May 23, 2021: Nothing to Write About? Think Again.

Our first six-week “Writing the Heart” spring workshop came to a close this past Thursday—and predictably, I’ve felt a bit bereft after the weeks of encouraging and listening to the shared stories that emerged in our six weeks together.  Each time, the voices are new; the stories are as unique as the individuals who make up the group, and always, what emerges over the course of the six weeks continues to inspire and to humble me.  It is, as it has been in every workshop I’ve led over the past 20 something years, a testimony to the power of shared story to bring people together, to honor our lives:  the sorrow, fears, joys and poignancy of what it means to be human.

But, as always, I’ve felt “emptied,” as I do after a series—and my notebook reflects that state, the pages half full, the long periods of staring into space without feeling I have anything to write about, creative, insightful or mundane.   I have come to understand it as necessary “re-fueling,” the silence as important to honor as the productive ones. I’ve spent the past few days “filling the well,” puttering about, doing little tasks like re-hanging a picture, rearranging books and keepsakes, sitting outside, listening to music, and simply being quiet.   

It turns out that puttering stimulates the ideas, memories and creative energy.  As I’ve re-arranged objects and books, I’ve paused to re-read a poem or passage from a book I love.  I’ve dusted off keepsakes and photographs, and remembering the stories of each, a writing workshop in Berkeley with the former founder of Amherst Writers & Artists, Pat Schneider, over twenty years ago. 

“Object are how the world comes to us.”  These were her words I still recall from that first morning of the week-long workshop.   I arrived spiritually and emotionally exhausted, thrust into a huge transition and re-assessment of my life, after ending a ten year soul-sapping career as a corporate executive and arriving fresh from radiation therapy for early stage breast cancer. I doubted I had either impetus or creativity needed to write. 

Yet my stories were re-awakened with the very first exercise.  Pat began by laying an assortment of objects on the floor, then inviting us to choose one to write about. “Every object here is full of story,” she said. I wasn’t so sure. I held back, feeling uncertain and nervous before I spotted a half-empty pack of Camel cigarettes:  it was the brand my father smoked during my childhood.  I picked it up and began, barely able to write fast enough to capture a story of my father on the page—all inspired by those cigarettes.  

I’ve thought about that morning again as I puttered about this week, pausing to examine pictures and keepsakes on shelves or in the drawers.  Puttering may seem like “mindless” activity, yet it’s anything but. Every object or picture triggers a memory, a story, reminding me of what it was like to be me then.

When I walk in my house I see pictures,

bought long ago, framed and hanging

…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, our ancestors, and glean a bit of history, but little about the person or their lives 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 (2012), edited by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, is a pictorial collection of random objects coupled with fabricated stories, the result of a literary experiment designed to answer the question, “Can a great story transform a worthless trinket into a significant object?” Several well-known writers were invited to invent stories about secondhand items gathered from yard sales and thrift stores, purchased for no more than a few cents to a dollar.  Over 200 writers contributed to the project, and coupled with a completely fictional story, the objects perceived as more valuable. They were then sold on E-Bay for considerably more than their original price!  The experiment resulted in thousands of dollars, all donated to charity.

 I have, in my “tidying” up, found my own “significant” objects, place in boxes or drawers along with other odds and ends yet waiting to be organized:   an old luggage tag of my fathers, name and address written in his fine, slanted hand; a piece of obsidian from the lava beds of Siskiyou County where I grew up:  a “badge” from the jacket of “The Hooded Fang,” a costume the very first production by Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre of Mordecai Richler’s, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang in the early 1980’s. Now, as I’m writing this post, I pause to make jot down reminders in my notebook…

I guess my puttering has paid off, reminding me of all the inspiration to be found on the shelves and in the boxes of our apartment.  I can feel the energy beginning to re-ignite, “new” material waiting to be captured in my notebook.  You have plenty of stories housed in boxes and on shelves too, just waiting to be discovered. Just look around and remember.  Then, why not write them?

Writing Suggestions: 

What objects or keepsakes do you have tucked away in drawers or placed on shelves or tables?  What memories and meaning do they hold?  Think of those objects as the keepers of stories.  Choose one (or more) and write the story, the memories that each represents.

Begin with one old photograph.  Hold it and examine it closely, noticing the details:  faces, setting, clothing, buildings—whatever is in the photograph.    Let the photo take you to a story or poem inspired by it.  You might be surprised at how much you have to write about.

Have some fun with an object, the more mundane and “insignificant,” the better. Old junk shops, boxes of mementos on garage shelves or in storage rooms can be a treasure trove for this.   Create a fictional story about it—much like the authors Glenn and Walker did with the random objects they sold for a much higher price than they were purchased for–or worth!

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