Writing Tips

Object Essays and Creating Joy

I’ve been thinking a lot about joy lately — how we find it in our own lives and shine it over to others too.

It’s not easy right now.

Everything feels so busy — or so incredibly not! How can we feel both urgent and anxious and well, unbearably quiet?

I wish I had an answer for you.

But I know, for me, joy comes in the little things, in the slices of the everyday. It comes from people — it doesn’t usually come from my laptop.

Except, every once in a while, it does. When I see a memory of the first time my son sat down in a swing, or the time my Aunt sent me twenty antique plates in the mail. Photos, emails, Facebook posts can all spark a little bit of joy into our lives.

I know, now, that joy comes from people. It comes from nostalgia and memory, but it also comes in the pause: when we take a second to realize what we’ve got, or even, what we had.

So, in this Great Pause, when we finally have those stretches of time that seem unending but we also have the anxiety closing in on us, I’m writing down a word, or a name. Someone I’ve lost, or someone I miss, paired with the brightest memory I have of that person.

Today, that name was my Aunt Kathy.

When we were little, we’d drive up to Chicago, and stop to see her on the way at the Oasis on the way to Grama’s house. She’d give us coins and tell us to go play the video games while she talked to my mom.

We’d fly through our quarters and come back for more, and she’d drop them into our hands. She was buying time from us, and we didn’t know it. We just wanted to hit another round of Streetfighter.

How many of our memories feel like this? Complicated and big, but fleeting and small?

Today I remember the feel of the quarter, and the bone-deep knowledge that things can change. That every moment is another chance to play a little better, to shine a little brighter.

Joy to you,


For Writers: Writing Right Now

Dudes. It’s hard to write right now. The world is messy and my brain is jumbled up. I’m sure yours is too.

But last week, I talked with a friend about object essays — about writing that’s focused on an object.

Object essays creating joy

Focus on an Object

This worked for me when my son had heart surgery, and I was writing a column for Literary Mama. I told them I would write about his surgery, but when it came down to it, I had no idea how.

There were these moments that were bigger, harder, and so much more difficult than I ever could have imagined. How could I write the moment they rolled him down the hallway? How could I write about standing beside him after his surgery, waiting for him to open his eyes?

Writing the hard stuff

I knew I needed to write down my experiences because I could barely express them. I am the type of person who eats my emotions, or throws glitter at them. I couldn’t fathom how to express the depth of feeling – anger, frustration, pain, and so much love – that was welling up inside of me.

I decided to focus on one object, one thing, to hold the essay together (and maybe to hold me together too).

Object Essays

I focused on a sink.

It was a strange choice, but in the end, it made so much sense.

You see, the sink helped ground me, and it helped make my writing more concrete. I could think about before his surgery, focusing on our everyday moments in front of the kitchen sink. I could explore how I felt during his surgery when I went to wash my hands and couldn’t get the paper towels out of the dispenser. I could talk about the tiny sink where I washed my face as he spun in and out of consciousness. I could show the way my fists clenched the bed rail as he walked for the first time after surgery. He brushed his teeth at the bathroom sink.

You can see that essay here.

Object essays are a way of grounding yourself in a difficult situation, but they don’t have to be an entire essay. You can also use objects to focus one scene, or to make a character feel more real. Here’s a prompt to get you started, plus some articles from smart people.

Writing Prompt

If you’re struggling with a character, pick an object in your room. A totally random object. Take a few minutes, and write your character interacting with that object. This will help you see your character a little more brightly.

Concrete objects can help you ground your stories, making them feel more real. Don’t just take my word for it…

More Resources

From the Atlantic: Writing about objects — things you can drop on your foot!
A Book: Writing from the Body
Marketing approach: Abstract Versus Concrete Language