This is no. 62 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
Working right now—in the twenty-first century, in the pandemic—I find my attention is even more fragmented than usual. It’s splintered. I’ve had to connect to people via Skype, WhatsApp, Zoom, and send messages via e-mail, Twitter, Instagram, and—the grandfather of social media—Facebook. Each platform presents itself differently, and I present myself differently. Then there’s the distractions of the phone itself: A text comes in, then another notification. I cannot remember my name after switching from one portal to another all day. I forget passwords. I forgot my neighbor’s name.
With my attention so dispersed, I find myself writing in shorter forms, using fragments to build a larger structure. My debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, is composed of twenty-three essays—some are more traditional and longform, but others are short lyric essays, segmented essays, varying in length. There is a list essay, too.
Making a book means figuring out the binding, the connective tissue, but the scale of that task can be daunting. Using shorter forms, smaller canvases—and markers and signposts in the longer essays—helped me not feel overwhelmed by the subject matter: racism, immigration, depression, mental health, neurodivergence, the lack of basic geography and knowledge Americans have about most other cultures (even writing that out feels exhausting). Using numbers in a list essay, subheadings in a segmented essay, breaking up my own words with words from other writers, an asterisk or ornament to signal a pause—all this somehow gave my work more space, breath, silence, and pauses, especially in painful matters.
This week I picked up my copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which I bought in 1995 and read in my twenties during my first trip to England and Italy. I only saw today that the binding had split. I’ve referred to it a lot over the years, often in teaching. In the chapter “Short Assignments,” Lamott writes: “Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of—oh, say—say women. But this is like trying to scale a glacier...then your mental illnesses arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives.” In that same chapter she refers to an object that steadies her: “I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.”
When I write, sometimes I think of that one-inch picture frame: its visual representation of Bird by Bird and short assignments. My version of the short assignment is writing four hundred words or four sentences for The Grind, a peer e-mail accountability group for writers. It’s using timers, for fifteen minutes or an hour, or doing coworking sessions with writer friends.
Sometimes I feel we all are telling the same story again and again, but it’s an important story and the thing is to be able to hear it. I sometimes find it easier to see the story—to hold the different threads of an essay—if I divide up the text, if there are visual breaks and spaces, numbers.
Later in Bird by Bird, Lamott reminds us of another object, another tool of the short form that might be especially useful: index cards. When I reread her description of keeping the cards everywhere, all over the house, I thought, Now, that’s the problem. I forgot about index cards! I sometimes remember to type notes into my phone or record a voice memo, but then don’t do anything with them. But paper: That helps. To see it. This is a problem with the phone.
My attraction to scaffolding and shorter forms comes partially from how I think. I was formally diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in my forties—unusually late. When I was in graduate school in my twenties, my doctor thought I had attention deficit disorder. I could get evaluated for free through our graduate student health insurance, but I kept losing the slip of paper. We used to laugh about this. I didn’t pursue a diagnosis, because I didn’t think having one would help me. Either way I had to figure out how to get my work done. Asian Americans are supposed to be good at school. (I was good at some parts of it, but not others.) Just try harder. I present as normal or as high-functioning. The doctor I’ve known longest in my life, my father, always said doctors can’t do anything for you. You have to help yourself.
The doctor before my most recent one would not prescribe ADHD medication to me because he said, “You should have been diagnosed by age nine.” (My report cards read, “Talks too much, reads too much, easily distracted, not trying to the best of her ability.” But I didn’t disrupt the class by jumping around—girls don’t present in the way boys do and our medical and educational systems use white men as the standard. I wasn’t throwing erasers, so of course I wasn’t diagnosed.) My husband teaches middle school. To him, it’s very clear I have ADHD. I live with my brain and he lives with me. I spend a lot of time trying to organize papers, e-mails, to-dos, grocery lists. And thinking of where I last left that list or notebook. I think associatively, not in a linear way. Numbers and subheadings help me to translate or render those associative leaps to a reader, or to make them legible: a visual signal we are shifting gears.
This is part of why it took a long time to figure out the structure for my book. A book is a long form. It requires stepping back to see the forest. Left to my own devices, I see leaves and trees. Shorter forms, dividing up longer essays, bird by bird, restored a sense of agency. They granted me permission to not say everything—or to say just enough. There is a learning curve to know how and when to choose a particular short form or how to divide something and break it down. Not all subjects will be unlocked by fragments or subheadings, numbers or lists. But as I practice—found my one-inch picture frame, index cards, list essays, the thing that worked for my brain—I began to speak on my own terms.
Sejal Shah is the author of This Is One Way to Dance (University of Georgia Press). Her writing can be found in Brevity, Conjunctions, Guernica, Kenyon Review, the Literary Review, the Margins, and the Rumpus. She is also the recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in fiction. Shah is on the faculty of The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, and lives in Rochester, New York.Thumbnail: Hassan Pasha