Perhaps the image at the top of this page struck you as it did me when I first saw it by the cash register at my favorite café.
A one-dollar bill (maybe two) shaped into a rose?
Not only is it nicely crafted — see those delicate silken leaves and realistic stem? — it transforms a mundane object into something worth lingering on.
Now that’s what I call art.
About a year after my second child was born, I jumped at the chance for some creative stimulation and a break from mothering by registering for an evening writing class with a well-regarded instructor. Born in India, Molly Daniels, was a small woman with a big personality who wore flowy, multi-colored skirts and headscarves.
One night, she asked us to profile a parent. At the time, I was having difficulty with my father, so my subject sort of self-selected.
I began with, “My father is the tallest of two sons born to a short, stocky German-Jewish father and his four-foot-ten wife who was born and raised in Philadelphia. In college, he majored in philosophy and pursued a life in business and politics.”
As we scribbled in notebooks from desks configured in traditional lines, middle-school classroom style, Molly strolled the aisles, skimming our opening paragraphs, nodding and hhmmming.
When she arrived at my desk, she peered over my sentences and said, “Tell me about your mother.”
“But I wanted to write about my father,” I said. “There’s more drama there.”
“That may be true, but just tell me one thing – one unusual detail – about your mother.”
I struggled to think of something – I was low on sleep from being up at night with my infant daughter – but then, something came.
“My mother grew up in a hotel.”
“Ah!” she said excitedly. “That’s it! You must write about your mother.” And before I could argue, off she strolled to the next desk, her colored scarf billowing wildly behind her.
It was Molly Daniels who taught me about the potency of the well-selected detail and its window into storyline. The ones that come to mind when we first think of a person, the ones we recall long after reading a short passage or an entire book.
The tilt of a character’s eyeglasses. Dandruff on a coat. An arthritic finger.
Between the ages of 9 and 14, my mother would take the elevator down to the hotel dining room, order a bowl of cereal and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to take to school for lunch and eat. By herself. She was like the children’s storybook character Eloise, the only difference was that she was not at The Plaza in New York City but at a hotel in Pittsburgh. Growing up in a hotel not only impacted her (lack of) kitchen skills – no stove or oven translated into zero chances to watch her mother cook or have recipes handed down – but were likely to have influenced her decorative leanings to something I lovingly call institutionally immaculate – shiny glass-topped furniture on cream-colored carpeting and beds made with hospital corners in a spare and pristine space.
Details that pull us into her storyline.
In my writing workshops, I talk about eight elements of essay, alliteratively referring them as “Ellen’s Eight.”
Detail. Scene. Language. Pacing. Structure. Theme. Voice. Storyline.
Each of these elements work hard either by their presence or absence to make a piece sing.
But if I had to choose the two elements that matter most to an initial reading, the two that I look for in essays by my students or submissions for Thread and Stitch, I’d have to say detail and storyline.
That one-dollar bill makes a fine detail in the right context. But sculpted into a rose opens the book cover and yanks me in. I begin to wonder about its story. Who made it? And how? Was it the café’s first earned dollar? Why was it placed by the cash register?
I am reminded of Molly’s lesson in part because I’m teaching a summer writing workshop and I want to elucidate this point for my students. But also because I’m finishing a memoir in which both of my parents make appearances. I am on the hunt for just the right illustrative details that express who they are, in part of course, to invite the reader in and help tell the story.
I’m searching for roses made from dollar bills. Word version.
Thank you, Molly Daniels.
(Molly died in 2015. May she rest in peace.)
Photograph of rose by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017. Taken at the Euro Echo Cafe.