Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Second Specification Experiment

Longtime readers of the blog may remember this Silly Specification Experiment -- later discussed in Second Sight -- where I asked you all to watch a short video and then write a sentence or two describing what I was doing, with the results later analyzed here. Now I'm interested in doing that again, this time with a still:

The assignment:  Without looking at anyone else's entry, spending no more than ten minutes and 250ish words, and writing in your natural voice, describe this accumulation of objects, and leave your answer in the comments. I know the picture is dark, so I'll list the items included here (in no particular order) in case identification is useful:  a pepper shaker; a container of sugar and fake sugar packets; a doily; a glass votive with a lit candle; a mechanical pencil; a salt shaker; and a vase with a rose in it. How you describe, arrange, and elaborate on those objects in prose is entirely up to you.

As with the previous experiment, the hypothesis and rationale will be given at a near-future date; in the meantime, again rest assured there are no wrong answers here. And thank you to all who participate!


  1. When Ella withdrew from the tower, she was white-faced and shaking. I hadn’t known Mr. MacIver the way she had, but I’d seen it too, and I couldn’t blame her.

    “The sugar,” she kept saying. “He knew she wouldn’t drink her tea without sugar. He put it there to please her…”

    “And the salt,” I said, steering her onto the safety of the grass. “And the pepper. Seasoning for her food. I know. He cared about her. Even if she was…”

    “Don’t say it,” said Ella. “Please don’t say it. I don’t want to have to – to have to think about it again –”

    So we sat in silence for a while. I don’t know what was going through her head, but I kept picturing the things I had seen and matching them with the things I knew about Mr. MacIver, and the things I knew about her. He was only trying to talk to her. He had been trying to be nice to her.

    Unbidden, an image of the little table in her tower arranged itself in my mind. The rose was foremost in the image; several petals had shrugged their way off the stem. I supposed that meant their tea must have gone on for a while. And he had taken out the pencil he wore in his lapel pocket and set it on the doily; he knew how she was frightened of lead. She must have let him be kind to her, at least for a while, before –

    “The candle,” I said. “It’s a wonder the candle didn’t go out.”

    1. Wow! I got so caught up in the reading . . .

  2. Okay, I'm game.

    Nothing special. Just an ordinary clean white doily, a salt and peppershaker, and packets of sugar; processed and fake. Is that rose fake? No, it’s real. You can tell by the murky water of its vase. A pencil waits, by the light of a candle.

  3. She set her table as if she were in a darkened restaurant. Or maybe she just wanted to be. Either way, the scene was the same. Let me carefully describe it for you. First, a doily on top of the walnut stained table laid the foundation for the rest of the necessities. Naturally, a lit votive candle set the tone for the table. The pink sugar substitute packets out-glowed the simple cane sugar in its black plastic container. The vase with a muted pink rose stood guard over the items clearly showing its half empty water line. The salt shaker also was half empty or some might say half full. The candlelight cleverly hid the pepper shaker’s secret ground peppercorn status. Only the mechanical pencil in the foreground seemed out of place. Now that you can picture the scene, we can move on to the importance of these particular items and perhaps the brick wall in the background.

  4. On the table was a little tablecloth, all white and hand-knitted, and on the tablecloth was the glass she had just drunk from. It didn't look a glass anymore, with a candle inside.
    Arabella sat down at the table. The candle was lit, its flame waving slowly, and it showed a most unusual set of objects. Most unusual for a church, at least.
    There were pepper and sugar, and a rose in a vase. Who could have brought a rose, anyway?
    And a pencil. Not the old-looking wooden pencils the pastor kept in his drawers, but a mechanical one, like the ones kids used at Sunday School.
    Arabella had never tried one. She checked herself, took the pencil and clicked it. And then, in the silence of the church, in the light of the candle, she smiled for the first time.


  5. Jonas ducked through the doorway and the woman—what was her name? Annette?—took his jacket and hung it on the dusty coat rack. As he looked around, he felt a growing unease. Something about her tidy house made him uncomfortable, like a loud, fake laugh.

    Jonas prayed that his rental car would get there soon to drive him the hell away from this place.

    "Sit down," Annette said. "I'll make some tea."

    He obeyed. She fussed around the kitchen reminding him of a sixty year old, even though she barely looked twenty. While the water boiled, she set up the table. First she put down a white, lacy doily. He knew it was called a doily because he asked his girlfriend about them when they started appearing after she moved in. They disappeared when she moved out. He hated doilies and hated women who used them.

    Annette brought out salt and pepper shakers and packets of fake sugar, followed by a squat candle and a single rose awkwardly perched in a too-large vase. She lit the candle and arranged everything on the doily until it could have been the centerpiece of a restaurant table.

    The kettle on the stove began to whistle. Annette ignored it, nudging the doily so that it was perfectly centered. Jonas anxiously pulled the pencil from his shirt pocket and spun it in his fingers, the only thing that ever calmed him down. Annette grabbed the pencil from him and slammed it onto the table, glaring at him.

  6. She lays it all out so carefully: the pepper shaker like a little god, packets of sugar and fake sugar that cancel each other right out, a doily which fairly shrieks of Victorian grandmamas, a white candle (but no bell or book), a prim mechanical pencil far removed from the small rough eye-spear of the schoolroom, a salt shaker that ignores the pepper shaker as if they had never met, and a plain bud vase with a single pink rose in it like a symbol of girlhood. "I can do magic," she whispers proudly. I smile and nod.

    When she is finished with her tight, orderly ordering of things that have no right or desire to work together in any way whatsoever, I will excuse myself.

    I have no need to be sky clad. I will walk the hills, feeling their bones through the soles of my shoes, and say the words they teach me. Then if magic is really necessary, it will come. The grass will shiver, and it will come.

  7. It wasn't your fault; the table setting had an identity crisis. The romantic mood created by the warm glow of the simple votive and the single rose in a vase couldn't survive the plastic box of sugar packets and tacky doily. (Not to mention the mechanical pencil you contributed.) It was a well meaning but pathetic attempt to disguise who and what the table was really meant for. And when you sat there alone (the restaurant chosen for its affordability), the only romance was in the words you put down as you drank your one glass of house red and dreamed.

  8. He rested her pencil--a mechanical one meant to look wooden from afar--on the lacey doily, which was not real lace but plastic. Virtually nothing in the room was as it appeared: flower in a vase resting on the doily—-made of polyester; salt and pepper in the shakers—-really sand; flickering candle casting brooding shadows—-an LED light; the sugar packets stuffed neatly into a container—really salt. But the artificial sweetener casually mixed in with the apparent sugar packets-—at least that was truly artificial. So he began to wonder, what of his love for her? Was that illusory as well?

  9. “Late,” Andi muttered. She played with the pepper shaker, which was sticky, and worried the edge of the tatted doily in the middle of the table. The restaurant’s sad attempt at decorating, that and a half-dead rose crammed in a dirty vase. She wasn’t even sure why she agreed to meet here. She hated this place. It smelled like a Mafia funeral, oregano and wilted hope. Candles in cheap, molded glass pineapples comprised the ambiance, and barely held back the old shadows that crept along the walls of the windowless room. Another minute ticked away and she flicked the salt shaker onto its side, throwing the spilled grains over her shoulder, just to be obnoxious. She contemplated ordering a coffee, but they didn’t even have any Equal in the sugar holder, just pink and white packets. When the waiter came by for the fifth time to check on her, it was time to leave. If the waiting didn’t do it, that look of pity would give her hives. Andi pulled the pencil from where it held her hair back in a twist and left it conspicuously at the front of the table.

    1. I loved this, especially the pencil twist coming in as it did at the end. Kudos.

  10. Christian FischerJune 21, 2012 8:02 PM

    I invited my grandmother over for hot tea every Saturday afternoon, sharing childhood memories, and laughing how grandpa used to drink day old coffee, late in the evening. It was a sad time after his passing, but we managed to get through it. Grandma tried her best to be strong for everyone. I’m sure it wasn’t easy.
    Before my grandma arrived, I set a table with salt and pepper shakers, sugar packs, a rose, and a candle. We talked about books, politics, family, whatever came to mind. Scrabble was her favorite game; she beat me every time. And, she loved her grandkids. She loved it when they visited. They loved their grandma too.
    Now that she is gone, I sit at the empty table with the same table arrangements, nothing out of place, and wishing I could drink one more cup of hot tea with her. The only thing new to the table arrangement is the doily she knitted a few years back. The mechanical pencil hasn’t been used since our last game of Scrabble. I hope one day, I will be able to drink hot tea with my children, sharing memories. The table is reserved.

  11. A pencil was useless to Lavinia when a candle’s glow filled her heart with serene calm. She couldn’t draw the inner peace she felt, nor write about the inner reflection that filled her soul with light.
    “Stop,” she cried. “Stop teasing me, making me feel whole and loved. I am salt in your wound. I may look like a delicate rosebud, but I’m as strong as a brick wall. I do not bend. I do not budge. I never compromise. You cannot love me.”
    But Joseph stood tall, filling her senses with false, sweetness, as fake as the sugar substitute she craved, a sorry alternative for the love she never felt as a child.
    “Leave me, Joseph. I am not worthy of your love.”
    Lavinia sought a softness, as delicate as a Victorian lace doily, as sleek as a crystal vase and yet, dressed in leather with thick makeup and high heeled boots she appeared as tough a woman as Joseph had ever seen.
    Her inner strength was equal in its peppered determination as the black spice that burns the taste buds, yet without the pepper shaker, the salt stands alone, trying to enhance life’s blandness.
    “Hold me,” she cried as numbness overtook her. “Don’t let me die alone.”
    “I’m here, my darling.” Joseph cradled the strongest woman he’d ever known in his arms, kissing her forehead until her eyes closed for eternity.

  12. On the anniversary of her grandmother's death, Tasha baked Nan's chocolate spice cake, filling the kitchen with fragrance. While she waited for the cake to cool, she worked the daily crossword with the silver mechanical pencil she had found on the subway, the last time she was in Boston. When she had completed the last square, she brewed a proper pot of Scottish Breakfast Tea and poured two cups, sweetening one with sugar.

    She tore open a packet of Truvia. Even before the crystals hit the surface of the tea, a soft “tsk” sounded in her ear. Never in all her long life had Nan approved of anything artificial.

    “Maybe that’s why she never liked Sylvie.” Tasha started at the sound of her own voice. With shaking fingers, she centered the doily Nan had made for her tenth birthday on a tray. On the doily she laid the salt and pepper shaker that Nan had always kept on the dinette table in her kitchen, and a votive candle. She cut two slices of cake, placed them neatly on the last two dessert plates, and lit the candle, and arranged one of the plates on the doily.

    Then, and only then, she lit the votive candle, closed her eyes, and wished.

    “Grampa,” she said, picking up the tray, “are you ready?”

  13. Amy checked every table, salt, pepper, doily in the middle. It was silly, but she liked them all a certain way,even though Karl, the manager said it didn't matter. What did he know? He wore the same shirt every night. "Its a restaurant, not a fashion show," he said.
    She had learned to ignore him.
    Tonight she had time to futz over the flowers. They needed it; she was sure some of them would barely last the night. They were a funny color, sort of purpley - who ever heard of a purple rose? They didn't even smell.
    Finally, she lit the candles and turned the lights down low. She stepped back and surveyed the room. Candlelight made the place shine and sparkle, hiding the old chairs and dingy carpet. This was all theater. She played a part and tried to imagine the lives of everyone else.
    Now she waited, the part of her job that she did not like. It gave her too much time to think and made her sort of sad. She wanted to be a writer. Now where had she left her pencil?

  14. Everything seems to fit but the pencil. What, does she expect me to draw while I’m waiting? If I’m supposed to draw, where’s the paper? I can’t draw on the doily. If I draw on the table, that would be vandalism. She’ll probably make me pay a fine. And rightly so. But who gives a pencil, just a pencil, with no explanation, no direction?

    I blow out the candle so it’s darker in the room than it was before. Doesn’t matter. Nobody’s here but me. I crank out the lead, one click at a time, until it’s long like a needle. Then I drive it into the hot wax. Playing with wax has always been something I love and I’m curious: will it coat the pencil lead, or will the lead resurface unscathed?

    This takes me ten minutes.

    I’m still waiting.

    Sugar makes swirls on a shiny table top. I pepper the swirls to add dimension. All this can be cleaned up easily. One swipe and my work will be brushed away. The eraser on the end of the pencil helps with my swirling. I won’t leave fingerprints.

    It’s so beautiful I use all the sugar packets. Sprinkle more pepper.

    It's too perfect to ruin.

    I finish it with the rose. Lay it carefully over the top.

    It’s been half an hour.

    I stare at the swirls, at the rose, at the pencil cast to the side.

    She’ll understand I couldn’t wait any more.

  15. My good-writing service for one:

    Begins with a single rose, to remember that beauty—timeless, endless, matchless beauty—is the point of it all…and that the act of writing is itself beautifully singular. But I am also reminded that the bloom is fleeting, just as the clock is ticking. Writing is urgent. And as an affirmation of its worth, its fare is served up here on a doily-adorned plate, and not as decoration.

    The essentials include, first, a mechanical pencil, to keep my point sharpened—not just as a functional tool to continue writing, but as a figurative device: to keep me on point. Repeated twists will be required. (Substance refills, too!) A glass votive casts only dim, flickering light so that my imagination is required to illuminate the way forward…and is, anyhow, enough light to ward off the darkness, of which I am so well acquainted. Salt is included for voice and style and individuality. Used aptly it creates flavor, overused or poorly used it ruins prose. Looming just as critically is the right pepper balance, since the range of desirable ‘spicing’ varies so much by audience. Kids especially are picky and hate spicy, whether it's something they aren't ready for or something adults think they 'should' like. So pepper is essential but remember to sprinkle with caution!

    Lastly, the artificial sweeteners are there to remind me NOT to use them. Period.

  16. Hi! I'm a first-time visitor to your blog - not sure if i've got the right idea for this exercise, but here goes anyway :)

    The candlelight gasped and was no more.

    I fumble for my pencil, reluctant hopes dashed by midnight’s silent conclusion. Sweetness tingles my fingers and I pop a pinky in my mouth. "...heavenly nectar of....pepper?! bleh!" I drop the shaker and succumb to the sting, instantly transported to a former evening, a confusing whirl, where rose thorns cut deep and scarlet blushed my hopes.

    "How many times....?"

    Tonight's sweetness must be promised for another girl - a lady perhaps - burning midnight oil, not wax, and steady of hand, finding pure sugar in the dark, with one unquenchable touch.

  17. In a dark room on top of a wooden table is a white lace doily that is round with scalloped edges, the sort that you don’t see anymore, but used to be often found at almost every grandma’s house upon every table. A slim vase with a single pink rose is at the back left side of the doily. To the right of the vase are a set of crystal salt and pepper shakers, which have silver tops. On the near right side of the doily, a lit candle is hidden inside a short, opaque candleholder. A rectangular brown container like one often found in restaurants is to the left of the candle and in front of the vase. It contains white sugar packets and also pink packets containing non-sugar sweetener. A pencil rests on the front edge of the doily, ready for a quick note to be jotted down, a crossword puzzle to be worked, or maybe it just needs to be put away.

  18. Someone left their retractable pencil on the table at an Italian restaurant. The waitress, thinking it might be valuable to the owner, left it on the table when she put fresh water in the vase and lit the candle that looks like a brain. Probably several people walked by and thought the pencil looked pretty out of place there.

  19. Thanks, this was really fun. I've been following your blog since I saw you speak at a conference, but I think this is my first comment. I very much appreciate all the writing advice and I'm looking forward to hearing more about the experiment.

    My grandmother used to steal sugar packets. Mostly the pink ones. It didn't occur to me at all that this was odd. No one commented, because my family doesn't comment when the things a person is doing have meaning. We talk about the weather and food. I have a very vivid memory of walking away from a restaurant after lunch with Grandma and getting half-way down the street without her. Further than I was supposed to be. She was stopped at the counter and gently asked to return the black ceramic container -- but not the sugar packets -- she had stuffed into the front pocket of her purse.

    "I thought it came with the meal," she said. And eventually the let her keep it.

    When I decided to steal my own stash, I knew to do it without attracting the restaurant's attention. My chance came at a local diner, where the served the kid's meals in paper containers shaped like vintage cars. Every time my parents looked away, I grabbed another packet or two and stuffed them inside, under the paper bumper. By the end of the meal, I had about twenty, and I took all the colors, unlike grandma.

    My brother saw me do it, so when it came time to bring the contraband home, I had to share. We sat on the floor of his closet with the door closed. His closet because it was bigger than mine and had a light. We opened the packets and tipped our heads back, eating everything inside. They tasted awful. The pink ones. The white ones were okay. I wanted to tell Grandma to take that kind instead, but it wasn't the kind of thing you talked about, what people stole.

  20. A fun exercise! Now that I’ve posted this, I’m eager to see what others have written.

    The pencil lies on the doily along with the rest of the place setting: the salt and pepper shakers, the cube of sugar packets, the candle in a frosted jar. Despite the water in the vase, the rose looks too perfect to be real. Then again, most roses do. Everything glows in the candlelight, from the table to the chimney beyond.

    This corner belongs to the kind of writer who prefers the friction of pencil on paper and doesn't mind the polite impersonality of the set-up. At this café, the waiter leaves you alone with your pencil, and that's enough.

    On second thought, the scene is a bit too tidy. I want to see a stubby, gnawed-up pencil, a blackened eraser. Tear up those sugar packets, dump them in your coffee. Leave a few coffee stains while you’re at it. While this doesn’t necessarily help your writing, it can be satisfying to leave the table looking like your mind feels.

    Then, of course, you tidy up so you’ll be welcome again tomorrow.

  21. The pencil lay on the doily in the center of the table, its shape highlighted by the flickering light from the candle next to it. A container of sugar and artificial sweeteners, a utilitarian salt-and-pepper shaker set, and a small vase with a rose clustered behind it, giving the arrangement the feel of a table centerpiece at a restaurant.

  22. There's no food for the flavorings, no people to eat them. A dim light to guide the way, but no one to guide. It's a world of solutions, of an excruciating need to add to experience, to improve situations, to sugar coat reality. But what if there's no problems to fix? No dullness to add to? The objects stand alone, losing their meaning, losing their own appetite, so to speak. How many of us create issues out of nothing just so we have something to talk about, bitch about, something to fix? Do we too sit looking at the world, barely lit, trying to find solutions to problems that do not exist to give us some purpose, make us whole, give our lives meaning? We spend so much time while the candle is lit trying to find things to salt, or to sweeten with sugar, that by the time the candle goes out, we ourselves have never even gotten a taste.

  23. This table proves that cheap stuff looks better by candlelight, including: Mechanical pencils, fake flowers, condiments, doilies, and (hopefully) people. This is the type of place a man on a budget takes a wealthy widow.

    Apparently, wealthy widows frown on pepper use. It's too easy to confuse pepper with mechanical pencil shavings. The manager could simply stop stocking pencils, but most wealthy widows like to steal random writing instruments. It helps them feel like they're getting a little "extra" with their meal and it only costs the manager two cents per visit.

    Wealthy widows also frown on items touching the bare, naked table. Doilies are required for communal sanitation and sanity. Thus, your salmon aspic, poached potatoes and wilted green beans will come lovingly positioned on paper doilies which are then carefully cradled on porcelin plates that are perfectly perched on on the durable, dutiful doilies that protect the table's innocence.

    The wooden benches are supplied with doilies, too, for your posterior comfort and cleanliness.

    The salt shaker is filled with dandruff. Bon Appetit.

  24. The gods would write the child’s destiny tonight. The ancient Hindu’s believed that, and even though she was a skeptic she had gathered the essentials…just in case. The pencil to craft the invisible words that will determine the child’s life from this night forward, the candle to ensure even the omniscient gods could see well enough, the sugar to sweeten the words, the salt and pepper to flavor the child’s deeds and finally the rose, it’s fragrance, lasting and memorable, like her wish for the child.

    She arranged the offerings carefully in front of the idol, Ganesha, the god of new beginnings. She sat down and crossed her legs and placed the child carefully in her lap. He slept so soundly for a second she was afraid he had stopped breathing. He was only six days old. The tallest baby in the maternity ward, his fingers thin and long, like little French fries.

    They sat like that for some time. The mother and child, like the moon and earth, separate and yet one, made from the same matter. Neither would ever be complete without the other.