Infusing ordinary lives with detail makes story, Marilyn Abildskov* told us at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in July. She presented several examples where authors framed their stories around the everyday details of life.
One example, the “action detail” of washing dishes, propelled me to “free associate.” In Tobias Wolff’s short story, “Say Yes,” washing dishes frames a story about a couple that ends up depicting their relationship. What starts out as cordial finishes in anger. The readers can hear it and feel it by how the tone of the conversation heightens and the clatter of dishes and pots intensifies.
As I listened to Marilyn’s presentation, I remembered when I used to dry the dishes for one of my older sisters. Our “cordial” relationship would begin to unravel when I stated swatting the “washing” sister with my dish towel. I heard my dad say, “One of you will end up crying.”
I saw the green linoleum of that kitchen which made me remember dreary Saturday mornings on my hands and knees waxing that floor with Johnson’s paste wax. Which made me remember how mad I’d get that it was I who had to do that task every Saturday.
But then I remembered, as a reward I would be allowed to drive the family car that day. A ’54 baby-blue Plymouth, a four-door sedan with a black top. New. Sleek. Upscale for a minister’s daughter. I’d take a few friends to the beach, slather up in baby oil, and get bronzed.
And that memory jumped me to a Cancun experience in 2009. We were having a sisters’ week at a timeshare. The first day, during a welcome orientation, skin spa promoters presented their services. One sister and I made appointments for a skin analysis and something that looked like a facial vacuuming.
After the treatment, the aesthetician removed a piece of paper from a folder. “Did you spend much time on the beach growing up?”
With warm memories of heat beating on my eyelids, baby oil seeping into my skin, sand filtering through my fingers, and waves folding gently in the distance, I said, “Oh yes, hours and hours on a Saturday, as a teenager, after I got the kitchen floor waxed.”
“That explains it,” she said, no nonsense. She flashed the paper for me to see. “Your extensive skin damage.” I saw a photo of some sort of x-ray that probed the skin layers in my face.
Shocking. Uneven shadings. Darkened ominous patches. Sobering.
Making things worse, she slipped another piece of paper out for my perusal. “This is a projection of what you’ll look like as you age.” An image of an older me. A sun-wrinkled face. Sagging, drawn.
I recall thinking I’d have to remember to age with grace, to smile my age away.
So you see how the simple detail of “washing dishes” can not only “frame” a story, but can lead you to many other stories. Try it. Do a five-minute free write: write “washing dishes “on the top of a blank sheet of paper, and make a list of memories you have, starting with washing dishes.
See where you end up. Then start writing.
*Marilyn Abildskov, a frequent teacher at the festival, is the author of The Men in my Country, a memoir of living in Japan, and lives in the Bay Area where she teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Saint Mary’s College of California.
Photo credit: Wikipedia / Women washing dishes under a bridge across a river near Bukittinggi Nederlands.