How important is the frame?

A few years ago, as I walked the Crystal Bridges Art Museum grounds, I spotted a single picture frame set on posts in the middle of a soccer-sized field. Intrigued, I walked out to look closer, reasoning that this frame must be quite important to command such a space.

Framing nature at Chrystal Bridges Museum

Framing nature at Crystal Bridges Museum

As I circled the nondescript structure, I realized that the frame gave form to whatever you saw through it. The frame and what it held were equally important.

My friend Mary recently enclosed an open air deck with windows. She found that the window frames focused the way she looked at the trees, buildings, and landscape beyond, causing her to appreciate the views from her deck in ways she hadn’t before.

Framed for drama and impact. Photo courtesy of Morguefile.com

Framed for impact. Photo courtesy of Morguefile.com

Frames are, of course, nothing new. They show up everywhere in everyday life – movies, TV, computers, pictures on the walls, windows – each one encouraging us to focus on, to look at, something in a particular way.

As writers we make decisions daily on what story to tell. We choose the frames with purposeful intention.

Memoirists choose what parts of their life to share. In my memoir Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl, I picked stories from those formative years when I was between 8 and 12. Years when the values my parents taught us kids came into focus (and conflict) in my young mind. The very same events depicted in my childhood memoir could have told a much different story if I’d used them to frame a look into the sometimes unhealthy ways I existed in my first marriage.

As I wrote my novel Go Away Home, deciding the time(frame) was one challenge. If the story began in 1900 and the main character Liddie was 10, the story would be entirely different than if the story were set in 1913 and Liddie were 16. The technological, political, and social differences between 1900 and 1913 change what might be included in the frame, not to mention the differences between how a 10-year-old and a 16-year-old would view herself and her actions.

In my work in progress, literary fiction set in Iowa, the main character is forced to face her own prejudices when she sees life through the frame of immigrants working in a meat packing plant.

Recently, I joined several authors at a retreat where I read a paragraph synopsis of my latest work. Because I mentioned one relationship in this synopsis, the listeners jumped to the conclusion the novel is a love story. It is not. Clearly, the frame I had chosen for my story was wrong.

In the wrong frame, a beautiful tree is blah. In the right frame, something mundane comes into compelling focus. Change the frame, change the story.