I am not alone in the appreciation of artifacts as writer's tools. Childhood toys and games (View-Master, Mystery Date), songs sung in elementary music class ("Señor Don Gato," "Go Tell Aunt Rhody"), and even postcards from people you do not know, with cryptic messages that stir you to imagine their lives—these things all resonate with untold stories. Most student writers have done the "object" exercise:
- A small item is chosen blind from a bag (restaurant matchbook, drumstick keychain, ceramic dancing bear)
- Writer composes a story inspired by the item.
Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker proposed a similar idea with their Significant Objects experiment. They purchased inexpensive objects at yard sales and enlisted well-known writers to create stories inspired by them. The stories and the objects were sold on eBay for a substantially higher price, proving their hypothesis: "Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object's subjective value can actually be measured objectively." Their website's headings: Fossil, Talismans, Idols, Totems, Evidence, reveal the many roles objects in fiction can play.
Despite the allure of artifacts as inspiration, I find it more important to be aware of them during the writing process, to allow ourselves to become attuned to the appearance of artifacts in our daily lives, in our memories, to recognize their influence and effect on our work-in-progress. In my second novel, a character, Anne, a professor and artist, has been hosting lavish dinner parties for a group of local young people. She is dying, and has allowed each of them to choose an item in her house, one of her "tchotchkes" she says, to have when she is gone.
My grandmother was a life-long smoker—unfiltered Pall Malls kept in cigarette boxes throughout her house. These boxes were beautiful antiques—brass with etched lids, wood inlaid with ivory. But my grandmother wasn't without a sense of humor. She also owned a cigarette box created to look like a miniature wooden bookcase—the books painted on the front, and an image of a lit cigarette painted below them. At the push of a button a tinny version of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" began to play, a lid lifted at the top, and a wooden black terrier appeared holding the cigarette. As children, my siblings and I loved this box, but I had long forgotten about its existence until I began to write the scene with Anne, until I needed a particular item for her to offer my protagonist. Then, I remembered the creaking of the hinges as the lid lifted, the smell of tobacco from the cigarette, laid out like a gift in the dog's paws. I called my mother, who recalled the box and the melody it played. On eBay, I found listings of this "vintage" item for sale.
Transplanted to the scene, the cigarette box allowed both Anne and the setting to come alive for me in a way they had not before. How often do we infuse our work with these small tokens of our own lives? A child's missal, an amethyst pendant, a small metal tin, a musical cigarette box—these items are both personal and constructed parts of the narrative. In their dual capacity they are invaluable—appearing magically to us from memory as talismans, providing a glimmer to a scene or a character. Objects contain the spark of lived experience—at one time they were viewed, held, and used by someone, and though this aspect may be imperceptible, in our work they prove their significance as solid forms in scenes of our invention.