–Say it, no ideas but in things–
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident–
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained–
secret–into the body of the light!
from Paterson: Book I
That’s William Carlos Williams saying it. He’s the imagist poet most famously known for his frequently-anthologized poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” His phrase “No ideas but in things” serves as a guidepost when I’m tempted to tell the reader what to think. So, how does that work, generating ideas in the reader’s mind by my enumerating things? What things?
Consider an example excerpted here, from the title story of Sandra Cisneros’ collection, The House on Mango Street:
We had to leave the flat on Loomis quick. The water pipes broke and the landlord wouldn’t fix them because the house was too old. We had to leave fast. We were using the washroom next door and carrying water over in empty milk gallons. That’s why Mama and Papa looked for a house, and that’s why we moved into the house on Mango Street, far away, on the other side of town.
They always told us that one day we would move into a house, a real house that would be ours for always so we wouldn’t have to move each year. And our house would have running water and pipes that worked. And inside it would have real stairs, not hallway stairs, but stairs inside like the houses on T.V. And we’d have a basement and at least three washrooms so when we took a bath we wouldn’t have to tell everybody. Our house would be white with trees around it, a great big yard and grass growing without a fence. . . . .
But the house on Mango Street is not the way they told it at all. It’s small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath. Bricks are crumbling in places, and the front door is so swollen you have to push hard to get in. There is no front yard, only four little elms the city planted by the curb, and a small yard that looks smaller between the two buildings on either side. There are stairs in our house, but they’re ordinary hallways stairs, and the house has only one washroom. Everybody has to share a bedroom—. . . .
(Quoted, with extractions, from Cisneros, Sandra. “The House on Mango Street.” The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage, 1991. 3-5. Print.)
There’s much to admire there, but to the point of ideas sprouting from a list of things, consider all the nouns that describe things: flat, Loomis [a street name] water pipes, washroom, empty milk gallons, running water, stairs, bricks, front door, etc. So much emerges from this compilation of things. We know the narrator is a child, from the voice, yes, but also from the things that she chooses to describe and her attitude about them. [Think how an adult narrator, male or female, might have described these houses?]
Note the word choose.
I once had a manuscript consult with Amy Bloom on an early draft of my novel, Shadow Dancing.
Not for the rubber-kneed, learning from Ms. Bloom. She took a red pen and with what felt to me like vicious blows, slashed through my details. “What are we learning from this?” she asked, slash slash. “That you are incredibly observant? So what?”
As a teacher, I would have made her point another, gentler way—but that would be my choice. (I have never used a red pen since that day.) The point Ms. Bloom was making, which still slashes at my mind after many years, is that by the objects you choose, you form a contract with the reader—showing where the story is and creating reader expectations. We know from all the things what the child narrator wants and begin rooting for her to get it. Cisneros never has to say, I hated being poor. I didn’t want to be poor forever. No. We get that from the things.
What are the things in your world? I suspect, if your desk is as cluttered up as mine, there are far too many things to paint an accurate picture of yourself. So choose. Which ones tell me who you are? Do this exercise: Choose one object (to become a metaphor) to describe each member of your family. I’ve done this exercise myself. My mother’s object is her mangle iron. Mother didn’t cook—my father did—but her laundry skills made old things new. My most olfactory mother memory is walking in the door on Tuesdays after school and smelling laundry starch and the faintest scorch. Yes, she was seated at the mangle. Along the open stairway molding hung the hangers with my father’s ironed shirts. (It was not just sheets she could iron on the mangle. Shirt collars, yokes, sleeves, and button bands were perfectly flat.) I hear rhythm: Clunk of knee pedal that dropped the muslin-covered roller onto the heated metal plate. Whirr when the roller spun around. She ironed everything from dishcloths to pajamas.
It took me years after she died to give away the mangle.
Have I written about my mother ironing? I have one poem—I’m not a schooled-and-practiced poet (read: not good enough) so I won’t include it here. But in it I am begging her to let me sleep in unironed pajamas, as if those creases meant I had to dream inside the lines. But, was that the end of it? My criticizing her?
One day, I did a free write—asking my subconscious mind what my character named Sam would do when his still-loved, ex-wife took custody of their daughter, Hannah. Add many drafts, and it was published as a story in Dos Passos Review:
Ideas unlocked in my head: Knowing what the laundry meant to Sam, first before, then after, the day of the story, did I even know what Mother was really doing? It’s not for me to say, of course, what it meant to her (acknowledging that people don’t always know). But might I, at the very least stop deconstructing what I had judged as the mindless work she allowed to eat her time? Why did she continue after I was old enough to iron for myself? What if, for example, via Tom’s shirts, my blouses, ironing was her way of touching us after we thought ourselves as too grown up to allow it?