Should you start with the “small” things? Is there a story in the way a character dresses? How about the things they hang on the wall or the music in their playlist? Things they collect? Things they display in their room?
What about revealing details? The things left in their car – things so important they need to be with them when they travel, but not so important that they need to be taken inside when they finish the trip?
Kitty Sheehan’s “The Strongest Woman in the Room,” (published Oct. 24, 2018, by Longreads) is an account of her family’s dynamics on the day her brother died. It starts with a seemingly small thing: Her mother, Betty, is driving her son’s car to the hospital so he can drive it home. It is a trip he will never make.
Betty Sheehan pushed the 8-track cassette into the player and backed Dan’s car out of her driveway. The Stylistics. Dan’s favorite. She’d never heard it. When she rode in his car, she always made him turn the music down.
Dan was her son, who might be dying in a hospital, 60 miles away.
She was using all her energy to deny this and to keep those around her from believing it. Especially him.
“You are everythingggggg, and everything is youuuuuu…”
She was surprised at how beautiful the music was. This beauty flooded her with sadness.
It is a small scene, but one packed large and heavy with heartbreak. There are glimpses into the time period (summer 1978), Dan’s preferred music and his mother’s relationship with him – how she always asked him to turn the music down, how she tried to laser-focused her strength to become the strength of the family, and how hard she was working to deny that her son could be dying.
Then the beauty of the music floods her with sadness. And she, because she had never really listened to it before, was caught by surprise.
Other senses are ignited. She observes that the car smells faintly like her son’s gym bag and sweaty Iowa State jacket. That sparks more memories. Old photographs flicker through her mind.
Then the car’s muffler falls off. Betty burns her hand when she tries to pick it up off the highway. She drives on, holding the wheel by her fingertips, her son’s car now roaring like a a truck.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff here, in the small, revealing details and richly drawn scenes, but also in the overall approach. “The Strongest Woman in the Room” is told in third person. It is not Betty Sheehan’s story told directly, in the first person, but is experienced through her memories, emotions and perspective. Author Kitty Sheehan – Betty’s daughter and the dying man’s sister – controlled the keyboard and the narrative, but makes herself a minor character in the actual story. She was present for many of the scenes but, as in the opening scene in the car, not all of them.
“I approached this piece as a personal essay/memoir,” Sheehan told me in an e-mail. “I accept dialogue and thought in third person as representative, not exact. I used what I knew about my mother and her character to construct her thoughts and feelings in the piece. We talked about her drive in his car. Most of the other incidents I heard about first-hand, or observed: for example, her anger at (my brother’s) friends who didn’t come visit. I was able to construct a lot from conversations with her. To me, that construction represents her, IN MY EYES, and that is the character that I wanted to bring across.
“There are many schools of thought on doing this in memoir,” she said. “That is mine.”
Sheehan is a former teacher who has been writing full-time since 2001, and now calls the Hudson Valley home. She said the piece about her brother’s death, channeled through her mother’s voice, has become fodder for an editing class she is teaching, prompting discussions about forms and boundaries of nonfiction:
“I do consider memoir nonfiction – some refer to it as creative non-fiction. This piece, edited by Sari Botton, and the attention it received, have all been teachable moments for my class. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about writing in the third person, the passive voice, and an omniscient narrator.”
In third-person, the small details carry the story’s emotional power. Her mother’s character, Sheehan said, is revealed in a more personal way than observations alone could. Like how her mother checked down, in her mind, things that her son might want to eat – even after he’d stopped eating, even while she waited for the doctor’s final words:
“I was thinking about steak. He hasn’t had that in a while. He loves the steaks from Palma’s – that steak de burgo. It’s his favorite. I’ll run over there and get one later.”
It is a great example for writers who are thinking about new ways to tell stories. Small, seemingly insignificant details can be an introduction to larger things. In fact, small things can be the most effective way to move the discussion to larger things.
And to underline the point a third time, small things, as in the case of Sheehan’s mother crouched behind a thick wall of stoicism, might sometimes be the only real way to reveal larger things.