The Things Deb Molly Carries

2012 Debutante Molly Backes“When you love something, you dwell on it.  You pay attention to it.  You take it into yourself,  and it becomes a part of you.”  James Alan McPherson

We’ve been doing some literal spring cleaning around the house, and I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the things we carry and the things we keep. I am, by nature, a keeper. I keep everything. I always joke that I was an archivist in a former life, because I love to document and categorize and preserve my own memories. Unlike Ms Erika, I would never throw away my journals — in fact, I went through a phase where I transcribed them onto the computer so even if I lost the originals, I’d still have the words.

A few months ago I was teaching a creative writing class, and encouraging a group of writers to imagine the things their characters have held on to. Not just the obvious things, like photographs and yearbooks, but strange things, trinkets, mementos, tangible little memories they can’t make themselves throw away. For instance, I said, I still have a paperclip that my junior high boyfriend gave me in study hall one day. He bent it into a ring and put it on his own finger first, then shyly, silently, slipped it on my finger. I wore it for the rest of the day, secretly admiring it and marveling that this particular boy would choose me to wear his paperclip ring. It was the first of several little gifts he gave me — there were pictures he drew, and notes, and a little origami flower made from cigarette foil paper.

My students looked at me like I was crazy. A paperclip?? Throw that shit away! they said. What is wrong with you?

To be fair, I know they’re right. Most people would have thrown that paperclip away long ago. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to trust my mind to remember and my memories to last, even without tangible reminders. But still, it’s hard to throw things away when every item unlocks pages of potential narrative usefulness: emotional context, sensory details, relationships, expectations, settings, gestures. I used to try to write it all down, to capture it in my journals so even if the thing left, the memory would stay.

But still. I’m a keeper.

I keep the blanket my mother made for my childhood bed by stitching two sheets together around an ugly 70s quilt, with the tiny holes where my golden retriever chewed off the quilters knots that held it together.

I keep the afghan my stepmother crocheted for me the summer before I left for college, which carries with it the trip to the fabric store where I chose which colored yarn to use, and endless hours on various dorm beds picking at the tiny flecks of color hidden in the burgundy yarn.

I keep the way the shadows move across the sidewalk on summer mornings when I walk to work, and the paint-by-number quality of the tree bark, and the smell of lilacs in late spring.

I keep a box of things my dad packed for the back of my car — cleaning supplies and flashlights and travel mugs and maps — not because I think I’ll use them but because I’m so touched that he cared to pack it in the first place.

I keep the Christmas cactus he bought me when he visited me in Albuquerque and was horrified to find I didn’t have a Christmas tree, and the jade plant a student gave me when I confessed I didn’t know how to keep houseplants alive.

I keep an empty frame hanging on my wall which carries with it the voices of my students who asked “Why do you have an empty frame on your wall?” and my co-worker at the frame shop where I worked before I started teaching in the first place.

I keep an Oriental rug that my dear friend brought from her own house when I lived in a house with bare floors.

I keep secret doorways in vine-covered walls, nights when the city’s so quiet you can hear the train conductor speaking from blocks away, a yard full of juvenile robins who don’t yet know how to use their wings. The first toy anyone ever gave the greyhound, a stuffed moose that I’ve sewn shut a number of times now. A clay pot made by an ex-boyfriend’s art teacher mom, mugs from the apartment where we lived after the divorce, the stuffed dog my mother sent me in college when I threatened to drop out because I was so lonely. Journals going back to 1991, and blog archives, and cards and letters and emails from friends and teachers and family and students and sweethearts.

I keep it all, and what I keep around me tells you about my character — that I’m sentimental and loyal, that I rarely forget a gift, that I believe that it all matters, these gestures, these gifts, these moments of quiet and kindness.

So what does your character surround herself with? What does she hold on to? What does she remember, and what does she keep?

12 thoughts on “The Things Deb Molly Carries

  1. I love the idea of figuring out what your character keeps – what a great behind-the-scenes way to develop and deepen your character beyond the typical character sketch. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Molly, I suspected I might not have a sistah in journal-tossing–but I love that you actually typed yours out to preserve them further!

    I like your question too because the answer can reveal so much about a character. In my case, Dahlia is a tosser, always eager to distance herself from her past (in most ways) whereas Josie is so desperately attached to the things (physical/emotional/cultural) that bind her to her past, especially as a way to remain connected to her mother after Camille dies.

    • Yes, exactly! One of my students said he didn’t keep anything at all, and I felt like I knew him immediately.

    • It’s a great exercise. I usually have folks start with just making a list, and then have them pick one item and describe it in great sensory & emotional detail.

  3. Um, that incredibly tender junior-high paperclip ring moment had better make it into one of your novels, or I’ll be forced to steal it for one of mine.

    • Aww, thanks Beth! I actually wrote a whole short story about that boy. I still love it, but everyone else thinks it sucks. 🙂

  4. As The Things They Carried is my favorite book ever, this post makes me happy. Oh Mols, you know me so well.

  5. I too am a keeper. Alas, so is my husband. Keeper + Keeper = Exploding Basement. 0_0

    I love the idea of figuring out what your characters keep–what a great way to help solidify them for the readers!

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