DSC00053I discovered Snoop by Sam Gosling in a note by @piscivorous on Facebook. Its subtitle is What Your Stuff Says About You. I was interested in this book not only for what it could tell me about how to portray fictional characters but also for what it could tell me about me.

Chapter One begins with the story of John Steinbeck taking a shower in a hotel room before it had been cleaned. He named the former inhabitant Lonesome Harry:

“I could feel that recently departed guest in the bits and pieces of himself he had left behind.” from Travels With Charley

What was left: some laundry receipts, an unfinished letter in the trash, an empty bourbon bottle…

In a chapter entitled, “When Good Judgments Go Bad,” Gosling writes about extreme hoarding, which is defined as “the repetitive collection of excessive quantities of poorly useable items of little or no value with failure to discard these items over time.” I’ve written a story about this entitled, “Little Things,” which is almost finished.

Apparently the difference between pathological hoarding and ordinary collecting is that collectors enjoy their collections. Hoarders are disturbed by their booty. There’s an easy lesson there.

My favorite lines of all are about identity:

Identity is “the thread that ties the experiences of our past, present, and future into one narrative.”

“It is a story you tell about yourself to make sense out of what has happened in the past and kind of person you are now.”

I love this question that Gosling asks in the first chapter: “…what are the mechanisms by which personality reaches out and connects to the physical world?” His answer:

identity claims“: (posters, awards, photos, bumper stickers). To assess their meaning, notice whether they are directed toward others or toward the self, whether they are in public or private spaces, and notice discrepancies between between public and private spaces, between front and back yards for example.

feeling regulators“: stuff to help us manage our emotions and thoughts. My little notes on my desk: “Begin anywhere.” “I am a work in progress.” “Believe.” My pictures of the ocean…

DSC00216behavioral residue“: A scavenger after peering into Cher’s garbage wrote: “It was like I had her whole world in my hands.” Apparently the incredibly telling aspect to trash is that it reflects “behavior that really happened.” In my trash in my study at this minute: wrapper from an IcyHot Sleeve for my elbow, zip lock bag with crumbs from my RyeKrisp snack yesterday, an empty tin from my Big Dipper Clarity candle, crumpled lists that have been accomplished.

To paraphrase a popular commercial: What’s in your trash? OR What’s in your character’s trash?

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19 thoughts on “snooping

    • Thanks, Sarah. I am just fascinated by people’s relationships to their things and what those things tell us about the people.

      This is also true with fictional characters. With the added point that if we’re writing the fiction, we get to be a little more in control of this. And we want objects to work for us in more than one way. I appreciated how this book gave me so many new ideas for showing character.


  1. Brilliant. I love when writing advice comes in sideways from people who don’t even know that’s what they’re giving. It’s almost always better than official Writing Advice. Thanks for finding this and for seeing it that way!


    • Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. The trash thing is interesting, isn’t it? Gosling also asked questions like is the desk clear because the person cleaned it or because the person has no work to do? Really got my brain going…


  2. This post reminds me so much of your lovely short story, “Little Things.” It also made me think about how closely related things and memories are. We carry forward our memories, but often there are also things “leftover” as well, so that the things remind us of the memories. Good to keep in mind as we write our fictions.


    • Kimberly, just written an entirely new ending for “Little Things.” Letting it sit at the moment.

      Yes, things and memories. Are we keeping the thing because of who gave it to us or because we really like frogs? Is the t-shirt purchased at a concert proof you were there, a means of associating yourself with that music, a way of remembering the concert, a reminder of who you were there with? Whichever one it is tells us/the reader something. Fascinating.


  3. Identity is “the thread that ties the experiences of our past, present, and future into one narrative.”
    “It is a story you tell about yourself to make sense out of what has happened in the past and kind of person you are now.”

    He really nails it. The process of construction and revision we all engage in. Some people almost completely unconscious about it. And on the other end of the spectrum those who are hyper conscious, either by inclination, profession or both.

    Artists are notorious. Almost every available inch of my studio office is covered w/ layer upon layer of these “bits”. Years of accumulated clippings from magazines, post cards, sketches, framed pictures, memorabilia of every imaginable kind from events sacred and profane. Some are 4 or 5 layers deep…and taking a couple things down momentarily for closer examination or a look at the back will frequently yield strange archeological discoveries: foxed pages draped w/ dust that has cohered into something resembling Spanish Moss, and painted by the sun w/ a delicate chiaroscuro of bleached lines vectoring off at random angles created by the partial overlay of some new page of saved memory that has begun to impinge and obscure the old. And pictures of my kids, pictures of my work, pictures of my friends and colleagues work, pictures of my heroes and mentors. Pieces of rocks, feathers, wood… and pictures of rocks, feathers, wood!

    There are tokens of various tribal affiliations w/ prep schools & colleges. Strange, indecipherable messages scrawled on the back of peoples business cards. Stationary from the Pelican Hotel in South Beach (Superbowl, 1998.) Tickets from a prizefight one of my patrons insisted on taking me to at The MGM Grand in Las Vegas which I saved probably because I couldn’t get over the fact that they cost more than the automobile I was driving at the time. Prototypes of furniture parts. Maquettes for sculpture. Even sketches on napkins !! And most poignantly of all, artwork my grown daughters made for me when they were knee-high to a grasshopper. And books of course. The shelves and shelves and piles and piles of books!

    But the award for most perversely persistent pentimento must go to the faded invoice and business card of the Wildlife Biologist who I was finally forced to hire at great expense after being utterly defeated by a very determined skunk. A nesting female…known to return year after year to their favored locations…in this instance the crawl space under my studio! Its a grand, epic tale…but I’m going to save it until we convene the Salon de LisaKenney and I can share it w/ you in person!

    Not surprised that Matt managed to slide something fun and inspiring into your TBR pile. (Did that sound funny…that sounded funny…I don’t know…maybe it’s just Friday… and I have a 3:30 mtg. to get through before I can have my frikin martini…Don Draper I am not…).

    Thanks for setting me off again, Cynthia. You’re the best 🙂 And you have a Big Dipper Clarity candle !?!…w/ it’s own special tin, apparently? I have been giggling over that little mystery since I read this post last night. I am completely stumped…and captivated. And I just like the way it sounds: “Big Dipper Charity candle”. A delightful image I would not have been surprised in the least to have come across in Infinite Jest.


      • Walt! Thank you for taking the time to list all the tidbits that have accumulated over time in your studio. Your list is proof positive that details such as these tell “the reader” so much about character.

        I have accumulated similar layers in my study and now I want to delicately unearth them to make my own list. It would probably take three pages to list all the “little things” on my desk alone.

        And as for my Big Dipper Clarity (alias Charity) candle, the next time you’re here, click on the THINGS tab in the header above : ) My favorite one, other than clarity, is enlightenment!


  4. As others have said, what a great idea to use the ideas of this book to enrich your fiction writing! In fact, that prompt at the end of your post — what’s in your character’s trash? — sounds like so much fun that I think I’m going to use it as soon as I finish this comment! Thanks also for the book excerpts. Sounds like a fascinating read.


  5. Great post….. I’m constantly looking for new ways to develop my characters and differentiate them from each other. Its easy to make them talk alike and forget about giving them distinct quirks and nuances.

    Stephen Tremp


  6. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. This will be a must read, maybe more for myself than for my writing, as I do tend to look at my characters in this way. On second thought, even though I do know what’s in their refrigerators, maybe I should look into their trash. Hmmm.

    You’re always an inspiration. 🙂


    • Thanks, Linda. Refrigerators, hall closets, glove compartments, attics, that little drawer by the bed, the one under the phone in the kitchen–what we can’t part with, and then the trash–what we want to get rid of and sometimesin a hurry. Fascinating if we’re trying to figure out what it says about us/our characters.


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