On Writing Toward the Insignificant

Writing about big things by going smaller

I’m deep in novel edits these days, and I often start the day’s edits with an editing prompt or constraint. The other day, I pulled a card from Brian Eno’s and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies card deck - which I highly recommend for teasing out ideas stuck in the subliminal - and it said “towards the insignificant.”

Towards the insignificant. I’ve been thinking about that phrase ever since, in regard to writing in complicated times like ours. There’s so much going on that seems big, and I think a lot of writers feel like our work has to match the significance of the times, that it has to take on the tone of the massive importance that makes the news cycle. And there’s so much that’s important! Violence - including state violence - feels omnipresent, the Delta variant is spreading rapidly, and climate change is making sure its name is in our mouths in every state in the country, and across the world. So it can feel, when we’re writing a novel or a story or a poem or an essay, that we have to keep hammering home the significance. That we have to keep saying to our reader “THIS IS MY THEME! IT IS VERY IMPORTANT! HERE IT IS AGAIN!”

But of course, that’s bad writing, and it’s boring and tedious to read, and we all know it. Writing that gestures again and again at its own significance does not give us the space to think, to build our own thesis, to form opinions or be persuaded. While trying to make us care, it accomplishes the opposite. And it’s also stressful and unfun to write!

If you’re of a certain age, you probably wore a certain kind of Halloween costume at least one October of your life: the kind with a plastic mask of the character, and a plastic sack for your torso weirdly bearing an image of the character. These costumes were utterly unsatisfying to wear, because you didn’t feel like a character at all. There were no details, no spandex or superhero cape or vampire teeth or witch’s cloak. There was just a picture on your face and the same picture on your chest, loudly pronouncing what the costume was, without ever being a costume at all. I was not Oscar the Grouch two years in a row; I was a child telegraphing that I enjoyed the idea of Oscar the Grouch.

And this is what so much fiction about big ideas actually feels like: fiction that says “I care about this big idea.” Fiction gesturing grandly at the whole, over and over again, when in fact, the best writing about big things instead painstaking describes the little things, the insignificant. Writing toward the insignificant - writing the small stories of people living in big times, writing the intricate details of their lives, writing the descriptions of animals and flowers and trees and delicate ecosystems - this is the way you build a story around big things and the way you make people care.

Take climate change, for example. Almost everyone knows about climate change, even the deniers. Almost everyone knows the big details, the major consequences, the major causes. Rehashing these while shouting that climate change is VERY IMPORTANT, PAY ATTENTION, is not going to make a good book. Putting stump speeches in your characters’ mouths about deforestation and Arctic ice melt isn’t going to get people emotionally invested in your subject.

Matt Bell’s latest novel, Appleseed, is climate fiction. It’s about very big things. And it succeeds brilliantly because Bell writes toward the seemingly insignificant again and again, lovingly describing a single apple, a tree, a faun’s hoof, a bit of biomatter in a barren world. He builds settings that we care about, that his characters care about, and peoples them with lives and stories beyond BIG THINGS, and it all adds up to a story that makes you think deeply about climate issues and the future of the world we live in now.

Or take Richard Powers’ The Overstory, which does for trees what Melville did for whales, foregrounding nature and writing towards such immensely detailed insignificance that he builds a significant and tragic case for what humans have done to our own forested world. Similarly, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, in which the main character’s unusual empathy is just as important as the larger backdrop, as she convinces her own community of the danger they are in; or in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, in which the natural world is written with such richness of detail and color that human beings take on a blank and sinister aspect in comparison - which works so much better to illustrate the uneasy relationship between man and animal and plant life than an authorial megaphone.

It seems easier, sometimes, to write toward insignificance - a glance, an earring, a bit of gossip, the shadows on a forest floor - when we are writing about more intimate, closer subjects, subjects that do not feel so fraught, so timely, so dire. If we’re writing a book about a two people falling out of love, it feels right to take the time to describe the rust on a ruin in detail. We can meander, make long digressions, describe dreams, have conversations about nothing.

But in the kind of book so many of us want to write now - indeed, feel perhaps morally compelled to write now - it’s harder, I think, to give ourselves the permission to take time, to make side quests, to delve into the smallest details and furnish our characters with the same full lives that we would in a smaller-stakes piece of writing. And yet I think it’s the only way to write a book about big things. In some ways, writing a book about big things is weirdly about avoiding the big things, much like people do in life, until the crisis looms too large to be ignored.

Yes, the forests are burning. And also, the same people who care about those forests, who smell the acrid smoke each day - many of you included - are having petty fights with family, are thinking about what outfit to wear, are buying crap they don’t need online. They are worried about the forests burning, but also about their children’s reading skills, or their cat’s injured leg, or their bank account. They may be thinking, often, about how terrible the smoke smells - and they are also thinking about how they may buy flowers or an air purifier or make a pizza that evening to take their mind off of it. When writing complicated times, we are writing the people who are living them. At the absolute height of the pandemic, it certainly consumed much of my thinking, but not every ounce of brain space. I thought about a lot of stupid shit, too. We care about big things because we care about the stupid shit. It’s what makes us human.

It can feel hard, writing about the big stuff, when we know the stakes are so high. How to convey that in a way that feels real, urgent, organic? It can feel hard not to keep pointing out how high the stakes are! But the stakes in writing aren’t high because we say they are. The stakes in writing become high for the reader when the writer has done the hard job of creating a world, with real and yes, insignificant details, that we as readers care about. The stakes are high because the characters feel they are, and because we believe them. That takes time, and it takes embroidering, and layering, and it takes writing about the small stuff.

And so I think it’s good to remember that writing toward insignificance is even more necessary in writing big topics. It’s necessary because the stakes for building a convincing world and making a case for the humanity within it are so high. Indeed, art may be one of the most important tools we have for changing hearts and minds in this critical period of humanity’s history. So we should strive to make deeply realized art about great things, not just a plastic torso sack with a picture of a dying planet on it. I’m going to keep reminding myself of that.