it should go.
You’re a photographer, too, especially of all things small. Are you planning a book of photos?
Thanks so much for asking this. I’m hoping to be able to include photographs in my next book. But I know a book with photographs is a more expensive proposition, so I’ll have to leave that decision to my publisher.
Do you consider Small a self-help book?
I’m trained as a poet, so the language and music of my prose are very important to me. That means that I care a great deal about the literary value of my book. Small is a memoir, though not intentionally. Everything I wrote is in the service of small. It is also a self-help book of sorts. I set out to capture my experiences with seeing and thinking small, hoping readers would join me on my journey of discovery, and learn something of value for their lives. Several people have suggested I callSmallliterary self-help. That sounds pretty good to me.
You have three books out in the world now. All of your books are quite different, one might say, but are there similarities from where you sit?
Each of my books represents a stage in my working through my writing block. Parsnips in the Snow features Midwestern gardeners, and is shaped around these gardeners’ words and life stories. Unstuck tells some of my story, but just as important are the stories of my clients and their struggles with block. Small is the first book where I am the central character, and each essay revolves around a very personal experience of me as narrator. I guess you can say that with Small, I have fully emerged as a writer.
Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr.
Photo of Jane Staw by Margaretta Mitchell.