The Thinginess of Life: Objects and the Writer

This morning, my Facebook friend, Susan Cushman (check out her blog, “(Not) Writing on Wednesdays” at, made me aware of a story she found on another blog, “HighRoadpost” by Lisa Joiner ( It’s the story of a book that Lisa found in the women’s room at LAX on a day when she and her husband had been flying standby, ending up in Los Angeles on their way to Santa Fe, though the LA stop hadn’t been in their original itinerary. But at LAX they were, and when Lisa found a book left behind by another traveler, she opened it to see if the owner’s contact information was inside. Indeed it was, so Lisa called the owner, who turned out to be an elderly woman traveling to a family wedding, and she told her she had her book, Heading Out to Wonderful, by Robert Goolrick. Lisa promised to return the book to its owner once she was back at home base, which she did, along with a letter detailing all the sights the book had seen along the way:

Just in airports alone, it saw Greensboro, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Albuquerque, San Diego and Sacramento. Then it went via land to Santa Fe, The Puye Cliff Dwellings, Taos, Red River and back to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It visited museums, art galleries, churches, pueblos, shops and restaurants.  It was on the Old Santa Fe Trail and the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway. I didn’t photograph it everywhere but took a few pictures so you would have a sense of its travels.

A few weeks later, Heading Out to Wonderful came back to Lisa, the owner mailing it along with a letter detailing her book club’s discussion of the book. Lisa decided to read the book and then pass it on to someone else. This humane contact with a stranger brought Lisa to this observation:” No matter where our journey is taking us we should remember we are always Heading out to Wonderful, wherever that may be!”

I’ve long reminded my students to remember what first brought them to writing, the love of language and the music it makes on the page, the stories it tells, the way it allows the writer to process the world and its people. The journey will, then, take us where we’re meant to go.

This morning, thanks to Susan Cushman, it seems that I was meant to make the acquaintance of Lisa Joiner, and soon after that to encounter a post from my former student and friend, Sonya Huber (check out her blog at, which refers to a review of Orwell’s diaries and points out the importance got the creative nonfiction writer exploring what the review calls “the thinginess of life,” or what Orwell called his “pleasure in solid objects.” The review says of Orwell: “Abstractions, he knew, were the enemy of the powerless. They destroyed the diverse particulars of everyday life and necessarily culminated in some type of inhumanity, killing people for the sake of the idea.”

I’ve been talking in my creative nonfiction workshops lately about trusting the details, or now what I’ll call “the thinginess.” The objects of a life become expressive when rendered artfully. The objects portray an individual’s life and make us care more about what was important to that person whether we’re talking about real people from nonfiction or characters in a story or a novel. The things matter if we look at them closely enough, and they keep us anchored in the world of flesh and blood. That world is easier to dismiss when the emphasis falls on abstractions, and, when that happens, wars break out, health care declines, safety nets for the marginal disappear, because, after all, the world of ideas is rarely a world of the human heart.

Susan Cushman, Lisa Joiner, Sonya Huber, George Orwell: all of them come together today to remind me of the journey and the value of a well-considered and closely observed life. To remind us all, I hope, of why the individual and the objects that belong to them matter, not only for our writing, but for our living as well.


  1. Richard Gilbert on September 14, 2012 at 10:53 am

    This is so true, Lee. God is in the details. I am reading now Richard Ford’s great novel Canada and I KNOW the characters because of what he’s given me, irreducible details, to set them in motion in my mind’s eye.

  2. Lee Martin on September 14, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    Richard, I can’t wait to get to Ford’s CANADA. I’ve read the opening lines, and they seem to promise a book much in the vein of Ford’s collection, ROCK SPRINGS, which was a very influential book for me. Thanks, as always, for reading the blog and taking the time to comment.

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