Tiny Objects, by Clifford Garstang

October 29, 2013 · 5 comments

Invited by the school principal to give a talk on writing, I read a story to the class of sixth graders, one about a man who travels to Mongolia on business and is shocked by the poverty he sees there. In the story, after hiring a homeless boy to be his guide around the city, the man buys a valuable antique, a tiny statue of a Buddhist monk, and places it in the boy’s hand.

The students are enthralled. Then I take from my pocket a tiny statue of a Buddhist monk and watch as the students pass it, one hand to the next, eyes and mouths wide open.

Ideas for stories come from everywhere, I say. They come from real life. They come from travel. They come from watching other people. They even come from objects such as this one, tiny images that plant themselves like seeds in the imagination.

The statue moves around the classroom, and the students, I’m sure of it, all struggle to comprehend. If the statue is real, then so must be the story.

Let’s think of some tiny objects, I say. A marble, says one boy, neatly dressed, hair cut short. I write “marble” on the chalkboard. A button, says a girl in the front row who has been chewing on her pigtails. I write “button” on the board. A germ, says another boy. Have you ever seen a germ? I ask. No, he says, because they’re very, very tiny. The class laughs. I write “germ.”

The statue has come back to me and I hold it in my hand.

Now, I say, write a story about one of these tiny objects.

The students are silent, studying the board, choosing their objects, their inspiration. One by one, they pick up their pencils and begin to write. All except the girl with the pigtails.

You aren’t writing? I ask.

She’s looking at the statue in my hand. Why was the boy homeless? she asks.

His father didn’t have a job, says another girl. Maybe his parents are sick, says the boy who had proposed the germ.

But where does he sleep? asks the first girl. Is it cold there?

Yes, I say, it can be very cold in Mongolia. Boys like him sleep in tunnels where it’s warmer. But it’s just a story.

Tunnels? she asks.

Steam tunnels, I say, but I know that doesn’t help.

Does he go to school? she asks.


No school? Most of the students have stopped writing and look at me, waiting for an explanation.

No. He has to work to make money. But look, I say, it’s just a story.

They should let him go to school, says a boy. What does he eat? asks the girl with the pigtails. Aren’t there any teachers? Who buys his clothes? Who takes care of him?

I close my hand around the tiny statue and slip it into my pocket.

It’s just a story, I say. Just a story.


Clifford Garstang, a former international lawyer, is the author of two collections of short fiction, In an Uncharted Country and What the Zhang Boys Know, and was a 2010 Walter E. Dakin Fellow at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He is the co-founder and editor of Prime Number Magazine.

  • http://www.lift-the-lid.org/how-it-works/who-we-are/ Sara Goff

    This post should be shared with teachers everywhere. It takes so little to spark a child’s imagination, to get them thinking, dreaming, and believing in the power of a story.

    Thank you, Clifford, for sharing your story with us!

  • http://www.patsydyer.com Pat Dyer

    Wonderful post! And yes, very inspirational. Thank you, Clifford.

  • http://sunnebnkwrtr.blogspot.com/ Carole Brown

    Lovely little story and I enjoyed it very much. Thanks so much for sharing. How wonderful to spark those children’s imaginations!

  • http://www.commongroundforafrica.com Joshua Machinga

    Can we create a booklet to inspire teachers and students?

  • http://www.lift-the-lid.org/how-it-works/who-we-are/ Sara Goff

    Joshua, a collection of writings from the Writers’ Blog and from the students, as well, is definitely in our future. Until we have a good number of author blog posts to make into a book, I can print out copies of what we have and send them to you in the post. Would that be helpful?

    Did you see my first blog ASK NOW, questions from the students? It was well received at Choose NOW Ministries. Here’s the link in case you missed it: http://nicoleodell.com/2014/03/ask-now-feel-live-tall-building/. I look forward to writing to one of the girls at Lenana! You are welcome to send their questions any time.

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