January 25, 2011
Unless we’re outdoor types (and very few writers I know are), we spend much of our time inside, inside the rooms we inhabit, the rooms we read in, write in, cook in, relax in. Our rooms reflect us. We arrange them to suit us. Their contents, their arrangements reflect who we are. The stuff that we have around us shows who we are, what we value. And that’s true of all the rooms the characters in our memoirs inhabit. So that when I read a memoir that describes interiors in a way that reflects character, I pay careful attention, I read slowly, I take notes. Because this is a skill I respect, a skill I’m trying to develop, a skill I think we can all develop more, no matter how good we may be at it.
I remember a student’s memoir from years ago. More accurately, I remember the memoir, the characters she described, the moment she revealed because of a room these people inhabited. She wrote about her parents, about their growing distance from each other. But it was the description of a particular room, of the basement where they spent the end of the day together, that I still remember, that cued their growing estrangement brilliantly.
At the end of the day, each parent would retire to a recliner in the basement. But the recliners were on opposite sides of the room. That detail that showed me the inside of that room, the way these two people moving away from each other in their lives sat so far from each other in a dingy basement, not communicating, the fact that they chose to inhabit the basement, not an upstairs room, told me so much.
There was another detail that I can’t forget. There was a heating duct with a grate covering it in the floor of the upstairs hall. A small detail of an inside space. But the writer described how she and her sister would sit with their ears to the grate because they could hear their parents’ conversations through the ductwork. Their parents were not telling their children anything about the fading of their marriage. Their children were perplexed, at sea. They needed information; but they weren’t getting any. How much more forceful to describe that small detail of that hallway to reveal the parents’ refusal to let their children know of the family’s break-up.
After all these years, I can still see those recliners, still see that dimly lit basement, still see those two kids with their ears to the grill, trying to figure out what was going on in their lives.
So you see we don’t need much to make an indelible impression upon our readers, to let our readers see where our characters live and breathe. But we do need something, something that reveals character in a significant way.
On my recent reading spree, I read Maureen Howard’s Facts of Life (NY: Penguin, 1978). In the memoir, she doesn’t say a great deal about her relationship with her brother. Instead, she gives us her brother’s room, which tells us everything she wants us to know about him. It goes on for the better part of a page, but here’s a small sample:
Up in the back bedroom my brother began to construct a private world of brick and board bookcases – literary journals, early editions of Pound and Auden, Wyndham Lewis, Fenellosa, Gypsy Rose Lee’s novel, old Coca-Cola signs, and Victor Red Seal Records of Nellie Melba and Yehudi Menuhin. Vaudeville gems: Harry Lauder, the Two Black Crows, Fanny Brice. Term papers, notebooks, his old clarinet sheet music strewn on the floor with dirty socks. No one entered. It was a cold back room over the kitchen with an old dresser still packed with my dead uncle’s shirt studs, celluloid collars, golf tees and photos of his athletic teams. In some indefinable way the room was not part of the house.
Howard tells us that, though the family was house proud, in her brother George’s room, there were discards and cheap furnishings. While the rest of the house was beautiful, the wallpaper on the walls of George’s room was ugly. While the rest of the house was pristine, George’s room smelled. Howard makes it clear that George’s retreat to his room is because of his father’s displeasure about who he is. Nonetheless, George makes a room that suits him, that asserts his independence from the family that allows him to become all he can be despite his father’s scorn. “My brother removed himself nicely over the years to a back-bedroom world of his own making,” she says. And that word “nicely” tells us everything: that George is okay; that George will make out fine because of the space he creates for himself that thumbs its nose at everything his mother and father stand for.
Rooms, rooms, rooms. Howard is a genius at describing inside spaces that reveal character. As her mother ages, Howard shows us what we need to know by showing us the space her mother now inhabits. “In the now-filthy kitchen of the big house the shelves with the everyday dishes are in confusion. Bottles of pills for innumerable ailments are stacked beside thimbles and shoelaces. . . .Tubes of Ben-Gay and rubbing alcohol attest to pain. In a cut-glass finger bowl my father’s dental bridge rests in murky water. Among the Christmas cards and telephone bills I find nearly two thousand dollars of uncashed checks….”
The “now-filthy” kitchen, not “the filthy kitchen”; “murky water,” not water. How they shift the meaning; how they tell us what’s changed.
Howard’s method is to use detail upon detail about inside spaces to reveal character, to define relationships among family members, to indicate sturdiness in the face of disparagement, to show the consequence of the space her parents inhabit because of aging and illness in late life.
What a simple, effective technique to use. But I must say that describing inside spaces and using them to reveal character doesn’t just happen in our work. I’ve found that to “see” where I’ve lived in the past, to “get” just that detail that reveals something about my characters, I must engage in an imaginative form of time travel.
I must sit myself down on the floor of the tenement where I lived with my mother when I was a toddler and I must scan the room. What do I see?
There’s the portrait of my father in his Navy uniform on a counter in the corner of the kitchen that dominates the room. Next to it, on the wall, is the chalk board where my mother teaches me words, where she writes the messages she has me dictate to my father. On the counter, too, is the globe my mother used to spin round as she showed me where, in that vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, my father was during World War II. There’s the rocking chair in the corner of the room by the window that faced the courtyard (think grubby and small, not elegant and spacious), the rocking chair where my mother would read to me, but where she would pen her letters to my father after she put me to bed, where she would cry and cry and cry. There, in the corner was the stove, a coal stove, that required my mother to go down to the basement to get coal, that required her to shovel out the ashes after the coal burned down, that stove that provided the only heat in the house. There’s the kitchen table, over which my mother threw a blanket to make a little space for me to play in – she’d plug in a light, and put it underneath the table so that I could “read” my books and play with my doll. There it is, in memory, that most important space of all for me, that place under the table, that safe space that my mother made me that no doubt helped me survive the war. And there’s the door, the glass-paned door, through which my father will walk at the end of the war when everything changes for me.
None of us has inhabited just any room. Each of us has inhabited once inhabited a room that’s – dare I say it – a totemic space, a sacred space. It’s our job as memoirists to find the details of the rooms we’ve inhabited that signify. There can be a few of them – recliners on opposite sides of the room; the grate over a heating vent. Or there can be many – Howard’s brother’s room.
Remember that where we were has become a part of who we are. Let’s show our readers the stuff of our lives, and in so doing, we can show our readers the deep and profound significance of the rooms of our lives.