Shiny things

A magpie with stolen treasure (illustration by Scott McKowen)

The sub-heading of this blog is: “the semi-regular musings of a literary magpie who is easily distracted by bright shiny things.”

Perhaps a variation of that ought to be my epitaph. (Much better than “Don’t Try!” which was Charles Bukowski’s.) The truth of it is that all writers worth their salt are magpies. We swoop down on shiny things and bring them back to the nest in order to build with them. That little crinkled bit of silver chewing gum wrapper! Oh, how lovely it will look just there, next to the white cat fur, the willow twig and the Mountain Dew bottle cap! Whatever the original intention for the item was, we reshape it, twist it, use it entirely out of context, all at service of the narrative.

A good friend of mine, Isabel Huggan, wrote a book a while back called “Belonging, Home Away From Home” which I highly recommend. Books in Canada said of it, “The leap from memoir to fiction is not as large as most readers of both genres believe, and Isabel Huggan sets out to prove this in a highly idiosyncratic collection, whose bulk, 15 passages, are memoir. Like a sledge hammer, three short stories tacked on at the end of Huggan’s documentary odyssey endeavor to prove the significance of the close and fragile connection between the emotional responses to selective contemplation of the past and the stream of consciousness imaginings called fiction. With the reader as witness, Belonging becomes a rigorous and brave shaping of remembrance to name and secure for Huggan and her readers that intensely private place she calls home.”

All that to say, Isabel is a magpie, too. What the three stories in this collection so brilliantly illustrate is the way she has scanned her own life, dipped down and plucked so many wonderfully evocative images, and then placed them, with an artist’s sensibility, into just the right spot.

This morning I listened to Colm Toibin talk about his new book, “Brooklyn” on NPR. He was asked about a scene in which the protagonist tells her boss she’ll be emigrating to America. “Oh, well then,” says the boss, “Why not just go now.” And so the girl must do without the three or four week’s pay she’d been counting on. Toibin recounted how a young friend had worked in a grocery store for the summer and when he asked his boss if he might, at the end of August, leave his job one week earlier than planned so that he could travel with some friends was told, “If you don’t want to work, you might as well pack up and leave now.” He returned home, Toibin said, “In a terrible state.”

That’s the sort of thing that stays with you. And if you’re a writer, it’s the sort of thing that ends up in your book.

In the manuscript I’m working on, there is a scene in a forest in which a girl witnesses a squirrel raiding a robin’s nest while the parent birds try frantically to protect the bright blue eggs. Looking out the window in my library where I work is a trumpet vine-covered pergola in which, last year, a robin rather foolishly built a nest. I spent weeks chasing a determined squirrel away from those eggs, but in the end, one day the eggs were gone and the birds abandoned the nest.

It’s the sort of thing that stays with me. It’s the sort of thing that ends up in my book.

Other things from my life (or that of my friends-and-acquaintances) that has ended up in my work:

  • a champagne bottle with a music box inside,
  • the blood-red color of a kitchen,
  • the quality of light through a curtain of bright green bamboo,
  • a tee-shirt a boy worn by a boy I knew some years ago with a dreadful cartoon of a hillbilly standing between the legs of a young woman and the caption “Muff diver” beneath (horrible, but it stays with you),
  • the way it felt when once someone hit me, and my lip swelled up, all numb, as though shot with Novocain,
  • a lady I saw when I was young — she wore a tight green dress that had split a little at the hip, exposing a white tongue of nylon slip.
  • a man on a subway rubbing a headless stone statue of a saint all along one side of his body,and then the other.

I remember a reviewer once asked me where the red kitchen in the MacNeil family house came from in my novel “A Stubborn Season” and what it meant. I started to give a rather long-winded and pompous answer about it being the beating heart of the house, a color chosen by a woman full of violence and rage… but then realized the truth was that the kitchen was that of my beloved and utterly eccentric maternal grandmother — dark Chinese red with black venetian blinds. Okay, maybe she was an angry woman, but really, I chose it because it was one of those bright shiny things that had made an impression on me.

I sometimes think this is one of the things that makes a writer’s life so rewarding — we are always on the lookout for that next shiny thing, and being alert like that means, even though we spend so much of our time alone, scribbling away, we are also deeply engaged in the world, and that is a gift of no small worth.

Of course, anything can be taken too far, as in this story about a rather brazen magpie in Germany. I hope I am a little less invasive and more subtle than that!

So, if you are an aspiring writer, keep that notebook handy, you never know when some gleaming trinket might catch your eye!


  1. red-handed on May 22, 2009 at 5:48 am

    Which is why I like to make little notebooks out of scrap paper, and then keep them in my front pocket, for the next shiny thing I need to write down.

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