Thinking with Objects – a memoir

It was with sunshine and wind at my back that I approached the Sydney Observatory for the Writing Teachers workshop with accomplished zinester, author of non-fiction and memoir, and creative writing lecturer Dr Vanessa Berry. This workshop concluded the Copyright Agency funded Time and Memory project with the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) that was originally proposed as a collection theme but also to commemorate the 160th anniversary of the Sydney Observatory. Vanessa and Sam Wagan Watson were commissioned to engage with objects, and respond to, items from the MAAS collection. The Time and Memory publication, through MAAS Media (2018), captures their work.

A free and NESA accredited event, the workshop was attended by eight enthusiastic writers who were introduced to challenging and provocative perspectives on objects. We were tasked with bringing an object or photo that was the focus of our afternoon writing. This post is an attempt to capture some of these exercises, prompts and writerly moments.

Vanessa began by introducing herself, and shared an extract from Time and Memory titled ‘Face’ which described personal relationship with a blue and white enamel clock face. In response to a question about how she managed to find time to write, Vanessa replied that she taught at Sydney University on a part time basis and set aside two days per week for writing. As a quiet, attentive and observant child who always wondered about things, Vanessa described herself as ‘writerly, without knowing myself as a writer’.

We began with a warm-up exercise Hello, from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. We were required to list inanimate objects with the sentence starter ‘I am a friend to …’

Each exercise throughout the day was assigned a consistent 10 minutes of writing time, which was just enough to produce something to share in the following discussion.

These lists produced a wide ranging focus from the everyday to the highly personal. We examined our relationship to objects and considered the various cultural approaches to objects, such as virtuous minimalist through to collector or hoarder.

Next, we embarked on the challenge of Your Object History:

Vanessa shared images from Sophie Calle’s artwork The Birthday Ceremony which involved cabinet displays of birthday gifts over a number of years. This curated ritual invites interpretation through groupings, and would be an ideal exercise for students: which categories could be used? Gifts? The sentimental? the everyday?

from The Tate, UK

Vanessa also suggested a consideration of object categories according to Significant Objects may be useful as an approach to inform writing and language choices. Also discussed were the Museum of Broken Relationships, and the Museum of Innocence – a novel by Orhan Parmuk who then created the actual museum in Istanbul.

We passed a copy of Leanne Shapton’s inventive novel Important Artifacts and Personal Porperty from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including books, street fashion, and jewelry – Saturday, 14 Februrary 2009, New York. This narrative is presented as an auction catalogue, with each description taking the reader into the unravelling relationship of Lenore and Harold. Vanessa suggested we look our for Carly Cappielli’s Listurbia, the soon to be published winner of the Viva la Novella prize.

We read and discussed an extract from David Malouf about the power of listing and describing miscellany: how attention to the detail of specific objects helps ground prose that coud be potentially lost in emotional abstraction.

Just before lunch, we introduced our brought objects with the promise of dedicated writing for the afternoon session. I had taken photographs of my great grandmother’s crocheted lace table mat:

detail, Johannna Skare

Our next exercise was to write a Museum Label for our object: include a title, date, materials it is made from and one paragraph about the object in the style of a museum label – concise, informative and in third person. The writing genre provides context and authority whilst forcing objectivity by divorcing our language use from personal and emotional links.

We considered the notion of description from Mark Doty:

… that description is an inexact, loving art, and a reflexive one; when we describe the world we come closer to saying what we see …

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: on Objects and Intimacy

We then embarked on a Physical Description: scrutinise your object closely, focusing on its physical qualities. Write a description based on these qualities: what is it made from? what are the qualities of these materials? how does it engage with the senses? Examine it forensically: what are the marks of wear or age? what are the clues to how it might have been used, displayed or stored? How much can you write, focused primarily on the physical details?

Later, we wondered: what are the challenges, if any, of writing this way? Subjectivity remains present through tone and selection of details. In fiction, it is quite reasonable to tightly edit this style of description where an overall view of the object sets a scene or mood, with the inclusion of one or two details to engage the reader in a character’s relationship with the object.

Another text discussed was edited by Sherry Turkle:

We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with.

This book is a collection of writings by scientists, humanists, artists, and designers that trace the power of everyday things. These essays reveal objects as emotional and intellectual companions that anchor memory, sustain relationships, and provoke new ideas.

Evocative Objects: Things We Think With

We then wrote for ten minutes on Objects and Emotions. What emotional connections do you have with your object? Write a description of your object that is centred around an emotion, or set of emotions, that arise when you consider it. Write intuitively, connect with the emotion/s you choose, and let it/them guide your words.

I found my language shift into deliberate choices as I strived to portray feelings of admiration for Johanna’s needlework. Continuing our discussion of relating with objects, Vanessa mentioned another relevant text, that of Sianne Ngai’s  Our Aesthetic Categories: Cute, Zany, Interesting.

This lead the exercise of Following the Object. Choose an object and follow its associations: where does it take you? what do you feel? what are you able to understand? Make a mind map: how many different stories might your object connect to? think about space, time, emotion, history, culture … memory as something collective and shared as well as personal.

In our post-writing discussion, we acknowledged the imaginative leaps made and how this exercise opens up space and time and possible narratives. I chose to work on A3 paper in pencil, and quickly filled the page with ideas, both specific and nebulous. I found this exercise to be useful in documenting the research and writing already inspired by Johanna’s table mat. A follow on suggestion was to think of a room, past or present, where the object might be situated, and draw a map, then write this up.

Our final and Ultimate Exercise was to plan/begin to write a piece of memoir/life writing/autobiography that uses your object in some way. You might write a narrative centred around the object, or use the object as a trigger for writing about a place, time, people or situation. You could choose an approach from one of the previous exercises, or create a synthesis from the work we’ve done today.

My plan is to write a ‘making’ scene from each character’s perspective. Begin with a room description (draw map and write it up) and in the final edit, try to select different elements to focus on each different time period.

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