One of the things I’ve discovered through writing this blog, more so than with writing fiction, is that there are certain images I’m drawn to: windows, doorways, row houses, clotheslines.
Dory Adams on her blog, In This Light, has been writing about abandoned things, which made me realize that although I haven’t yet written about it, I take pictures of abandoned things–boarded-up buildings, the graffiti that signals neglect, the remains of things that are no longer as they were, the razed space where something used to be.
I’ve been wanting to do another post on clotheslines but haven’t done it yet. That’s actually what I sat down to write about this morning. Yet clotheslines seem a subject for the spring and summer. Whereas abandoned things, a subject for the fall and winter.
What used to happen behind this window, behind Number 16? What are your recurring images? Your abandoned things?
I also take pictures of abandoned things, and wonder what life was like within or around them before they were abandoned. I think it’s a kind of nostalgia. And I lament whenever some old thing is torn down to make room for some new thing, or for nothing, mostly because, I think, the setting for nostalgia disappears. All this makes me wonder what nostalgia is, how it works, and how to write it.
Jeff, I’ve been giving this some thought since I wrote the post. Part of what draws me to these abandoned things or even the empty space where something used to be (the absence is as strong to me as the rubble) is the face to face with what remains or will remain, which is often nothing other than the memory.
It’s also that in these spots we have the ending but often not the beginning or the middle, which makes me curious. And it’s that circular aspect to life. In someone else’s ending I can imagine my own, or my house abandoned, my windows boarded up.
Your last sentence brings up the most interesting aspect of this, which is how to write it, how to show the absence. By the way, a wistfulness toward abandoned things is a wonderful connection to share. Thanks for taking the time to comment.
My single favorite instance of nostalgia in writing occurs in “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” near the beginning, when the Buendia family is marching through the jungle on the way to the future location of the town of Macando, and they happen upon the remains of a conquistador half buried in the mud, a skeleton clad in Spanish armor, and around the conquistador’s neck bones is a locket, and inside the locket, a single hair from a woman’s head.
The effect, I think, is that a mere detail implies a whole unwritten story. The woman was probably in Spain, they were in love, he went to the New World, she waited for him to come home, he was separated from his group, something happened to him…. We know nothing of the story, really, yet we know more than she ever did as she waited forever for his return. It’s the discovery of an absence, or a loss, that remains lost even as we sense its meaning. Perhaps.
Jeff, the single hair inside the locket juxtaposed against the abandoned skeletal remains is a vivid image and a perfect example of the power of a single detail. I’ve been unable to call up any other literary example myself. So I’m not sure I’ve been paying attention to abandoned things in what I’ve been reading. Only in what I’ve been seeing.
But clearly from your example, one way to show absence or loss or a yearning toward the past is to pit a single detail suggesting life amid abandoned things–a large Coke bottle on a counter after a tornado has destroyed the walls of a house.
I think your seasonal distinction is so interesting and so intuitively right. Abandoned things imply stories that are ended, over. Laundry lines imply stories in progress. There’s still that room for imagination, but the question isn’t so much, “What happened here?” – a winter question – as “Hmm, I wonder what’s going on. . .” or, “What are these people like?”
I’m so often amazed by your ability to draw lines between images and stories – and really to find connections to storytelling everywhere. You always make me think in ways I haven’t quite been thinking before.
Robin–yes, you’ve gotten underneath my words. Abandoned things do imply stories that are ended, and fall and winter are more about endings–as far as the calendar and nature are concerned (and from there literary symbols). Whereas with clotheslines, there’s so much life involved, as well as the cleaning associated with spring and the sunshine, with summer. Thanks for your nice words : )
I see abandoned things in homeless people. In fact, the sight of a homeless woman the other day has me started on a short story that may turn to a novel.
Some people it’s an obvious story: drug abuse and alcoholism, but there’s a look in some that catch my interest, a connection that scares me, a spark that says “this can happen to you” and I panic and worry and start planning on how to avoid being caught in the chasm of worldly neglect.
Tricia, that is so true–a homeless person seems like the physical embodiment of abandoned.
I also see “this could happen to you” in abandoned things, although not so much with abandoned people, although maybe I should. It’s part of what’s behind the question: “What happened?” Tell us so we won’t repeat the same mistakes. And then can it really be avoided? It’s that circular quality to life I was writing about in the comment above.
That phrase the chasm of worldly neglect is sticking with me.
When I see an unpainted door or a broken window my first impulse is to fix it–in my mind, that is. To paint it in my imagination, visualize new panes of glass. And then I think how this is just an annoying need to have order in life (like making my bed as soon as I wake), and tame the chaos, when maybe life isn’t meant to be tamed or ordered; ie: it’s okay to have that messy bed. For someone, it was okay to board up that window, leave that house and not look back. Or maybe, it wasn’t a choice at all. I guess the question is, is the boarded window/the dilapidated door a sign of a life broken or one renewed? You’ve given me a lot to think and write about. Thank you!
Jackie, my husband said the same thing after reading this post, that in abandoned things there’s the possibility of rebirth, of making things better.
I also like to have order in my life and I generally try to find something positive in every bad thing. So it’s interesting to me that I don’t have your same response to abandoned things. For once I want to look underneath instead of trying to make it better.
As you mention at the end of your comment, how a character in a story responds to the boarded-up window or dilapidated door could tell the reader a lot about his or her past or future.
Thanks for leaving a comment. I hope you’ll be back!
Posting for PEGGY:
Your post this a.m. rings a chord with me . . . these photos have long haunted me.
Who was this woman, who likely spent most of her adult life standing at this sink, looking out on this view?
I, too, love your seasonal distinction. It is undeniably winter here now, and I want to know–who stood at this sink? At Thanksgiving, at Christmas?
In summer, I don’t care. It’s a sink, abandoned. As sinks should be, in summer . . . .
Peggy, thanks for taking the time to send these photos. The abandoned sink is a strong image. Maybe because of the dark interior and the small window on the world or maybe from the kitchen sink itself, I’m imagining a woman not only standing here but trapped here.
Which, given that the sink is abandoned, could be a positive thing.
When I was a child the wooded areas surrounding our bleak neighborhood were dotted w/ the remains of old abandoned shacks, some completely collapsed in on themselves, some still standing but lacking doors and windows…disgorging their sad, wet and decaying contents onto the ground; the remains of someone’s time there. Irresistibly enticing to young boys exploring their surroundings.
Abandoned things really do (as Robin said) imply stories that are ended. And even as children we were instinctively enthralled… not only by the implied mystery, but also perhaps by the potential for all of it to become a vessel for our own fantasies and flights of imagination.
Just wanted to share this beautifully composed photo w/ you. From a from talented and interesting twitter friend named Detlef Cordes
Walt, thanks for mentioning those abandoned shacks that seem to be just left wherever they were originally constructed even as a crop is planted around them or a road built beside them. Abandoned shacks are particularly evocative as they call up the family that used to live there. What happened to them?
And thanks also for the link to this wonderful photo (and to the words that accompany it). Even though the structure is crumbling, its beauty is visible–the vaulted shape of the door and window, the view through to the sea. It’s almost as if whatever its original purpose was, it has acquired a new one–to show us the beauty of the past in the present.
Really eerie photos of abandoned shopping malls by Brian Ulrich (plus an interview with him re photos): http://www.themorningnews.org/archives/galleries/ghosts_of_shopping_past/
This post reminded me of a photo I took in a blind woman’s house a few years ago. Someone still lived there, but because she was blind, it looked basically abandoned. http://www.flickr.com/photos/hottnglitter/147407930/in/set-1162679/
Meagan, thanks for linking to your photo. I think you’re right that this kitchen does look abandoned, and interestingly enough, in this case, it’s the piling up of things–the clutter–that causes that look rather than the absence of things. Lots to think about here, including how the inability to see plays into things, abandoned or otherwise.
I find myself with many questions about the woman who lived here. Were you able to talk to her?