Where’s the Story?

Getty Villa bustOver a million people visit the Getty Center and Villa in Los Angeles each year. I’m one of them. I’ve been to the Center a couple of times and last week I visited the Villa. Like other visitors, I’m blown away by the splendor of both places. The architecture is magnificent and objects and art are displayed with great care and respect.
Nevertheless, I have the sense there, as in other museums, that something is missing. As I circled the last roomful of antiquities in the Villa, I had a sudden flash of insight into what that missing element might be. My friend and I had just confessed that the prolonged standing and ambling on hard floors has become increasingly difficult over the years. Our backs were screaming for a break.
“It’s all blurring together at this point,” she said. I concurred. I also realized that it had been blurring together all along for me.
“These objects were never intended to be viewed this way,” I blurted. “They lack context in here. They are as dead as the mummy in the other room.” I glanced at a display of household utensils and my eyes fell on objects that looked like small sauté pans with ridges in the bottom.
“I find it mildly interesting that the Roman glitteratti used things like this to wash their hands at meals, but still …” I paused briefly as a thought took form. “There’s no story here!” I blurted.
Her eyes widened in sudden recognition of this obvious fact.
“These objects were never intended to be viewed this way. They were made for a purpose, and when we look at them one after another, apart from their context, they barely hint at the dramas they were involved in. I want to know who dipped her fingers into that bowl. I want to know what she was doing at the banquet, what she ate, who she talked to about what, what she wore, how many outfits she had to select from … I want to know about the servant or slave who brought that bowl to the guest and what his or her life was like. I want to know about the life of the people represented by those statues, and what others thought of the statues,” I added, pointing to the room we’d just left. 
Some of these objects fire up my imagination with hints of story, but it’s all based on modern accounts by historians making guesses little more educated than mine. Other objects hint at creative stories of design and implementation. I fill in a few blanks with imaging's of my own, but they raise more questions than they answer.
Perhaps we’re becoming jaded, my friend and I concurred. Perhaps we’ve lived too long in an era of full disclosure and developed an over-reliance on realistic depictions in any media.
As I left, I realized yet again that my mind had been craving story to add relevance to what I saw, to compare it to what I know and store it away. When the “real” story isn’t available, I speculate and fill in the blanks with fabricated context and story – or I move on and ignore the object.
I also realized that there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Those objects did stimulate my imagination. I could weave some of those details into stories of my own making. But that’s not nearly as satisfying as knowing the “real” story, and that’s what I insist on in reading material. If a story has large holes, if it’s obviously leaving out key details and context, I’m unlikely to finish reading – unless the story is about a relative and I know enough context to fill in the blanks. That won’t be the case if too much time has passed.
Write now: pluck a couple of memory fragments of objects from your mental storeroom. Find pictures of them if you can, otherwise describe them clearly. Then do some freewriting about the stories those objects fit into. Tell how they were used, what purpose they served. Then go beyond that and work one into a scene showing them in use. Include your thoughts about them, even if you only mindlessly picked them up. These details will breathe life into your stories and help later generations understand life as we lived it. You’ll be creating a living museum of dead objects.


Gene Bodzin said...

I couldn't say yes louder, Sharon. Stuff doesn't exist in a vacuum. If you can't make it part of your life story, it will pass away with the wind that refreshed you yesterday.

Herm said...

This served as a great lesson. Without the story it's like looking into the past. With story you can step into the past or it comes to where you are and involve other senses. The details breath life. I'll remember that. Thanks!

Karen Walker said...

Hey there, Sharon,it was so so cool to meet you in person today. You are just as lovely as I imagined you would be. Somehow this blog got deleted from my blogroll and I had another of yours that hasn't had a new post in 7 months. So I've put this back and will now catch your latest and greatest. Thanks for today.

Linda Austin said...

Often when I go to museums I want to run home and look up things on Wikipedia. I suspect that's the point of museums--to stimulate interest and get us to go home and learn more, or buy books in their gift shop. Sometimes the little signs in the museums help explain pieces, and big exhibits usually have helpful explanatory pamphlets.

I love your Write Now comments about using bits of everyday life details--I'm all for capturing history and culture in memoir, as you know!

kathleen pooler said...

Sharon, This is a wonderful metaphor for writing a memoir- looking at a relic from our past and envisioning the story behind the it. That is what is so fascinating about museums or art galleries. We are transported to another place and time, filling in the details with our imagination. But applying this to daily life is also possible. When I travel along the main highway that cuts through the Schoharie Valley (Revolutionary battle site) near my home, I can almost see the smokefires of the Indian villages and hear the drumbeats.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks to Gene, Karen, Linda and Kathy for the comments. As you've probably discerned, I've been on an extended trip, visiting many places, and these experiences have sparked so many story ideas and thoughts about story. I feel full and rich and eager to get home to rediscover the joy of extended periods of time to write. But first, a weekend of 50th high school reunion ...