Plumbing the Clutter to Unearth Our Memories

Anyone who has gone on a cleaning binge knows there are stories in our debris. It’s amazing what one comes across when cleaning out the garage: roller skates, baseball bats, children’s art work, report cards. It may just be “stuff,” as George Carlin used to say, but it can trigger a host of memories.

Last weekend, while cleaning my garage, I came across one small item in particular that brought back a tender memory. It was a green plastic water bottle with my son’s name written in black magic marker. I remembered it well. My son was eight or nine years old. It was his first summer at day camp. He had his water bottle and lunch sack. On the first day I drove him to the bus. He was quiet—a little too quiet. As he stepped on the bus, he looked back quickly. This might have been an agonizing moment, but I was comforted with the knowledge his older sister happened to be a counselor at his camp and would keep an eye on him. He was fine and he returned to that camp year after year.

I couldn’t bear to throw away that water bottle. I put it in the dishwasher. It may eventually get thrown out, but not by me.

What does all this have to do with fiction writing? One of the best techniques for “showing” back story through narrative is to place the main character in a setting where she is going through items from her past. In his well-crafted 2002 novel, Wish You Were Here, Stewart O’Nan used this technique. The book follows three generations of a family as they vacation for the last time at their summer lake resort. There is a scene in which Ken, the matriarch’s son, is going through all of the stuff in the garage and comes across a pair of work gloves, still shaped to his father’s hands. It triggers all sorts of thoughts. It was one of those small details that really worked.

Kathryn Magendie used this technique to great effect in her Graces trilogy. Virginia Kate Carey, the main character, returned to her childhood home in West Virginia following the death of her mother. As she is going through her mother’s things, every object summons up events from her past, some happy, but many sad.

Here are some tips for getting at the heart of your story by making your character root through her stuff:

  • Be specific. Don’t just describe a pair of old work gloves. Do as O’Nan did; paint a picture of the stiff gloves in the shape of the father’s hands. This is vivid and powerful stuff.
  • Avoid a “list” narrative. Pause to let the main character reflect on the meaning of these objects.
  • Be selective in using this technique. A scene sprinkled here and there is effective, but a whole novel devoted to a character sifting through his stuff would quickly bore the reader.
  • Choose objects with meaning: clothes, a children’s drawing, an ornate mirror, for instance.

Writing about cleaning up the clutter is not sexy but there is gold in that garbage.

Have you ever written a scene where the character looks through old stuff and finds meaning or a revelation?



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2 responses to “Plumbing the Clutter to Unearth Our Memories

  1. Pat

    This idea of trawling through the debris of a character’s past is a really good one and one which I have not ever used.
    Thank you – I have just the place in my new novel where I might be able to use such a scene very effectively.

    • Pat,
      Thanks for your comment. I had never thought about doing that unitl I read Stewart O’Nan’s novel and more recently, Kathryn Magendie used that technique well in her Graces trilogy. It’s a good way to get into the back story without having it read like back story (which agents and readers hate). Thanks again.

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