How Write About Big Themes Without Being Too Sentimental or Cliche
We write “about” the world. We write to document the human experience: the beauty, the chaos, the pain, the sentiment. We want to capture the world in a handful of words so that the reader “gets it,” and is entertained in the process. We want to write pretty. We want to evoke emotion. We want to write the truth, through fiction, nonfiction, poetry. We want to write something real.
But how do we write about BIG topics, big themes? How do we write about sentimentality? How do we convey a baby? A true love? A beloved dog? How do we show this as “real” and not a Hallmark card? How do we write this in a way that reads authentic?
Joy Katz, in possibly my favorite craft essay ever, "Baby Poetics," describes the fear of a baby showing up in her poem. I fear any kind of love showing up in my story. Because of this fear, the writing stops. The blank page stares at us, waiting for words that refuse to come. As Katz puts it, “a cloud of aboutness hovers over my draft,” and it feels as though there’s nothing you can do about it. When we see this “aboutness,” (if we do achieve the ability to write despite the fog it causes), we begin to tell the readers things instead of showing them. We get our point across and call it a day. And our readers are left bored. And our words have failed. Our stories have failed. We have failed.
This is NOT how to write good fiction. This is simply not how it works. The stories we love have an element of surprise, of unpredictability. They defy our expectations. They show us interesting, unique things. When confronted with the “aboutness” of these big themes we have to follow Katz’s lead, and do that too.
For Katz and her poems, she must confront motherhood, adoption, the baby. This is the topic that’s been calling her, driving her to write, and it’s also where she’s finding resistance. She masterfully pulls it off in her collection “All You Do is Perceive” (a fantastic collection, btw) by writing poems that seem to be “about” something else entirely. My favorite is a poem “about” a lettuce bag (go read it now! find it here!). The baby and the motherhood and the adoption and everything else exist in the poem, but it’s hidden underneath the beautiful images and word play describing something as seemingly simple as a lettuce bag.
Why does it work? How, exactly, is Katz able to write a poem about a lettuce bag and simultaneously engage us in a conversation about babies, birth, and motherhood?
Because she defies our expectations, avoids sentimentality, and ignores her fears.
“One way to defuse the sentimentality of expectedness is to write a poem that is not about a baby but in which a baby simply exists, alongside many other things. In this kind of poetics, the sweetness of a phrase or image can be offset by what precedes or follows it.” — Joy Katz, “Baby Poetics”
Let’s take a look at what we’re up against.
1 | Predictability
When talking about sentimental things, strong feels arise. By definition, something sentimental carries a lot of emotional weight. These can be strong feelings for or against the topic, but everybody tends to have an opinion. But when you expect an emotion and receive it without any further discussion, it’s boring.
Think about the nostalgia for your childhood bedroom. Yes, it’s something we all have felt, but displayed just like that, it’s boring. We get it, and there’s no new information being provided.
In Katz’s example, she says: ” People have strong feelings about children. They tend to like them or dislike them intensely. Therefore, if a poem likes babies, and I don’t, and if that poem doesn’t soon do something besides liking babies, I will resist the poem because I find it predictable”.
We also associate certain narrative tropes and behaviors to sentimental things as well. There’s no point in talking about a wedding, or a funeral, or a birth, if the only interesting thing that happens is the fact that it happened. Rambling on and on about things that are ordinary and expected are not what generates good prose.
2 | Pressure to Fulfill Expectations:
Simultaneously, the reader is expecting to feel those emotions. It must touch on some of the expectations because that’s what unites the unique with the universal. People read for uniqueness, but they also read to connect, to better understand their own world. Using Katz’s example, babies must evoke some kind of awe, love, wonder, innocence, feeling of life. It is expected that when a baby shows up, we feel these certain feelings. If a baby evoked evil, death, and darkness, we would be very, very taken aback as readers and probably slip out of the story, unless it found another way to captivate and connect us.
Our job as the storyteller is difficult. We have to reign true to reality (which can sometimes be expected and dull) while simultaneously create something different (without isolating the reader entirely). To do this, we must embrace originality, differences, and the unknown.
John Keats brings us the concept that defines how to tackle “aboutness” while creating something interesting: Negative Capability. As defined by Brain Pickings, negative capability is “the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity.” Of course, we’re still going to want to write “about” things. Babies are going to show up in our poems. Love stories will show up in our fiction. There will be marriages and divorces and discussions of race, femininity, sex, addiction, death, and murder. But our stories must be willing to defy cultural expectations, be comfortable with exploring the truth in a specific, concrete manner, and be concerned with discussing these hard topics, these things “about” things, without telling the reader what they expect to hear. Our fiction should raise questions, spark discussions about the world (and be beautiful while doing it) without coming across as cliche.
It’s not going to be easy. But it is going to be worth it.
So, how do we put it into practice?
Step #1: Figure out what you’re writing “about”
Spend some time defining your subject, your “about.” What is this story that you’ve been trying to write? What is the issue you’re trying to tackle? If you could reduce your prose to a single statement (or better yet, a single word) what would it be?
Step #2: Write down every obvious, expected cliche that comes with it
This was a brilliant exercise I did while studying in Greece. How do you write about a country that everyone romanticizes? How do you capture beauty that paralyzes you, that’s been written about a bajillion times, and still make it interesting?
Write down what you expect to hear. Write that Hallmark card. Write the description of a postcard. Write everything that is as obvious and simple as it gets. This is your chance to tell, not show. This is your chance to get the bad writing out of the way.
Step #3: Don’t use those
Now that you’ve gotten them out, those are forbidden. They absolutely, 100% definitely cannot show up in your prose. Why? Because that’s what your reader is already coming to the table with. This is what they already think, what they already know. You’re here to give them something new.
Step #4: Brainstorm a list of things no one associates with your sentimental thing
Write a list of things that are totally are unrelated to your topic, things no one would expect to show up in a discussion of death, or love, or babies. Be as random and far-reaching as possible.
Then, armed with a full list, think about how you could talk about your topic using these random things. Build a bridge, make connections, and let the words come out authentic, unique, and true to you. That is how you write about sentimentality without pressures or cliches.
Tell the truth. Describe beautifully. Describe uniquely. Show the world, the characters, the tension, the topic in ways that the reader cannot already imagine. Be the writer you want to be. Remember Joy Katz’s “Lettuce Bag,” and how she stayed grounded in the concrete, but still conveyed her “aboutness” successfully. Use all five senses. Use juxtaposition and causality. Become comfortable with negative capability. The truth will shine if you let your prose explore.
Don’t let “the cloud of aboutness” hang over your draft—brush it away! Go be fearless. Go defy expectations. Go confront sentimentality, and come back with something new. Good luck!
Do you suffer from the "cloud of aboutness"? How do you work through it, get past it, but still make your story ring true?