What’s the Stuff Above the Subtext?*

* Spoken by one of my favorite actors, from one of my favorite movies.

One of the harder things for me to do in writing is to leave things out. It is unsurprising, with my journalism background, that I am very grounded in spelling things out, being as clear and direct as possible, with no room for misinterpretation or misunderstanding.  I can do it up to a certain point — if I am writing about a sad person, I might manage to cross out “Sadie was despondent,” and replace it with, “Sadie slumped over the table, her chin in her hand, staring bleakly at the wall.”  But it doesn’t generally occur to me to make the point that a person is sad by writing about all the happy things going on around them, with one reference to “Helllooo, Sadie! Engage, why dontcha?” (And when it does occur to me, it isn’t until the third or fourth rewrite.)

I have a deep and abiding respect for writers who can do that.  The kid just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and probably half of what goes on in that book is implication and inference, and it is beautiful. It was funny to go through that book with him, though. I realized that being able to pick up on those cues stems from a situational awareness — something my kid appears to have in short supply.  He has a vague notion of time, a vaguer notion of geography — even his grasp of his own physicality seems in question at times, as he stumbles and bumps into people. He’s subtle as a semi truck.  And, of course, he’s 10, so his grasp of Depression-era Southern norms and mores is a tad weak.  Yet he was still able, at the very least, to pick up on the fact that he was Missing Something, and to ask about it.

He’s bumped into things like that before—he was three books into Lemony Snicket before he realized all the names were references to something else and started looking them up.  Even I’ve read a few books like that, where I knew there were in-jokes or cultural references I wasn’t getting. Sometimes I look them up, sometimes I ignore them.

I do wish I could figure out how to WRITE THEM.

In my first step toward that goal, I’ve committed to telling the kid vague stories, veiled to various degrees, at least once a day, and seeing if he can grasp what I’m NOT saying.  I watched my husband unwittingly pull off a great one last night. We were talking about buying the kid a bowling ball, and this story got shared:

“My brother Gary took me to buy a bowling ball at Woolco in Terre Haute.  We were in line behind a black couple, who had something very specific in mind that they wanted.  The cashier was being a jerk, kind of mouthy and obnoxious, acting like he knew what they wanted better than they did.  So they finally wrapped up their business, and we stepped up to the counter.  The cashier shook his head at us and said, ‘It’s always the blacks.’ My brother looked at him, looked at me, and said, ‘You wanna go somewhere else to buy a ball?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’  So MacMillan’s Sporting Goods got our business that day.”

I asked the kid the next day, “So, why did Uncle Gary ask your dad if he wanted to go to a different store?” And the kid goes, “Because we don’t reward racism.”

1: Love that story.
2: Validated in having married well.
3: Pleased that the kid has decent values.
4: Delighted that the kid actually read between the lines (admittedly, they are pretty wide lines, but still, he did it).

Or rather, “The boy in the back seat mulled the story over. In the blue glow of the dashboard light, the woman squeezed her husband’s hand and smiled.”


About arwenbicknell

Editor by day, author by night.
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