Dealing with the Unspoken

[Thornton] Wilder taught me that what a writer deals with is the unspoken, what people see or sense in silence. (from Sol Stein in “Stein on Writing”–Chapter One)

The other day I went to the grocery store for my wife. She’d given me a list of items to purchase and I immediately set it down on the counter. Later she left for school, and in the other car I left for the store. Having forgotten the list I ran back to the house, grabbed the paper off the counter, and started back to the store. As I walked into the store I retrieved the list from my pocket and glanced at it. It was a shopping list, but not for the grocery, but for a few items needed from the drugstore. I’d picked up the wrong list. 

If I was writing the scene I could write only what I saw. A man in a hurry runs into a grocery store, glances at a piece of paper, stops suddenly, then looks around as if embarrassed, turns around and leaves the store. He returns to his car, shakes his head and texts his wife about the mix-up. His wife immediately texts back and tells him not to worry about it, she will pick up the groceries later. That would be empirical writing, or writing just what you see. I could add details but basically that’s the scene.

But the crux of the scene, or the crucible, is what happened in the man’s head. And to me, this is what Wilder was saying. The real story is in the silence of the car. The real job of the writer is to explode the silence of the car and let us see into the crucible.

Since this is a true story I can tell you what happened. When I noticed the list I was embarrassed and went back to the car. I shook my head and texted Lorraine about the mix-up. As I hit the send button I heard my mother’s voice say, “Knucklehead” and laugh. A wave of despair washed over me and even though she’s dead for over ten years, I felt her presence. Seconds later I got a return message from Lorraine telling not to worry about it, she’ll pick up the groceries later. I felt a sense of relief and my mother’s apparition disappeared. Believe me, a novel could be written about the themes revealed in the silence of those few seconds.

For years books were piled on every step of the staircase to the second floor of my home. On the top of one pile was a novel by James C. Schaap, In the Silence There are Ghosts. My youngest daughter (at the time) loved the title and she would announce at random times, “In the silence there are ghosts.” On the drive back home the day of the apparition at the grocery store, I thought of Tory, and the book, and could only smile and say to myself, “Yes, I completely agree.”