Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What Things Tell Us

We live in a material world. We wear clothes, we own things, we make art and hang it on our walls. We are constantly in contact with things. Right now I am sitting on a couch that is covered with a large piece of light brown cloth with a black mandala design to hide the torn cushions. My fingers are tapping the keys of my computer while my wrists rest on the flat area below the keys -- an area I don't even have a name for. I am wearing a T-shirt a friend gave me when I threw away all the ones I used to sleep in that had once belonged to my ex-husband. I am wearing the slippers the same ex-husband and my daughter gave me for Christmas one year. And I'm wearing a black fleece jacket that used to belong to my now dead mother. Everything I'm wearing (except my sweat pants) has a story attached to it.

Objects help us to concretize abstract ideas. Whether you are writing memoir, fiction, or poetry, tangible items will help to make your writing more real to your readers. My friend Robin Edgar often has people write the story behind a pair of shoes that they own. For women, this is an easy assignment, but I have found that men's shoes have stories to tell as well.

Jane Hardwidge, who attended one of my workshops in Esalen, wrote an entire autobiography in just a few sentences based on a coat:

I found my Betsey Johnson faux zebra, velvet coat when I was shopping with an old friend of mine from London. She lives here now but she remembers me when I was wild. Before I started dating my husband, before I had children.

“You’ve got to get it,” she said. “It’s so you.”

And that reference to me was not to the happy but constantly exhausted and inadequate wife and mother. The ‘you’ Alison meant was the woman who she spent evenings drinking fruit-flavored vodka shots in the Dog House bar in Soho, who took a fancy to a car’s wing mirror and had to be restrained from snapping it off the vehicle. The ‘you’ who tried to throw an apple at a miserable-looking line of late-night commuters standing at a bus stop on Whitehall to liven them up.

I couldn’t fit into my well-loved leather pants any more but the Betsey Johnson coat fitted me like a dream.

The pictures that she puts in my mind when I read this piece delight and intrigue me. This is someone with many stories to tell. And they are stories I want to read.

Sometimes when I am teaching poetry, I will bring in my shell collection. I ask the participants to choose a shell and write about it, describing it and telling its story. These are always fun poems to write and they help participants understand the importance of concrete reality in the symbolic realm of language.

WIY: Think of an object that is meaningful to you (or to one of your characters). Describe the object. What is the history of the object? Where did the object come from? Who are the people associated with the object? What has happened to them?

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