While I love writing in my study, it’s easy to get stale looking out over the same garden every day, so this Saturday I attended a short story masterclass run by the wonderful Melanie Whipman at her home in the Surrey Hills. What always amazes me about attending masterclasses, book readings or workshops is how easy it is to quickly find something that resonates with your own work in progress.
For our first exercise Melanie got the six of us to close our eyes and receive a mystery object into our hands. The idea was to feel the weight and the texture, maybe even smell it before opening our eyes and then describing it first analytically and then more figuratively. I was given a Russian doll, lighter than I might have expected and smelling inside of some bitter resin or glue. Each diminishing doll had a Betty Boop face but arms painted like a sumo wrestler. It was a dream object for metaphor. We linked our objects to randomly generated characters and I thought about my reclusive artist, her hidden inner selves rattling around inside, deeper and darker.
I wrote up some notes on the Sunday and on Monday was back at my desk working on my second novel, The Copper Road. I was with my civil war hero in the forests of Georgia. He has an older sidekick who whittles walking sticks with carved animal forms. The whittler was away and my soldier examining his latest piece. I remembered I had a walking stick too. My father used to carve them and after he died, when we were sorting out the house, the five of us took one each. I hunted it down to a dusty corner beside the piano, took it up to my study and closed my eyes.
Tod picked up Waddell’s latest walking stick. That man never lacked invention. This piece was as light in the hand as a riding crop and the shaft at its core as smooth and as straight as a ramrod. But Waddell had found some vine or dead and dried ivy stem then twisted it to fashion a snake that wound around and around. Tod turned the stick and the snake appeared to climb. A band of copper announced the start of the handle and above the snake passed through the thickening wood. It arched back over itself so it was not unlike the guard to a sabre. Its flattened pin-eyed face rested atop the stick like a dog’s head in his master’s lap.
The emotional bonus for me was that I spent a little while reconnecting to my Dad, wondering how the hell he’d got the copper bands on until I realised they were just ordinary copper piping and he must have smoothed the wood to fit. He was inventive too, just like Waddell.
Objects can connect us this way; an emotional reach across time. They can connect a reader to a character as well, draw us into the moment. I’ve learnt to be on the lookout for them, especially if they are unusual or outlandish. In Nashville I once visited the Belle Meade ante-bellum mansion. I was on the 10am tour and the guide, replete in period dress, was talking about the grand paintings and ghost sightings. I was more interested in a pair of hooves that had been fashioned into ornate inkwells and conjoined using the horse’s bit. I desperately wanted to lift them from the sideboard, feel their weight and check if they still smelt of horse.
I’d thought the idea for the darkly whittled walking sticks came from a visit to the Atlanta History Museum, but perhaps not. Perhaps what attracted me to them there was my own almost forgotten cane, waiting by the piano to be picked up again.
Courses by Melanie Whipman
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