Saying Something You Didn’t Know You Could

What sentences to do we keep when drafting new stories or essays and what sentences to do we ditch? It’s a deeply intangible and private process for each writer, and therefore difficult to “teach.” But no matter anyone’s genre or skill level or end goal, when you sit down to write something, you are engaging an intuitive part of the brain that has a lot to teach us. One thing many writers agree on is that they can “talk” with this part of the brain, or “listen” to it, when they revise their work and look for deeper meaning. Sometimes, it’s a matter of calling a sentence on its bullshit and editing the slime out of it. Other times, it’s a matter of hearing the tick of something that’s off (a rhythm, a word, an emotion) and letting the mind ponder that “offness.” The tendency with sentences that feel “off” is to give up, or to delete them entirely. But with patience and careful listening, I think some of these sentences can become our best teachers. Here’s how it worked for me this week:

Last month I talked a little bit about liberated writing and Verlyn Klinkenborg, whose advice feels especially helpful regarding “off” sentences. I knew I wanted to use a scene between my male Afghan protagnist Rahim and a translator. I wrote it earlier this summer, when I first accepted the fact that I was going to have to write a novel. But when I looked back at the scene this week, it felt like a shell: the dialogue was there, but the narration wasn’t. I began by adding setting and physical description of who was standing where and what he/she could see, etc. This mattered later in the scene, as a small scuffle breaks out. I also added a brief flashback for my protagonist, who sees trouble coming when the translator approaches and longs, for just 2 sentences of narration, for easier times like he had in his twenties. This added more characterization for Rahim and felt realistic, too, as we often think ourselves worlds and years away from the present moment even as we are staring it in the face.

But one line in particular gave me pause, and it had felt “off” to me ever since I first drafted it: “Rahim puckered his lips as if to spit at the translator’s feet, then decided against it.” It felt out of character for Rahim, who is generally a complacent man, happy to just get by. What could justify such anger and hatred coming from him? (Spitting at an Afghan’s feet, in particular, is a high form of disrespect.) Although I didn’t know what to do with the sentence at the time, I kept it, if only for the fact that it contained much more emotion than any sentence about Rahim I had written thus far. Encountering that sentence again in revisions this week, I recalled Klinkenborg’s advice:

A writer’s real work is the endless winnowing of sentences,
The relentless exploration of possibilities,
The effort, over and over again, to see in what you started out to say
The possibility of saying something you didn’t know you could.

What was I trying to say about Rahim? I sat on the couch and thought and thought. I paced around. I ate some popcorn. And I stared at the wall of my novel map Post-In notes and thought about this man, Rahim, who I have created. I thought about what he wants and what he needs, and most of all, what he is not admitting to himself…and in that process I realized the possibility my earlier sentence was presenting. Rahim was angry in this moment, and he was angry because in the translator he saw something of himself that he resented greatly. Like Rahim, the translator has also been puppeted out for work in war, and although that means food, water, and shelter for his own family, it likewise means playing a role in the demise of his fellow Afghans. Rahim is not a translator, but his line of work as a middleman for the Taliban trying to keep supplies away from a local village, bears the same marks of conflict. He needs the work in order to survive, but he loathes the fact that this is his only choice. His anger toward the translator was masked anger toward himself. After this insight, I was able to expand the scene substantially. Now, it appears that it will be one of the most profound moments of reckoning for Rahim in the novel…and all thanks to what I thought, at first, was probably a “throw away” sentence.

Showing 2 comments
  • stephanie thomas berry

    I love this post. To me it speaks clearly about the mystery and work of writing. The wilder part of your writer's mind put his anger there, raw and visceral. Now you have consciously explored and refined it.

  • Lynn Lovegreen

    Great example of how our writing minds work!

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