When I moved from Texas to California, I voluntarily downsized from a 2400-square foot house to a 1-bedroom apartment. I donated a lot to charity, but as someone with the collector gene, there were amassed collections that I wasn’t willing to part with. I remember talking to a friend about this when I moved, and he said he had done the same thing, putting what didin’t fit in his apartment into a storage locker. Years later when he took the time to dig through what he’d placed in storage, he thought, “Why am I holding on to this stuff?”
Lately I’ve been going through closets and asking the same question. What I’ve realized is that we project parts of ourselves into those collections. The fact that we’ve taken the time to assemble a set of Trixie Beldens, a tub filled with Batman Action figures, a folder of Beverly Hills, 90210 magazines, a closet of Barbies says something about us. And even when the collections are not on display, they help us define who we are to ourselves.
For a time, after moving, I felt unattached to any place. While I loved California, it was not my home. Being surrounded by my collections gave me comfort and helped to ground me. They tethered to my past, which reminded me of the person I’d once been.
All of this makes me think of character. When we write a book, we invent a set of characters. It’s easy to drop them into the story because that’s when we need them, but in order to make them more real, they need to have their own histories, even if it’s a generally defined sketch of the person they’d once been, before we needed them on our stage. Maybe it’s a line in passing: they collect colored glass bottles. Ritualistically, they finish a bottle of water, clean it out, remove the label, set it on a rack to dry, and then display. Or maybe their colored glass collection is pre-war and they scour thrift shops and flea markets in search of it. Maybe they only collect yellow glass bottles, which are less common. They will pull one from a public trash can if they spy it, bag it and take it home to clean and add to their wall. Each example of behavior tells us something about this character, though maybe the only thing that goes onto the page is that someone notices the shelf of glass bottles in their residence.
And imagine if a murder weapon is found to be a glass bottle! Oh, the possibilities.
Collecting can infuse a character with quirks that help to define him or her, just like they do for us. As I find myself parting with some of my own collections, I turn to my manuscripts to capture them for posterity. Because when a character collects Batman action figures, it takes up much less space.
P.S. 74 days until Suede to Rest!