Fiction Is About the Unspeakable

I read a wonderful essay posted to Glimmertrain’s bulletin that I wanted to share with you. It’s called “All of Old. Nothing Else Ever. Ever Tried. Ever Failed,” by the writer, Silas Dent Zobal. I think it nicely gets to the heart of what writers try to do, and that is, they try to write about life’s difficulties. Maybe “difficulties” is to tepid a word. In Zobal’s case, it’s death he can’t write about. But there are plenty of other experiences that, based on your own personal history, would be torture to tackle. Here’s what he says happens every time he tries to write about death.

I write about it, over and over again. Every single time that I try, I fail. And finally, almost despite myself, I begin to incorporate the failure into the story. That is, failure becomes part of the mechanism. What else can I do? Maybe if I let my failures begin to dictate my story’s shape—then I can draw a circle around the thing that I have failed to say. Does that make sense to you? Fiction is not about what we can say, it’s about what we can’t. It circles around the subjects that can’t be spoken, and, at best, its form circumscribes the negative space where we imagine the unspeakable to sit. But even this spatial metaphor is a kind of lie that cannot be helped, because the unspeakable cannot sit in a place. There is no place to sit.

I think writers need to go into the darkness of their souls and root out the awful, painful stories they’re afraid to tell. That they’re embarrassed to tell. We have to be brave. Because even though those stories are uniquely tortuous, they’re universal in their theme. And that’s where we have the opportunity to connect with the reader.

Photo: ۞DLB۞ / Flickr Creative Commons

4 Comments on “Fiction Is About the Unspeakable”

  1. “I write about it, over and over again. Every single time that I try, I fail.” I’m wondering what he means by this. How does he know he failed?

  2. Kurt Vonnegut struggled mightily to write a novel based on the pivotal event in his life: the events leading up to, the surviving the firebombing of Dresden as prisoner of war, and the immediate aftermath. He opens it with a reflection:

    “I would hate to tell you what this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and time. When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen. And I thought, too, that it would be a masterpiece or at least make me a lot of money, since the subject was so big. But not many words about Dresden came from my mind then-not enough of them to make a book, anyway. And not many words come now, either, when I have become an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls, with his sons full grown. I think of how useless the Dresden-part of my memory has been, and yet how tempting Dresden has been to write about.”

    Well, obviously, the success of Slaughterhouse 5, Vonnegut’s highest achievement, attests to the fact that he was able to eventually write the unwrite-able. But look at the date of publication: 1969.


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