Monday, 17 June 2013

There Is No Such Thing As An Ordinary House

One of my students asked whether she should describe the ordinary house in which her character lives. She could see that somewhere exotic like a fairy kingdom needed describing but the house in her story was more or less like her own childhood home and she was afraid to bore the readers with it.

Whenever I get a practical question like this, I try out the solution before offering it. It’s surprisingly easy to tell people to do something and then find you can’t do it yourself. So I looked around at my own house to see how easily it could be described.

It is some years since my children left home. In their absence the house became very neat, very tidy, very professional-looking. The walls were all painted in Farrow and Ball colours, a grandfather clock ticked comfortably in the dining room. There were flowers in a vase on the bureau.

Then the grandchildren arrived. Very soon there were crayon marks on all those white-with-a-hint-of-posh walls, hand prints on the windows, face-prints on the mirrors. Alcoves where reading lamps had stood were now stuffed with garishly-coloured plastic toys, wooden bricks poked out from under sofas. Children’s beakers littered the sink.

The house could very easily be described, I realised, though it would not necessarily make the kind of picture I had aspired to when I had imagined the calm waters occupied by those happy individuals whose children have reached maturity and are at last able to arrange their own affairs.

I stood in my living room recalling the way our youngest grandchild had repeatedly puked up her milk in her first few months and I knew exactly what I would tell my student – that every carpet has its own stains, that even the hieroglyphs that decorate the Egyptian pyramids do not have a richer story to tell than the crayon on the walls of my hallway, and that, however familiar it might seem to you, there is no such thing as an ordinary house.


Eloise said...

Heh. Me. If ever there was a moment to stop lurking, this is it.
I'm still working on smuggling some description into my piece and finding it amazingly difficult, and I was just thinking to myself that I'm still not convinced that children are interested in descriptive details of houses, when I suddenly remembered something. When I was 12, shortly after my paternal grandparents both died very close together, I wrote a description of their house for a school creative writing assignment. It was long, exhaustive, and encapsulated all my memories, all that it meant to go and stay with them. I was terribly proud of it.
I was a miserable, mawkish 12-year-old, but a 12-year-old nevertheless with 12-year-old tastes. Apparently I knew something then about the importance of the specific that I would do well to remember now!

Brian Keaney said...

Ah memory, It's such a wonderful thing! If only we could unlock it at will. I've tried dipping biscuits in my tea and it didn't work. The biscuits just tell into the tea and I remembered nothing.

julia maxwell said...

I like your post ,now I must complete my research for my paper.

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