You Can Never Just Do One Thing

Allegra Hyde

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 122.

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m obsessed with terrariums. Maybe this couldn’t be helped. As a child in rural New Hampshire, there wasn’t much to do besides roam the woods or, god forbid, read. So I made terrariums: I collected soil, moss, saplings, and bits of rotting logs during my woodland wanderings, then arranged these ingredients as tiny landscapes in glass jars. Once I was satisfied with my creations, I sealed each container with plastic wrap and placed them on windowsills in my bedroom. I waited, watched. As small, isolated universes, the terrariums collected condensation, sprinkled moisture in miniature rainstorms. Vegetation grew, died, and decomposed, fertilizing new growth. Sometimes moths or mosquitoes hatched, flitted around, expired. The terrariums were in constant motion. Every element impacted every other element. Terrariums compressed and made visible the ecosystem mechanics beyond my bedroom walls.

For young Allegra, this was thrilling.

Was my interest in inventing tiny worlds a sign of burgeoning megalomania? Perhaps. But it is also possible that by making terrariums, I was preparing to be a writer. Because what are we doing when writing fiction, if not gathering ingredients, putting them together into small new worlds, and seeing what happens?

When crafting fiction these days—be it a story or a novel—I try to think in terrarium terms. Ecological principles, I have found, also make great writing advice. By considering the laws of nature and applying them to our stories, we can render fictional worlds that are multidimensional yet singular, structurally sound yet ever in flux. Worlds like Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a town intertwined with the legacy of a family. Or Guadeloupe in Simone Schwarz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, an island inextricable from the experiences of the narrator, Telumee. Or the house in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, a singular structure that reverberates with the warp and weft of German history while also shaping the lives of those it shelters.

What are some of these ecological principles, you ask?

Quoting from Ecology—a textbook authored by Michael L. Cain, William D. Bowman, and Sally D. Hacker—let’s start with: “You can never just do one thing.” Or as the editors elaborate in italics: “Events in nature are connected, and what affects one organism or place can affect others as well.” Likewise, the elements of a fictional world are interconnected, and any action can have multiple implications. A character might eat a bowl of cereal because he is hungry—an event of mild interest—but what if that cereal is the last food item in a house full of twelve ravenous sisters? There’s a story I’d like to keep reading.

Or take another maxim: “Everything goes somewhere.” The idea here is that “There is no ‘away’ into which waste materials disappear.” In the context of fiction this means that any action—such as eating the last of the cereal, escaping into the woods, hiding for years in a cave—needs to have some consequence. Consequences, after all, are what help create a sense causality: the key to establishing plot.

Then there are maxims like “Evolution matters,” “Space matters,” “Time matters”—which are all pretty self-explanatory. In fiction these factors matter too. Evolution is at the heart of human drama. A person changes, or a situation does, or a place, and this prompts a reaction—which in turn generates story. “Evolution is an ongoing process because organisms continually face new challenges,” write our ecological experts, which speaks to the narrative benefits of giving characters the obstacles they would least like to face. And on the topic of time—that backbone of narrative—science reminds us, rather lyrically: “When we look at the world as we know it, it is easy to forget how past events may have affected our present, and how our present actions may affect the future.

As writers, let us not forget. In the “real world” we human creatures are interconnected, interdependent, ever reacting and causing reactions. To begin to capture this in the space of fiction is not only to mimic the realities of our existence, it is to generate a miniature world that, if all goes well, can be placed on a proverbial windowsill to be learned from and admired.


Allegra Hyde’s first novel, Eleutheria, is forthcoming from Vintage on March 8. Her debut short story collection, Of This New World, won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award through the Iowa Short Fiction Award Series. Her writing has also appeared in numerous publications, including American Short Fiction, Kenyon Review, and Tin House. Born in New Hampshire, she lives in Ohio and teaches at Oberlin College.

Art: Sven Brandsma