Friday, November 09, 2012

The Things We Carry

I have been reading Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (1990), an interrelated collection of stories about Vietnam-era combat soldiers. The "things they carried" in the title refers to the weapons and other gear the platoon was required to carry and to the personal items each soldier brought with him, was sent from home, or collected along the way.

Although the book is a "big read" in Albany right now, I came to it in a more roundabout way. A reviewer of an essay I had submitted about crime, clothing, and style suggested I read it as I was doing revisions. Reading O'Brien's book brought me eventually to a place I had been before without thinking about it – back to the subject of "material culture" (the human-made objects in our lives). I've been thinking about the things in our lives and our relationships with them so much that next semester I'm going to offer an undergraduate special topics class on "Crime and Material Culture".

So what does this have to do with mystery writing? You're probably there ahead of me. But sometimes I overlook the obvious. Last Sunday afternoon, my "Introduction to Mystery Writing Class" at a public library met for the fourth and last time. I managed – with the help of PowerPoint presentations to keep me on track and handouts – to cram a lot into four 90 minute meetings.

But it occurred to me a couple of days ago that when we were discussing "creating characters," there was something rather obvious I might have done. I might have reached for my black shoulder bag and dumped its contents out there on the table beside the projector.

My shoulder bag – aka purse, handbag – reveals much more about who I am then I might like. On the outside, it is a restrained female accessory – black leather, not too large, a zippered pocket on the back, three smaller zippered pockets on flap and each side of the front. Inside there is a large open "pouch" section and open cloth "pockets" intended to hold cell phone, make-up and other small objects that are often needed and should be readily at hand. Pockets to avoid those awkward moments that men found so amusing when a woman is digging through her purse for her keys or lipstick.

However, the only time my neat-on-the-outside, numerous-pockets shoulder bag is organized is when I am about to head to the airport. On those occasions, I dig out all of the small objects – bottles and coins – that have found their way from pockets to open pouch. I either put those objects into an TSA-approved plastic bag that will allow me to make it through the security check point or – in the case of the coins – another plastic bag to leave at home on my desk. During this process, I also remove the accumulated receipts and other pieces of paper from my purse and either throw them away or put them into the drawer for receipts I save for tax purposes.

Those accumulated pieces of paper would certainly allow anyone who was interested to reconstruct my comings and going for days or even weeks. A bank stop here, passing through a toll booth there, returning books to the library on another occasions. Shopping for light bulbs – and a chocolate bar – at the CVS down the street.

I should mention that my neat black purse is black because after paying too much for a red shoulder bag that I loved, I somehow managed to smear it with ink from one of the numerous pens that find their way in my purse. Removing ink from good leather s a painful process. Other shoulder bags in colors other than black have suffered the same ink-smeared fate. So now I carry a black bag that has the virtue of working well with any color clothing, but is rather boring.

You will notice that I carry a shoulder bag. If I toppled over on my way to the faculty parking lot, a clever detective might deduce that I carry a shoulder bag because I also carry one or more tote bags loaded with the books, papers, and files that I manage to convince myself I will actually be able to get through that evening if I bring them home.

But back to my shoulder bag -- which will eventually suffer the fate of all my shoulder bags when the strap snaps from the weight of the objects inside. My shoulder bag that if I were a character in a novel or short story would reveal much more than I might wish about the state of my life. The address book – yes, embarrassingly "old school" – that has now found its way into the back zippered pocket on the outside of my purse because it has lost its cover. The address book that still contains the former addresses and phone numbers of friends who have moved and who I now communicate with mainly by e-mail but should update because holiday card season is coming . The several different shades of lipstick that have fallen into the inside pouch because I buy but forget to wear. The five squashed tissues – always five, a matter of superstition – snatched from the tissue box in the bathroom each morning and there in case of a sneeze or a stranger in tears who might welcome even a squashed, but clean, tissue. Old tissues out, new tissues in each morning.

My shoulder bag dumped onto a table could tell a writer volumes about who I am. The fact, for example, that my business cards and my flash drive, are always in that small, zippered outside pocket on the flap of my purse. No need to reveal to a new colleague or acquaintance the untidy interior of my purse as I search for a card. But inside my purse, my three sets of keys are always in the largest interior pocket – removed each night and dropped into a basket on my desk – to avoid frantic searches for keys to my car, house, and/or office door.

Purses, offices, refrigerators, closets – there we are, our inner lives revealed in more detail than we might sometimes know. I remember this with an uneasy twinge when someone visiting my office begins to wander around looking not only at the books on my shelves but at the small objects that have found their way there among the books. The objects are there for me to look at … but they are also speaking about who I am in my office that sometimes is as disorganized as my purse. Those stacks of papers piled neatly or haphazardly.…

I hope – even without dumping out my purse – I managed to convey something about the stories that our "things" can tell about who we are and how that can be used in creating a character. But maybe I should send all my students an e-mail about purses and pockets.


Charlotte Hinger said...

Frankie, this is an outstanding post. I love it. I'm familiar with the "The Things They Carry." Isn't that an awesome book? But I had never thought about what my stuff says about me. Nor had I thought of all the possibilites for characterization.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Thanks, Charlotte. I hadn't really thought about it a lot either until I starting reading the research on material culture and then thought of practical uses for writing after reading O'Brien.

And, yes, it is definitely an awesome book.

Aline Templeton said...

I think we have the same bag, Frankie. I also think you were incredibly brave to submit the contents to public view - I would never dare!

Aline Templeton said...

I think we have the same bag, Frankie. I also think you were incredibly brave to submit the contents to public view - I would never dare!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...


You will notice I didn't actually dump out the contents on the table. There are scary things in that bag that I didn't mention :)

Irene Bennett Brown said...

Great post, and ingeniously helpful in creating character. A ton of thanks, Frankie!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Thanks, Irene. I'm glad it was useful.