The moving truck filled with our belongings arrived late this week, and Thursday was devoted to directing the movers where to place each box or piece of furniture before the task of unwrapping each box, paintings and sculptures occurred. Several hours later, all of us showing the signs of fatigue, they left, and we searched for somewhere, among all our belongings, to simply sit and catch a breath.
We’ve cleared some space, organized the kitchen and dining rooms, made a cursory attempt at establishing a semblance of order in our bedroom, but we are far from finished. It’s not just the effort required to re-arrange our living space, find places for our things, but also the inevitable “re-discovery” of keepsakes and photographs, some in boxes for years before our move. Each makes us pause, and most often say, “Oh, I remember when…” and a story emerges, the objects triggering memories of other times, places and people in our lives.
I don’t, as of yet, have any place to sit and write in peace, nor a desk to sit at and use my computer. As I write this week, I’m sitting on the edge of the bed, laptop now occupying my lap for one of the few times since I’ve owned it. I offer you a post and prompts originally published in 2014 for this week—all about objects and the stories they hold. I hope you’ll find some inspiration for writing. — Sharon.
Previously Posted April 27, 2012
Like my grandmother now, I save teabags for a second
cup. String, stamps without postmarks, aluminum foil.
Wrapping paper, paper bags, bags of scrap fabric,
blue rubber bands, clothes hangers. I save newspaper
clippings, recipes, bits of yarn, photographs in
shoeboxes, tins of buttons. I save cancelled checks,
instruction manuals, warranties for appliances
long since thrown away. Feathers, shells, pebbles,
(“What I Save,” by Cheryl Savageau, in Dirt Road Home, 1995.)
“Every object is full of story,” the instructor said as she began taking objects from a basket and laying them on a white cloth. “Objects are how the world comes to us.” I was attending a week-long creative writing workshop taught by Pat Schneider, author of Writing Alone and With Others. Pat knelt on the floor and one by one, filled the cloth with an assortment of things, worn from age and use: a set of old keys, a rosary, a wooden spoon, a shaving brush and many others. I was doing what many of my writing students have done, venturing back into what I loved most—writing—after a long detour through the soul-destroying path of a corporate career.
I had just finished seven weeks’ of radiation therapy, my skin still red and tender, but cancer was not on my mind as I took my place in the circle of men and women who’d come to the workshop. I was filled with anxiety. What on earth was I going to write about? When Pat emptied the basket, she invited us to choose an object and write, whatever it suggested to us. Some people were quick to choose and begin writing, but I held back, my eyes moving back and forth over the assortment until I spotted an old half empty pack of Camel cigarettes. I picked it up, looked inside, smelling the stale tobacco, and was transported back to the interior of an old Chevy pickup truck, my father seated behind the steering wheel, a cigarette in his left hand, driving along the back roads of Siskiyou County and spinning yarns from his childhood. “He tried them all,” I wrote, “Camels, Marlboros, Pall Malls…” Memories clamored for attention. There were so many stories in one half-empty pack of cigarettes.
I’d all but forgotten about that morning until I read Maria Mutch’s essay in the latest issue of Poets and Writers’ Magazine. “Ghost in the Machine: A Typewriter, A Postcard, and the Objects of Memory,” tells the story of her search for an old black manual typewriter, not realizing that the memories of a friend were embedded in her search–a friend who had tried to give her the Smith Corona portable typewriter she owned just before committing suicide many years ago. It’s a beautifully rendered essay, reminding us of how our memories, our stories, can be triggered by ordinary, everyday objects—trinkets, toys, utensils—from our past, objects dear to us for the memories they hold, but insignificant to others.
When I walk in my house I see pictures,
bought long ago, framed and hanging
—de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore—
that I’ve cherished and stared at for years,
yet my eyes keep returning to the masters
of the trivial—a white stone perfectly round,
tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,
a broken great-grandmother’s rocker,
a dead dog’s toy—valueless, unforgettable
detritus that my children will throw away
as I did my mother’s souvenirs ….
(“The Things,” by Donald Hall, In: The Back Chamber, 2011.)
Objects, the everyday tools of our lives, tell stories, real or imagined. We visit museums and gaze at the artifacts of ancient civilizations, of our ancestors, gleaning a bit of history, but we know little about the person or the events that are carried in what we see behind the glass. What stories might those objects tell us, if only they could speak?
He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn…
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.
Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard….
(“Abandoned Farmhouse,” by Ted Kooser, In: Sure Signs: New & Selected Poems, 1980)
Significant Objects, published in 2012 by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, is a collection of stories resulting from of a literary experiment designed to answer the question, “Can a great story transform a worthless trinket into a significant object?” The project’s team invited several well-known writers to invent stories about a collection of secondhand items gathered from yard sales and thrift stores, bought for a few cents to a dollar or two. Over 200 writers contributed to the project, and the collection of objects was then auctioned off on eBay, the objects’ sale resulting in thousands of dollars, the proceeds donated to charity. But it was probably the surprising “cavalcade of responses” to the random junk that was the most surprising feature of the experiment. That assortment of useless trinkets, the cast offs of yard sales and thrift shops, ignited an extraordinary amount of imagination.
FOR WRITING: This week, look around your home at those keepsakes, the objects that line your shelves or sit on your desk, a side table. I’ve just turned to look at the assorted of memorabilia on the bookshelf next to the chair where I often sit and write: a stone heart, a piece of obsidian from the lava beds in Siskiyou County, a glass paperweight, a small clay bird… Every single object holds meaning for me. Each has its story to tell. Begin there, examining the talismans and trinkets you cherish. Let them speak. What memories do they carry? What stories or poems lie within each? Write them.