Anyone who has moved, downsized, or tackled a vigorous spring-cleaning is well aware of how much stuff mysteriously makes its way into our cupboards, closets and garages over the years. We struggle over what to keep, what to jettison, and what to pass on to someone else in hopes they will treasure it as much as we did. Our things not only reveal a lot about us—what we value and treasure, but they also serve as emotional connections to past people and places. Whether they are ordinary or exquisite, objects are rich sources of stories. As British ceramicist and author Edmund de Waal says:
You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start. You begin to tell a story. How objects are handed on is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me. Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life. Because it will make someone else envious . . . What is remembered and what is forgotten. —The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss
Here are a few examples of how you can incorporate objects—from refrigerators and toothbrushes, to valuable art collections—in your stories:
1. Use specific objects, even their brand names, to illustrate the social/ cultural/economic context of your story. In his characteristically hilarious way, Bill Bryson uses an appliance to illustrate the post-war prosperity of the ’50s:
When I was about four my parents bought an Amana Stor-Mor refrigerator and for at least six months it was like an honored guest in our kitchen. I’m sure they’d have drawn it up to the dinner table if it hadn’t been so heavy. When visitors dropped by unexpectedly, my father would say: “Oh, Mary, is there any iced tea in the Amana?” Then to the guests he’d add significantly: “There usually is. It’s a Stor-Mor.’—The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
2. Use objects to give your readers insight into another person’s character/values/social status. Did Uncle Walt swig a beer or sip a martini? Drive a Rambler or Chevy truck? What did your ancestors bring with them when they immigrated to America? What object, piece of clothing etc. do you associate with another person?
The title story in Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried, is a wonderful example of how an author uses lists of concrete objects to represent the emotional weight of war and to personalize the soldiers. (You can read this in full on Amazon’s “Look Inside” option of the book.) The following is just a snippet of O'Brien's lengthy passage of lists:*
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping. . . . Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. . . . . Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-size bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia.
3. Use an object as a unifying element to trace a family history. The Ephrussi family were wealthy financiers whose palaces, Old Master paintings, furniture, and jewels were seized by the Nazis. All that remained was a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke carvings, which a maid had smuggled into her room. In The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal traces the path of this valuable collection from Paris to Vienna, taking us inside the back corridors of palaces and into the private lives of his relatives. By organizing his story around this collection, which he inherited, de Waal was able to write about his family history, and still keep the story moving along.
Your turn: Exercise Options
1. Is there an object you always associate with a person? Something that brings up a memory of that person or time? What does this object say about the one who had it? What meaning does that relationship have for you? Write about it.
2. Think of a few items you’ve had for a while—things you’d probably take with you if you moved. Choose one. Describe it in detail. Why do you keep it? What emotion is attached to it? Is there a story behind this item?
3. Do you have an object that has been passed down through your family? What is its history? What stories can it tell about the people who had it before you? Or—is there something you want to pass on? Why?
4. Write about a period of time in your life—childhood, adolescence. Think of specific objects particular to that time. Hula hoops? Your ’54 baby blue Ford Fairlane convertible? Nylons with black seams running up the back? Bell bottoms and saddle shoes? Write about a specific instance involving this item.
* I really don’t do justice to these wonderful examples by being so brief here. I encourage you to read them in full, as well as other books, keeping an eye out for how the author told that story. Then go ahead—steal like an artist and try a similar idea with your own stories in your own story-telling voice.
Love to hear from you,