A Tool for Navigating Overwhelm

The idiom “can’t see the forest for the trees” refers to the anxiety we experience when we get caught up in minutia at the expense of seeing the larger picture. But what about the inverse, when we feel overwhelmed by the vastness of the task at hand, doubting our ability to ever tackle the whole damn forest?

My answer? Limit output to a first, small step. When we are facing a tremendous project like a dissertation or a healing journey, we may struggle to know where to start. When we’re in that type of overwhelm, we need a tool to help us to shift our perspective from the whole damn forest to tackling one tree at a time.

This post focuses on Anne Lamott’s short assignment tool, the one-inch picture frame, which she writes about in her book Bird by Bird. Lamott uses the one-inch picture frame when she is overwhelmed because it helps her intentionally limit her productivity to a manageable and small assignment. Doing this allows her to focus and take an intentional first step towards her goal. She even keeps an actual tiny frame on her writing desk because, she says,

“It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car—just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her. (17-18)



How to Use the One-Inch Picture Frame Outside of Fiction

Because the one-inch picture frame helps us to limit overwhelm through taking small, actionable steps, it is applicable for all types of writing projects, not just fiction. Below, I will walk you through my process of applying the tool to a brand new writing assignment: a blog post for the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives about my experience working in the archives as an 2018 LGBTQ Research Fellow. In what follows, I break down my thought process (in italics and parentheses) as I drafted my post from scratch.

(I spent an entire week in August looking through Lisa Ben’s papers at the ONE. How could I possibly limit my reflection to just 500 words?) 

What the Archive Taught Me (Shitty first draft title, but it prompts me to write a list)

Before my archive trip, I didn’t know that… (Gives my list a theme)

  • Lisa Ben’s friendship with Forrest Ackerman. (Possible topic 1)
  • Her father was a poet, too. (Possible topic 2)
  • She kept track of all the sci-fi films she watched and stories she read throughout her entire life. (Possible topic 3. This one seems most interesting for a 500-word blog post, because I can write about the ways she did this the same task in both youth and in her older age)

So, now that I have my topic, I can use the one-inch picture frame and describe it in detail. I have crafted my own short assignment: write ~200 words on each example of Ben’s sci-fi tracking system (in youth and older), which leaves me ~100 words for an introduction and conclusion. Using the one-inch picture frame, I narrowed down the forest of a week’s worth of research to one interesting tree with two similar branches—a perfect scope for a 500-word blog post.


One More Writing Prompt

Remember: the one-inch picture frame method helps us to calm overwhelm by limiting our efforts to a first, actionable step. The more we do these steps, the closer we get to our goal.

If you’re writing an article or a dissertation, you’re probably working with multiple methods, theories, cited material, analyses, etc. I know how overwhelming it can feel to sit down at your desk and face that blinking cursor. So, make the intentional decision to limit yourself to just one aspect, such as a definition or a close reading, for example filling in the blank in a sentence like “When I say discourse, I mean ___” or “When Lisa Ben was young, she liked to ____.” Think of this exercise as forming individual bricks that will eventually serve as the foundation for your larger project!


*This post is an adaptation of a post originally shared on my personal blog, The Tending Year.*