Leave it to me to be captivated by words at an art gallery, I thought to myself as I wandered the airy rooms of framed paintings. I was in the National Gallery of Canada, visiting a friend in Ottawa, and I’d just walked past Van Gogh’s “Iris” painting. My dad is an artist, and he’s painted in the style of Van Gogh in the past, so I recognized the blue-purple iris. Though the flower stands out, the grass takes up the majority of the painting, sprouting in all directions in several shades of green.

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Van Gogh’s “Iris” via the National Gallery of Canada.

But as I moved on to the next painting, it wasn’t the colours or brushstrokes that held my attention. It was a phrase on the information card beside the painting. “Van Gogh’s desire to paint ‘a single blade of grass’ stems from his lifelong appreciation and love for nature,” it read.

A single blade of grass, I repeated in my head. Interesting.

After looking up the phrase, I learned that it originated in a letter that Van Gogh wrote to his brother in 1887. Writing about Japanese art, he wrote that an artist “studies a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him to draw plants of all kinds, then the seasons, the overall aspects of the landscape, then animals, and finally, the human figure.”

I think the reason I latched onto this quote is because it relates so perfectly to the art of writing. In both fiction and nonfiction, so much of writing involves looking at a big topic or big story and breaking it down. This might be a complex political issue, or a family history dating back generations. You can’t possibly write every single fact; and often times the smaller details are the more impactful ones.

As author Richard Price says, “You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road.”

You might think it’s easier to write about a small thing. Write about one blade of grass; how hard can it be? Well, looking at one single blade of green grass is, in my opinion, infinitely more difficult than writing about an entire field. If you’re writing about an open expanse of grass, you can write about the blades moving softly in the wind, and the way your bare feet sink into the warm earth and tickle against the grass as you run through the field.

While I wrote that, I could imagine myself running through a field of grass on a sunny afternoon. It was easy to find the words to describe this. But if I try to picture myself standing in that field holding only one piece of grass, the words don’t flow as naturally. And yet, if I spend my time focusing on this small thing, will I not have a greater appreciation of the field as a whole? Will I now write not about the blades of grass swaying together, a solid unit billowing in the breeze, and instead about each individual blade is moving at its own pace, in its own direction?

In all aspects of life, the big picture can be overwhelming. This is especially true where creativity is concerned. You can imagine the full story arc for your novel, or visualize the gorgeous garden scene you want to paint. But if you miss the little details, you end up with a canvas with green smeared in callous strokes, because in your head the purple flower is surrounded by grass that you haven’t taken the time to study.

Pay attention to the details, though, and your art becomes richer, more realistic and relatable. Your story begins to burst at the seams with not only the basic plot points you’ve brainstormed, but the little things that stand out to readers; the way you’ve described the smell of the morning pot of coffee and freshly baked blueberry muffins; the way you’ve noted that as your interview subject speaks, the light catches her grey hair and turns it a sparkling silver that makes her eyes shine brighter, too.

When I look back at Van Gogh’s “Iris” after thinking more about what he wrote in his letter, the flower isn’t even what catches my eye. It’s the blades of green grass that command my attention. Look at me, they seem to say — I am not supposed to be the focal point of this painting, but I have been painted with care because I have been studied by watchful eyes and a curious mind.

Who knew that a single blade of grass could provoke so much thought?

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