I think it was the poet Blake Morrison who said, ‘Try and write about The Meaning of Life, and you will end up staring at a brick wall. Describe a brick wall accurately and you may incidentally say something about the meaning of life’. Note his careful use of the word ‘accurately’, here. If you can get close enough and be truthful enough about your subject, you might find big ideas in something very small.
For example, you might have the urge to describe the box of buttons that you used to play with for hours as a child, while your mother was working late. You don’t have to know that the piece you are going to write is about loneliness. You just have to describe the box of buttons – get right inside it and see where your thoughts wander. Perhaps it will be in writing this story that you will first realize that you’ve always felt lonely. Maybe only now will you realize that this feeling has affected all the decisions you have ever made. And when you look back at your initial image – that box of odd buttons; each one lost, alone, waiting for a garment to belong to – you might marvel at the wisdom of your unconscious in choosing the perfect symbol to portray your loneliness. But you don’t have to know this in advance. To begin with, all you need to concern yourself with is describing the box of buttons.
This technique can also be applied when you’re stuck in the middle of your story. Instead of trying to look further ahead and predict the ending, try going deeper into the story. It’s like drilling down to tap into an underground river; direction and flow can be found if you drill deep enough in the right place. So, hover above your story. Look down upon your settings, see the characters walking through various scenes, and hear snatches of their conversations. What draws your attention? By digressing in order to describe the details more accurately, more authentically, you might find that you unearth a truth about a character, a setting, or a situation that leads you in the right direction.