the tin box

There’s a scene where the scared boy, or the dying old lady, or the grieving father pulls a tin box from its secret hiding place. A hand rests on the top of the box for a moment, as though what’s inside is so important they must prepare themselves for the experience. The lid is carefully lifted and we see some normal old stuff: a bit of dirty string wrapped around a short stick, or a brooch, or a faded photo of a baby. But the person who opened the tin touches each item reverentially, as though it’s valuable beyond measure, as though it lives.

When you’re collecting your thoughts for writing, imagine putting your most valuable, most alive thoughts into a tin box. For safekeeping. For future reference. For inspiration. For reverence.

A tin box is usually pretty small. You can’t stuff the world in there. You can’t fling every passing thought into something smaller than a bread box. It won’t all fit. So spread out everything you’ve thought of so far and examine it. What could you not write this piece without?

Is it the main character’s son’s infatuation with birds? Is it the dog at the edge of the bombed-out building? The sycamore balls the wedding guests keep stumbling over? The frightened man in the bank lobby? The Post-It Note the mom wrote before she died? The North Star disappearing behind the clouds?

What’s at the heart of this piece you’re writing? What matters the most?

You can’t put an idea in a tin box. But you can put a symbol of an idea. If you can clarify your most important, most crucial, most necessary ideas as symbols you can put into a tin box, you can find your piece’s inspiring pulse.

What’s in your tin box may look to everyone else like normal old stuff. But you know that each item you’ve placed inside breathes. And each item talks to the others. They share a life together. They live.

Your job as a writer is to tell us why.

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Related reading: Wonder – Write Better by Exploring Your Fascination

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