Reading Like a Writer: “I Stand Here Ironing”

From “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen: “She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work and for Emily’s father, who ‘could no longer endure’ (he wrote in his good-bye note) ‘sharing want with us.’”

This is a great, great story. Such a good story to read and reread. Here are a few thoughts on this sentence:

  • Context matters. In this case, two characters are talking about a third, named for the first time here. Emily’s mother is describing her to a teacher or truant officer. The context implies a danger for the daughter and perhaps for the mother in that her relationship with her daughter might be at risk if she is honest. Her own happiness might be at risk if she is dishonest with this authority figure.
  • Create tension within a sentence using contrasting words and phrases: “miracle to me” and “no miracle at all,” “worked or looked for work,” looking for Emily’s father who left a goodbye note, and “sharing want.” Characters who have only a lack in common can be fascinating. “All we have together are our arguments.” Can disagreements be enough to sustain a relationship? Can the tension within a paradox keep folks together? How?
  • The sentence is a sort of summary of a childhood or an important part of a childhood. Such a summary can leave readers with an implied question they read to answer: What happened to Emily? To her mother? Their relationship?
  • One sentence can characterize, to different degrees, its speaker, “the woman downstairs,” Emily, Emily’s father and perhaps, as an answer to a question, the asker of that question.
  • The sentence also implies the theme of the story (or a possible theme): economic realities shape lives to a greater degree than most want to know.
  • The sentence uses quoted language to characterize. The father “could no longer endure . . . sharing want with us.” The brief quotation suggests a great deal about the character and his ethics and values. Her response to his note (she goes looking for him) also characterizes.

It might take a paragraph, it might take an entire story, but consider trying to draft language that does as much as this sentence and is as interesting.

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