How to Write about the Small Things for Massive Appeal
Memoir writing often requires smaller struggles.
Writers love to tackle giant missions, overwhelming experiences, and impossible circumstances. It’s true—conflict makes the storytelling world go ‘round. But not every narrative needs to be Battlestar Galactica. Internal struggles and household dramas can deliver big payoffs for your audience, too.
Because we’ve all had mornings where we can’t get out of bed, wrangle with the toothpaste tube, or spill coffee on our white blouse before a big meeting. It’s not the end of the world, but it certainly derails our day.
My biggest battle right now is trying to create a business, while I pacify my 2-year-old from her own meltdowns and manage my autoimmune conditions.
Most recently, my daughter has started rejecting her highchair. Not earth-shattering when summed up in writing. But lemme tell ya, when you’re struggling with shoulders that feel like they may crack open from rheumatoid arthritis while lifting a 25-pound physical manifestation of an emotional catharsis who is arching her back and screaming bloody murder… you feel like a dying star in some distant galaxy.
The little things can shake us up in big ways. And they’re also some of the most believable.
Don’t think that just because you’re a stay-at-home-mom or don’t want to write about saving the universe, you don’t have anything to say. Some of our best material comes from the day-to-day struggles of being alive.
Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote several autobiographical novels as a stay-at-home-dad. He caused controversy with his title but shot to stardom in his home country of Norway for writing about raising kids and his relationship with his father. He’s been compared to Proust.
Mining for the little things in life might be just what you need to do your best writing. Not only is this kind of storytelling relatable, but there are all kinds of future possibilities when you get the little stuff down.
A recipe from your grandmother who has died isn’t just a notecard. It’s a time capsule. Take it out. Don’t just read the words, consider the color of the ink, her handwriting, the stains, the smell. In what year do you think she jotted this down? And why? Did she need to remember it for posterity or was she intending to give the card to someone else? How did you end up with the recipe? Have you actually tried to make the dish?
This one recipe could be the makings for a full circle story. One where the card prompts memories. Profound ideas that take you back to your grandmother. You can write about some of her struggles before tying them back to yours in the present day and having both wrapped up around this one meal.
My grandmother was an incredible southern cook. After she passed away, I confessed to my aunt that I was cooking more than I ever had before. Here’s my aunt’s response:
I was shocked to read this in an email from my aunt. She’s not a writer, but she captivated me with this little history of the cooking gene that runs down the female side of my family. And it was all inspired by a recipe from my grandmother.
If you did a scan of the inside of your home, car, or work area what little things would you find that could tell a bigger story?
Here are some small objects that intrigue me enough to consider their bigger meanings:
Teacups and mismatched china
Junk drawer trinkets
Family heirloom jewelry
The dates on coins
My Mother-in-Law’s silverware
End tables from my husband’s grandmother
Religious idols or prayer cards
A fan from Japan from my mother when she lived there as a child
And never underestimate photographs and ticket stubs
Hold a scavenger hunt around your personal spaces. I’m sure you can find at least 5 items that have great significance. Try writing out a brief story around each thing you find.
Stories don’t have to provide every nook and cranny to connect to your audience. Notice how quickly my aunt summed up my grandmother’s experience as a new bride and connected it to the other female members of the family. It’s not hard to clue into the bigger message here. Food mattered and it was used to tie all the generations of women together. That’s a profound theme. It’s one you can use in your writing, too.
I’ve always had a love affair with little things.
I used to gather small trinkets from the places I visited when I was a flight attendant. And I kept charms in my purse and suitcases for good luck. Then there was the time a little boy named Max gifted me his wings after he learned I never got a pair of my own as a kid.
I also used to draw tiny things in my twenties. It was fulfilling to spend time sketching the smallest details of a snail’s shell or a threaded needle. Now I’ve expanded that skill to be detailed sketches in my writing.
Sometimes I’ll write out vignettes—just a brief description of a place and time or a person. This helps me remember people, their facial expressions and body language, the layout of the inside of a building, or how the weather was behaving. Anything I might forget down the road. There isn’t any major disaster brewing in these vignettes, but they give me an opportunity to reach back in time and remember all the details.
Examples of vignettes I’ve written:
The first time I went out to a show as a single woman after breaking up with my boyfriend of 5 years
An older lady I saw in public who made me reconsider aging
Being strapped into a jumpseat as a flight attendant during extreme turbulence
These are the kind of moments that I’ve jotted down to keep them fresh in my mind, but I don’t yet have a place to put them into my writing. They will usually come in handy down the road.
In my memoir, I stitched together several vignettes around bigger conflicts and/or turning points. I don’t journal, so this is the closest I get. There’s always something noteworthy about these written sketches. If I find some thread of meaning within a moment, I need to capture it for a later time.
Consider writing out a few sketches or vignettes. There doesn’t have to be any real plot happening. Just scribble down all the details from something like a party that you didn’t want to attend.
Note things like:
What did the interior of the party’s location look like?
What kinds of furniture did they have?
Was the place decorated or not?
What about the food? Can you describe the way it looked in each dish?
And the people… who was there? Did you like them? Were they strangers or friends? What were they wearing? How did they speak? Did they make any facial expressions?
What about your mood? Did it change once you got to the party? Or was your internal conflict to leave strong throughout the experience?
Really challenge yourself to capture the smaller elements of that one party before your memory gets clouded. And check in with your shifting mood throughout the night. This one scene could serve you well for use in a future writing project.
Just a word of caution when stitching together one vignette after another where the details are crisp and clear, but nothing bigger ever happens. I use the word “big” here to mean compelling. For a story to hold a reader’s attention some conflict must ensue. But that can be an internal conflict as small as deciding to squash a bug vs. putting him outside.
Be aware, rumors and gossip don’t make for good conflict. I’ve just seen some reviews of Moby’s recently released memoir. And while I haven’t read his book, it sounds like he does a lot of name dropping and describes who he’s slept with. I’m no prude, but even sex should move the story along. Otherwise, you just sound like a lonely person without a real need to write a book.
No one wants to read a memoir that details your daily habits. These specifics are only important when they add up to something solid. A bigger idea. A theme that makes a point about life. We can certainly relate to the little things, but the key is for them to reveal a profound message.
Speaking of sex, one of my favorite quirky, little shows is called Green Porno. In these shorts, Isabella Rosselini takes a look at the mating habits of all kinds of bugs and sea life. And this kind of storytelling captivates her audience’s attention because these aren’t just descriptions of bugs. These shorts are a life and death battle for survival. Big stuff.
Remember: your conflict can be small, but it must be compelling.
Sometimes the little things are about the pauses in-between. Often writers get so focused on action that they fail to take the time to consider what inaction reveals. Like the beats between musical notes, inaction reveals significance, too. A look or facial expression can be just as telling as an entire conversation.
Consider the moments that often get neglected but serve as a powerful message:
The pause after a confession of love
That moment when a doctor walks out to inform the family of a patient’s condition
The moment before a big storm
The quiet when you wake up from a bad dream in the middle of the night
That moment right after your child falls down and you don’t yet know if he’s hurt
In a movie you’d have to interpret these reactions from visuals, but as a writer you get to describe them for your audience. Think about the deeper meaning behind the smallest parts of your work.
Spend some time investigating the little things in life. You never know when they may lead to something big for your writing.