There were more pictures on the news last night of another area in Australia inundated with flooding. Yet more people have been told to evacuate their homes, and there were images of laden vehicles clogging the roads away from the water.
If you know the chances are that everything you leave behind will be destroyed or lost, what do you decide to take with you? How do you choose?
You’d want practical things like food and water, and a change of clothes; but what other things would you select? Things with intrinsic value, or those with only sentimental worth?
What do those choices say about you?
In Amy Tan’s short story ‘The Joy Luck Club‘ (The Granta Book of the American Short Story, 1998) an old lady tells a story of fleeing to escape the invading Japanese, and dragging her valuables with her, but as she tires and the straps cut into her hands and the weight bears down on her shoulders, she gradually discards first the heavy things, and then the valuable, and even her children.
This story is repeated among all the others fleeing as the treasures accumulating at the side of the road increase in value the further from the city they go.
It is a story of tragedy told in four paragraphs, speaking through practicalities which we can understand, even though we have never had to make those terrible decisions.
Similarly, in the story ‘The Things They Carried‘ by Tim O’Brien (Granta) the story of a platoon of US soldiers in Vietnam is told through the lens of the things that they have with them; the army issued kit and the small personal items. Their past narratives are told through their possessions; but it is the burning and abandonment of precious letters at the end of the story that reveals to us the human cost and the harsh effects of the war on the Lieutenant.
An actor friend has told me that she always imagines what her character has in her pockets, and in her fridge, when she starts on the process of creating her performance. It is not something that the audience ever needs to know, but it helps furnish a complete person in her own imagination, because it creates a back-story.
It’s a technique I’ve found helpful in story telling too; sometimes the details creep into the writing, sometimes not, but they all inform the scenery in my mind’s eye.
So what would I grab if my home was on fire?
Probably my phone and my laptop. The phone because that gives direct contact with friends and family; and the laptop to save my novels and stories!
What about you?