A Writer’s Notebook: found objects

This week is a little random, but I’ll explain why below.

When I lived in the States, I used to get a lot of junk mail.  I got more junk than mail, actually, and I’m not including my bills in that.  Brochures for apartments and trailer homes, ads for banks and groceries and shoe stores that only sell shoes I’ll never wear.  Those post office cards that announce a missing child on one side and a free oil change on the other.  “Have you seen me?” they ask, when what they’re really saying is “Have you seen this?  A lube and a tire rotation for $29.95!”  I threw it all away, of course — I usually wound up also throwing away the junk other Residents and Occupants have let drop in disregard.  But those missing person cards I always stopped to read first, always tried to memorize: the bone structure, the shape of the eyes, the texture of skin, the curl of the hair around one small ear.

Just in case.

I can’t stand cigarette butts.  It’s an environmental thing, sure — when I smoke, I stick to pipe tobacco or cigars or, rarely, those middle-eastern bidis that are all leaf and no filter, everything ready to return to nature in smoke or ash or just another leaf on the ground.  But I think my aversion to cigarette butts also comes from my first experience smoking.  In third grade, the girl who lived behind my house — Kay, whose mother grew wild grapes along the fence, not exactly the girl next door but definitely a girl I’d always wanted to kiss — she brought over a discarded butt and a matchbook.  In the weedy alley between our back fences, she lit the butt like a stick of incense, the flame to the end until it glowed, then she put it to her lips and inhaled.  When she handed me the dirty brown paper, pinched flat like used gum, I too sucked on the end.  I know now that what I smoked was primarily dirt and the fiberglass of the filter, but then, as far as I knew, the suffocating fog that soaked up all my saliva and pinched my throat was what tobacco was — a smoky hand that closed to a fist inside and rammed its way to your stomach.  I wanted to vomit.  Sweat broke in the southeast Texas humidity, my knees fell asleep, and my vision went funny — Kay looked green as the grapes in her backyard.  Apparently, so did I.

I’ve had a few unintentional gurus in my life.  The first was Scott, a guy I knew in high school who once announced he was a lesbian because he liked women, and who shunned the cap-and-gown pomp of his graduation and instead sneaked into the rafters of the gymnasium to watch the ceremony from above.  The second was Sean, who I met at a temporary telemarketing job after high school.  He showed up to work in knee-high black boots with fringe and leather lace, like a fake Native American in a cheap movie; his shaved-head stubble changed from one extra-natural color to the next almost weekly — coal black to flame red to ash white.  He said he’d spent six months in a Buddhist monastery in California: hence, the shaved head and the impermenance of his hair color.  Before that, he’d spent six months studying Native American flute on a Hopi reservation in New Mexico: hence, the boots.  It was from that reservation — through Sean — that I got my first feather.

The feather was inside an envelope next to my phone when I arrived for work one day.  We all had envelopes, each with a feather, a small polished rock, and two bite-sized Snickers.  We each also got a carnation, pink for the women, white for the men.  On the fronts of our envelopes, Sean had drawn a Hopi symbol; mine was a yellow sun pierced by an arrow, which Sean told me meant “young warrior.”  But the feather touched me most of all — it was the lead feather of the left wing of a bird Sean had found dead in the dessert one day.  He had plucked the bird, burned the body, and scattered the ashes in a stream, as was tradition.  But he’d also catalogued the feathers as he plucked them, and he liked to give them as gifts occasionally.  He was known for it, in fact.  Later, I worked in a nearby restaurant where a waiter once told me he’d served Sean coffee.  As a tip, the waiter said, Sean had left a dollar, a feather, and a small gold Buddha.

The waiter, too, had kept his feather.

I’ve taken to collecting feathers.  For a while I would take them home and keep them in a box or on a shelf beside Sean’s feather.  But soon I took to decorating nature with them, standing them upright in the grass where I found them, or perching them in bushes and small trees.  In my more bohemian days, I sometimes stuck found feathers in the twisted hairband that held back my ponytail, wearing the feather till it fell out on its own.  And when I met a beautiful girl in college and determined to woo her by writing her letters, an American Cyrano, I included in the first letter a gift: a feather I’d found that day.  It worked — more than fourteen years later, and my wife still has that feather.

So, these are all mini-essays written from objects I’ve found outside. I didn’t keep them (who carries around found cigarette butts and trash mailers?), but I did take note of them. No idea if any of these little snippets will develop into full blown essays, or find homes in other works of nonfiction or fiction or even poetry. But here they are, recorded should I ever need them. Details like these — the discards of life, the roadside flotsam noticed by no one but convicts and highway-cleanup volunteers — are what make written passages come alive, I think.

To do an exercise like this, just go for a walk. Take a camera or a notebook or even a little bag; photograph or write down or even pick up whatever you find, and take it with you. Then, when you have a moment, sit with the things you found. Where did they come from? Where can they take you? What associations arise as you consider them? Write it all down.

And then take out the trash.

Don’t feel like — or not capable of — venturing out into the big, bad world? No worries! Check out the cache of really excellent “found object” photographs at Language is a Virus. Plenty to work from there!

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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