Writing Lessons

Details, Please

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By Martha McPhee


 

I was a terrible student, dreadful at the critical essay, at spelling, at grammar. An English teacher in 10th grade, sensed something better in me. She sent me home one day with an assignment to write a story about my room. “Just describe it,” she said. The notion excited me. I told my mother, who said the details would hold the stories. “Keep your eyes open. Don’t use abstractions. Nice isn’t interesting. Details.” My mother had wanted to be novelist, but had four daughters, a divorce, a second marriage, five stepchildren, then a fifth daughter. Life got in the way. “Details.”

I sat on my bed and looked: a square room, painted pale pink with a red velvet bookcase and a matching couch, which spread out beneath windows overlooking our vast yard where all the kids (there were ten of us) played football on the weekends. The Victorian vanity with its tall, arched mirror helped the room in its boudoir aesthetic—not my notion, a leftover from when the room had belonged to my sister, Sarah, before she left for college. She’d fancied herself Odette.

The room was filled with ghosts: my mother in the mirror brushing her hair as a teenager preparing for a date with my father. A silver porringer with my name and birth date engraved, a gift from my father’s friends at Time. The canopy bed. I’d slept at the foot of it when the room was still Sarah’s, just after we moved in to live with my stepfather and his kids and their friends. He took in anyone who needed a place to go. On the bedroom door there were 13 locks screwed in by Sarah, who had all the keys. She would unlock them one by one each time I knocked in secret code. The locks were there for a reason. An amethyst ring floated in the porringer, a gift from my grandmother, who told me that it had belonged to my great great grandmother, Nancy Cooper Slagle, cousin of James Fenimore Cooper, and the first woman in our family to go to college, just before the Civil War. My grandmother loved to infuse her possessions with history, though fact was beside the point.

Stuffed in there along with photographs and school books, a stereo, clothes, the mess of a teenager, was my past and my future, my present: a teenager in a hand-me-down room, discovering herself as she interpreted the world, translating it into words and images. I understood something; I didn’t want to be limited by fact either. I liked to lie, liked to watch “details” collide with imagination.

My mother edited the essay; my teacher read it aloud to the class, igniting in me the desire for more. I have been writing ever since.

Martha McPhee is the author of four novels, most recently Dear Money. This essay will appear in the collection What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most, to be published this spring.

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