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The Secret Life of Possessions: A Writing Mother Lode

In my writing classes, I often give my students a simple assignment: write about a possession. Pick some object you keep and treasure, remember or want, and write about it.

For such a modest assignment, it is amazing how much trouble this exercise creates. Otherwise diligent students neglect it. Some say it is pointless and undoable. Mainly, they tell me they have no possession they care enough about. All of a sudden, no one in the class has ever had feelings for a car, a teddy bear, an IPod, or a blouse.

Perhaps it is not surprising that beginning writers struggle to define their relationships with possessions. How complicated those relationships are. We’re told objects won’t bring us happiness, but we’re shown that they will. Our religious traditions exhort us not to value things too much, but our culture tells us to clamber for them. Most of us do clamber for them, even though we know perfectly well they aren't going to make us happy. It’s little wonder these contradictory feelings lead to writing blocks.   

But when my students break through those blocks—and they all eventually do—what interesting material comes up. Delve deeply into your relationship with the things you own, and you will discover a writing mother lode. 

I don’t have to go far to find an example. All I have to do is think about this past weekend, and how I managed to spend two entire days not accomplishing anything, all because of a skirt.

I like wearing sort-of funky clothes when I teach, and I enjoy putting together outfits from consignment shops and thrift stores. But this weekend, I decided to do something adventurous, edgy, outrageous: I went to the mall.

Compared to the stores I usually shop in, the mall seemed huge and crammed, but I immediately spied a skirt I liked. The fabric was a beautiful combination of bright colors with a satiny finish. The skirt fit perfectly. I thought it was un unusually lovely skirt and, as I bought it, I felt happy and excited.

When I got home, though, I realized that the blouse I’d planned to wear with the skirt didn’t look right. I felt as if the blouse took away from the attractiveness of the skirt. The lovely skirt seemed diminished in some way. My pleasure at owning it evaporated. In its place, I felt a vague disappointment and irritation.

There seemed to be only one way to “fix” this feeling: I went back to the mall to look for a blouse. Now that I was looking for something specific, the mall seemed overwhelming. There were too many choices, and I didn’t know what I wanted. I tried on dozens of blouses, going from store to store. In some, I found nothing. In others, I found too many things and couldn’t decide. By the time I came home with a suitable blouse, hours had passed.   

Then I noticed something else: There was a place on the skirt where the dye seemed to have bled. It was difficult to tell if this was part of the design or a flaw in the fabric. Strangely, I felt that, if it was a flaw, I couldn’t possibly wear the skirt, but if it was part of the design, I could, even though the appearance of the skirt was the same either way.

Of course, I had to go back to the mall to check the fabric on other skirts of the same style. That made three trips to the mall in one weekend: More than I usually make in a year. It turned out the skirt was fine, but by then, I was sick of the whole mess.

Now, how many stories can you find in this (slightly embarrassing) anecdote? There are cautionary tales about our consumer culture and morality plays about materialism. Buddhist tales of attachment and the transitory nature of pleasure. Tales of greed and need, perfectionism and hunger.

And there is a writer’s story, too. Although I didn’t realize it until later, the whole episode was allowing me to avoid working on my novel, something I'm feeling anxious and tense about.

Our relationship to objects is always like this. Labyrinthine and complex, a place of trapdoors and hidden passageways, secret chambers, and two-way mirrors. Don't ever think possessions are meaningless. When you write about them, you unlock a whole underground world of desire and hope, longing and pleasure, comfort and need.