Sunday School for Sentences #3: Object Lessons (from Kanye West and JD Salinger)

Our stuff tells stories.

(Which is why, when we’re trying to break free from the shackles of our personal narratives, we give it all away.)

Think about the TLC show “Hoarders“. The very premise of the show is that the mountains of belongings, collections – trash – mirrors a person’s mental state.

Design magazines share the same premise: the home you create is your life and the way you live. The objects you collect, keep, display (and hide!) weave a narrative about who you are – or perhaps, sometimes, who you want other people to think you are.

And then there’s fashion. We lump ourselves into camps: are we the yoga pants + fancy sunglasses Mommy? Uggs and skinny jeans and lattes? Red lipstick and fifties silhouettes for breakfast? We send signals and create personas with our shoes, our bags, our wristwatches.

And none of this means we’re shallow or superficial and ought not do these things. It means, with every breath, with every day and every dress, we’re storytelling.

(If you’ve ever despaired and thought, despite the leanings of your scribbling spirit, “I’m not a writer”, please rethink that: all day and every day, you are telling stories. Paper – or screen – is just another medium for what you already do.)

So. Stuff. We use it to define and redefine ourselves, to story our worlds, and sometimes it does.

Which means it is a delicious story-telling, sentence-illuminating tool. By calling out  the objects the use to define or redefine themselves, we can describe, sum, and level a character – which is exactly what Hannibal Lecter does with Jodi Foster’s young, going-places, female FBI agent character in Silence of the Lambs:

You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition’s given you some length of bone, but you’re not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you’ve tried so desperately to shed: pure West Virginia. What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner? Does he stink of the lamp? You know how quickly the boys found you… all those tedious sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars… while you could only dream of getting out… getting anywhere… getting all the way to the FBI.

And so the way we describe our bags, our shoes, our hair, our clothes, our homes, our gates, our gait, our gestures can be more than mundane – it can be devastating and delightful. We can elevate a seemingly factual, even cliched description – long blonde hair – into a metaphor for a failed marriage and the heart-achingly flawed humans in the centre of it.

JD Salinger is a master of this – which is why, in my own own recent Shedventure, his books survived and are holding their space in now lonelier shelves. (Eight eight boxes of lesser books were forced to find new homes).

In Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is seventeen years old with a shock of grey hair: and that juxtaposition tells us of his simultaneous naievete, optimism, and his world-weariness and human disappointment. Holden sees the shiny surfaces we project and the dirt we hide. His handsome, entitled, selfish room-mate’s “cruddy razor” cut his heart wide open.

And this, explains Elizabeth Gumport, is

what it is that makes Salinger’s writing so good. Salinger is acutely aware that we exist in the world – in cities, in apartments, in bodies that rub up against couches and church pews and cabs and other bodies in those cabs – and he is a master of capturing what it feels like, literally feels like, to live…

…The richness of Salinger’s fiction comes from his attention to objects, to the physical stuff of life, and from his understanding that the words that describe these things are things themselves. Words are their meanings and more than that: they are themselves, and in Salinger’s hands they are beautiful.

Salinger’s famous story, To Esme, With Love and Squalor, is the consummate example of how to tell a story with an object: after reading it, you can’t think about waifish Esme without thinking of her over-sized man’s – wrist-watch.

You know who else is great at this?

Kanye West.

Like Salinger, Kanye West is acutely aware that we live in a world populated by objects and we arm and defend ourselves with them. Our things are our personal mythologies – as a man who samples Muhammad Ali (I’m the king of the world!) and wears a crown of thorns well knows.

And Kanye does something with objects that I love: just like Salinger, he uses objects to confirm and protest our expectations. In Estelle’s American Boy, he raps about – of course – being a (young, black) American boy in London:

He crazy, I know what ya thinkin.
Ribena I know what you’re drinkin.
Rap singer. Chain Blinger. Holla at the next chick soon as you’re blinkin.
What’s you’re persona.
About this Americana rhymer
Am I shallow cuz all my clothes designer.
Dressed smart like a London Bloke.
Before he speak his suit bespoke.
And you thought he was cute before.
Look at this Pea Coat, Tell me he’s broke.

Kanye uses objects to sketch out what he knows we think about hip-hop artists – because with his lyrics and videos about money, limousines, gold chains, shiny watches and glittering women, he’s helped write that story – and to disabuse us of those notions. Just as he’s tackling – and refuting – stereotypes about young, black American men (“Look at this Pea Coat, Tell me he’s broke), Kanye’s telling us he’s not (only) a hip-hop caricature  – he just plays one on TV (and Mp3).

So that’s my lecture for the day on objects. Any time you’ve written a sentence in which you describe someone’s appearance, think about how to flesh out descriptions and layer meaning by turning objects into symbols or symbols into objects. That’s what I tried to do with “V8 hearts and hopeful cars” and what Siddhartha Herdegen did with his (character’s) “minimalist approach to undergarments”.

And it is what, in American Boy, Estelle does even better than Kanye West (which is high praise, since Kanye West is my hip-pop JD Salinger):

Don’t like his baggy jeans but Ima like what’s underneath them.


Sunday School for Sentences will be a sixteen-part series. Missed one? Here they are:

  • Prologue: God, Sex and Dazzling Sentences
    1. Sunday School for Sentences #1: Explain the Expected in Unexpected Ways
    2. Sunday School for Sentences #2: The (Textual) Reverse Cowgirl
    3. Sunday School for Sentences #3: Object Lessons (from Kanye West and JD Salinger)
    4. Sunday School for Sentences #4: How to Give Good Quote
    5. Sunday School For Sentences #5: Why You Should Write Bad Poetry
    6. Sunday School for Sentences #6: Two Damn Fine Writing Tips
    7. Sunday School for Sentences #7: There Are No Magic Words
    8. Sunday School for Sentences #8: How To Execute a Climax or Series of Climaxes. I’m talking About Writing. Mostly.
    9. Sunday School for Sentences #9: Thread the Grommets, Lace the Corset, Feed the Rabbits
    10. Sunday School For Sentences #10 – Work It
    11. Sunday School for Sentences #11: The Pigs In Space Edition
    12. Sunday School for Sentences #12: Screw SEO. I Write (Wackadoo Titles) for PEOPLE, Not Search Engines. And So Should You.
    13. Sunday School for Sentences #13: How to Write an Intimate Cosmology of Cheesecake, Cheesecake Shots (or not) and Shoplifting
    14. Sunday School for Sentences #14: What Picasso And Dave Chappelle Know about Writing. For Realz. 
  • About the author

    Kelly Diels I'm Kelly Diels. I'm a writer. I've written for Salon, Jezebel, XO Jane, Problogger, Write to Done and more. I'm currently working on a book about The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand. Interested? Please subscribe to my newsletter and I'll share more thoughts and chapters with you as I write them. You can also find me on Facebook and yes please, please do.