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Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Melinda McCamant’s
“Clamming Up”

Read the story here.

Duxbury Clam Digger, Massachusetts by Daniel Santry

This is a sad little story. What’s especially interesting is the way the author uses clams as a symbol for the man and his situation– from the title to the very last words. Clamming up seems to be this man’s entire life. The nameless man is one who doesn’t say much and who exhibits the characteristics of the “strong, silent type.” But his way of being in the world costs him a lot.

The author chose to leave the man and woman in the story nameless. That choice is a good one because the characters can be anyone living out such a situation. Giving them names would make the story more specific and individual while the scenario itself is common enough to the human condition and so could represent nameless “anyones” going through this relationship problem.

The story begins after the deed is done– after the man is told by his wife (or life partner) that she is involved with another man. The story begins in medias res–“in the pot already boiling.” Readers don’t need to know much more about this situation since they already know what a blow that news must be to the man. He learned of his partner’s relationship with the other man when the tide was going out, and now, a few hours later, the tide was coming back in. The man’s been out there, alone, digging clams, as he either forgets his troubles or processes the difficult news of the likely end of his relationship.

He digs for clams, which are creatures encased in protective shells of silence. Clams are beings much like the man in the story.

The descriptions the author uses are good and specific and furthers the sense of the story. Every detail included is not just a description for description’s sake. Instead, every detail contributes to the tone, mood, meaning, and significance of the story itself. The author isn’t describing in order to allow readers to “see” the physical scene and the couple but has carefully selected details that put us in the immediate emotional scene.

This technique is handy for flash fiction, to select only the details that contribute to the situation being depicted. For instance, there was no need to describe the kitchen beyond what few details are included. Likewise, there was no need to give further description of the characters. Other, more specific details could have marred the effectiveness of the story if they were merely descriptions for descriptions’ sake. It becomes clear right away that the author chose carefully.

The author uses several interesting and effective descriptions. The clams that teeter on the edge of his shovel contribute to understanding the man’s own situation and emotional state. His relationship and well-being are also teetering on the edge.

The description of the sand bucket relays ironic significance–it’s red (the color of love’s passion), it’s plastic (an artificial construction), and was made for building sandcastles (fragile dreams, constructions easily wrecked, temporary structures that come and go with the tides). The make-believe windows are also a telling detail. They are pretend windows and provide no view and no way to see what’s coming. The cup he drinks from also relates to his seaside environment and also suggests the silence of the lighthouse’s lonely beacon as well as his own lonely silence.

The author makes use of other fine details. The man needs cream for his coffee, but his wife has used the last bit. She gets the good part and he gets no cream for his own (sobering) drink. Still wrapped in their domesticity (she’s still in her robe and in their kitchen) she wants him to talk about this situation. But he doesn’t, or more likely is unable to talk about it.

She leaves her empty cup on the table, signifying their finished relationship–she’s drank her bitter brew. He hears her “familiar noises of her indecision”– indecision as to what to pack or what to do about their relationship. He knows her well…he’s said nothing but it’s clear he knows her, has studied her and likely loves her very much. But what’s a woman to do with a strong, silent type? Especially one who won’t talk about this serious problem they have?

The lipstick she puts on is the color of coral, another sea detail and a suggestion that she’s going to begin another life. She adds some color to her being as she sheds her robe (sheds her cover of domesticity). Her lips are waxy and cool as she quickly kisses him, suggesting her determination to start another life, and that her passion for him has cooled. She jangles her keys and shuts the door on their relationship, as she leaves their domestic situation.

He wants to call her back, his mouth forms the shape of her name. But his voice stops just before the sound came out. And the clams, in the red sand-castle bucket, do the acting out for him, as they spit out the gritty internal irritations from inside their hard white shells. This particular description is also a subtle echo of an earlier description of his wrinkled and pale water-logged toes, an important scene where he also doesn’t speak.

The little story is heartbreaking. The man cannot say anything, can’t even call her back. Like the clams, he is alone in his hard shell. The tide is in again and he’s without her.

The tiny and carefully selected details are the strongest part of this story. These small touches replace the need for hundreds of unnecessary words of explanation and description. This focus on important details is such a large part of what can make flash fiction strong and memorable.

Ron Carlson, noted novelist, creative writing professor, and until 2018, the director of the creative writing program at the University of California, Irvine, says this:

“The literary story is a story that deals with the complicated human heart with an honest tolerance for the ambiguity in which we live. No good guys, no bad guys, just guys: that is, people bearing up in the crucible of their days and certainly not always–if ever–capable of articulating their condition.”

In McCamant’s story there’s no good guy/ bad guy… just two people who would likely be incapable of articulating their heart-breaking and complex situation.


About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto
twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

About Melinda McCamant: Melinda McCamant is a writer and photographer living in Portland, Oregon.

Image: Duxbury Clam Digger, Massachusetts by Daniel Santry (1858-1915). Oil on canvas. 30¼ x 40¼ inches. By 1915. Public domain.

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