What’s the Significance?

You’ll often read that observation is a skill you need to become a good writer. I don’t have strong observation skills. Like the stereotypical husband that I can be, I am the world’s worst looker for things, and I often can’t tell you what outfit my wife puts on each morning, even after she’s only just left the room.

But I’ve learned that observation doesn’t just mean observing objects in a room or the precise details of a woman’s dress. It also means observing yourself and your relationship with others, and observing others and their relationship with those around them. It means trying to read verbal, physical, and social cues to understand the underlying dynamic of a given situation, and to then empathize with all of the elements affecting or being affected by that dynamic.

Observation is not looking. It’s probing and pursuing.

The action of looking is too passive. To be a good writer, you need to ask questions and follow wherever those questions lead, at every point asking yourself, “What is the significance of this? Why does it matter?”

It sounds like journalism, and to some extent it is — good journalism being, at bottom, good writing — but good writing posits those questions not only to bodies of power, but also to even the most basic of facts, such as the details of a woman’s dress.

This applies to blogging as well.

After all, what is the significance of this post? Why does it matter?

Blogging is a timely art form. Its impact is limited to the moment. While a blogger could post an article whose value lasts for weeks or months or years, the value of most blog posts are ephemeral, relevant only for a day or two beyond their time stamps.

The art of being a blogger, then, is to seek significance in everyday existence, to probe your entire day until you find something that matters, something that deserves to be talked about beyond its temporal confines.

This week, I had several experiences that could qualify, some of which I’ve already shared, others of which are still in the drafting stage, and still others of which I’ve yet to attempt to memorialize.

Like the fact that my college roommate and his wife are visiting us this weekend. Within that fact lies an entire treatise on the meaning of friendship.

Or the fact that I might have traumatized my daughter this week by letting her watch Coraline at way too young of an age, the result of which was a four-year-old girl who was afraid to go to sleep in her bed. I could connect that story with another where she was genuinely curious about what happens to the skin when a bug bites it: why does it get itchy and why is there a bump? I could then extend the investigation to her recurring fascination with — and existential dread about — the fact that, sometime in the future, the sun will explode. By the time I wrapped it up, it could be a blog post about the challenge of raising a child who is curious about the things that scare her, and the wisdom of that idea.

Or I could write a blog post about two different experiences I had at school this week, and both on the same day, the first of which involved getting an angry and belligerent teenager to stop being angry and literally smell the flowers, the result of which was an outpouring of creative energy whose like I’d yet to experience with this student; and the second of which involved letting an 11-year-old boy smack me in the face for 40 minutes straight because that was the only way I could get him to look me in the eye and talk to me about his life, each smack allowing him to punctuate his sadness and loneliness with peels of tension-releasing laughter.

Or I could write a blog post about buying my wife a Roomba for Mother’s Day, and use it to investigate why the gift was both good and not-good at one and the same time, resulting perhaps in a blog post about the intricacies of marital gift giving, with a tangent about the joys and challenges of being married to an incredibly intelligent feminist and the patriarchal irony of giving such a feminist a Roomba for Mother’s Day.

Regardless of what I chose to blog about, the key would be to find within it something of significance, something that matters beyond my need to “journal,” because blogging shouldn’t be about journaling. Journaling is a private affair, and blogging, due to its medium, is very much a public one. A blog shouldn’t be a place to make a confession. It should be a place where the act of reflection (whether on your experiences or on the news of the day) results in something that is worthy enough to share — worthy enough to be read, even if only once.

I don’t care what the books tell you: observation is not the skill you most need to be a writer; more than observation, you need interrogation — the ability to probe and pursue every fact and every experience until it reveals its significance within the wider moment. Whether that means interrogating a news item, a mother’s day gift, the arrival of a friend, or the details of a woman’s dress, at all points you must ask, “What is the significance? Why does it matter?”

Only then can you say to yourself, I know what to write.

Ideas for blog posts

“Every conversation you have contains something to write about. If it’s interesting enough to have a conversation about, it’s interesting enough to write about, and if it’s not, you should not waste your time talking or writing. I’m not talking about idle chit-chat here (though that could be great too). I’m talking about conversations where real value and information is exchanged. Casual or not. The post is right there, waiting for you to capture it, share it.” — Patrick Rhone