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Craft of Writing, Fiction

The Silenced Story

In a response to last week’s post about MFA vs. NYC, a commenter who goes by the avatar Joplingirl noted that, “Finding a voice is inherently about bringing to the page a silenced story.” I love that idea, and the thought has been returning to me occasionally since, no doubt because of the number of stories I’ve been reading for Tahoma Literary Review.

Submissions for the journal bring in all manner of fiction, from around the world, and from all perspectives, and I can’t tell you how excited Kelly and I are about that. But they’ve made me think a lot about the silenced story and what it means.

My first thought brought to mind the idea of the unobtrusive author, the writer who is able to remove him/herself from the text so that the characters and events tell the story. Decades ago it was common for writers to play God, to address readers directly and lecture them about the story. We have changed since then—readers prefer to interpret works for themselves. But even now many writers have trouble getting past the “Look at me, look at the words I’ve used. See how creative my writing is!” type of prose that draws attention to itself and pulls the reader away from the characters. I was one of them.

But it also occurred to me that a silenced story is also one that has been thought through, not only to a surprising, but logical conclusion, but also has had its “noisy” aspects quieted. By this I mean those passages that are never resolved to the story, that provide information we don’t need, or take us on an unnecessary tangent. I suspect this is because the writer didn’t spend enough time in the revision process, which includes letting it sit for weeks or months before approaching it fresh. In fact, a comment I make often while reading the submissions is that the story isn’t quite ready, that the author needs more time to develop its theme and flow, to distill the work down to its essentials and nothing more.

The silenced story has become my new mantra.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


12 thoughts on “The Silenced Story

  1. Sounds like you’re having a great time with your new literary venture, and doing some serious thinking along the way. For myself (and I stress that this is just for my own compositions, I’m not challenging the truth of your statement that people don’t usually care for the omniscient narrator anymore), I do still sometimes use the omniscient narrator because of my belief that it is still a tool there to be used, if only in an ironic, retro-, sort of way. Again, this is for comedy and satire, which allows for a referral back to narrators from “days of yore,” and I know that for the kind of fiction you’re interested in writing (as evidenced by your excellent book of stories), it’s quite inappropriate. That idea of the “silenced story” is a fine one to describe a lot of books where a sense of pain lingers out of all proportion to the obvious characteristics of the story. I somehow always think of Hemingway and things like “Hills Like White Elephants” or “The Sun Also Rises” when I think of the “underbelly” of the narrative. Do you think this “underbelly” (as I would call it) has anything to do with “the silenced story,” or am I groping after something entirely unrelated?

    Posted by shadowoperator | April 12, 2014, 3:18 PM
    • I’m not against the omniscient narrator as much as I don’t like a certain type of presentation by a writer, by which I mean that of the lecturing, didactic exposition. One usually finds such writers doling out heavy doses of backstory early in the text, as they feel the need to explain their characters to the reader, rather than letting those characters illustrate through actions and dialog.

      Posted by jpon | April 13, 2014, 7:13 PM
      • Yes, I guess I’m thinking of sorts of narrating where the narrator is a voice, a character of sorts, without being a character in the story. I think a lot of fun and humor can still be gotten out of that type of voice (or voice-over, if you like to cast it in the dramatic), not excluding the “unreliable narrator” sort of voice. One can get quite complicated effects by doing this. And I’m not casting off on E. M Forster and Wayne Booth when they write about “showing rather than telling,” either, but even that standard is becoming a little dated by now, sort of like the mini-skirt and maxi-skirt. It’s still good, but so are many other tools. The didactic narrator can be a figure of fun too, I guess is what I’m saying. And in spite of the fact that I write mostly comedy and satire and leave heavy dramatic effects to those better able to produce them, as the saying goes, “Many a truth is spoken in jest.” Anyway, experimentation is the name of the game, when all’s said and done. No one can deny that your fiction, or what I’ve seen of it from your book, has developed from a lively sense of literary curiosity and a sure hand with the tools you have chosen, and we all have to thank you for the good example. I can only imagine that the same sort of quality will be the result of TLR, with you and your associates at the helm. And thanks, too, for keeping up the posts: it’s great to be able to anticipate that every Saturday morning, I’ll be in touch with someone close to the pulse of contemporary writing!

        Posted by shadowoperator | April 13, 2014, 7:41 PM
  2. I remember reading that comment, Joe. I couldn’t agree more with your closing paragraph. Getting some distance from a piece is critical in the revision stage. A “good” story can take months, or even years to develop, and with each revision the characters and plot deepen a little more. I’m really looking forward to reading TLR’s first edition.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | April 13, 2014, 10:50 AM
    • A story is an interesting, evolving creature. On first read it must engage and entertain, but the stories that stay with you are the ones that develop a deeper meaning the more you think about them. I just selected one such story for TLR. I initially told the author that I might have some suggestions, but after reading it a couple more times I realized what the writer intended, and decided to leave it as it was.

      Posted by jpon | April 13, 2014, 7:16 PM
  3. What works for me is feverish writing and total immersion in my story, followed by a leisurely critique and editing process. Sometimes, I store a story for up to a year till both it and are ready to meet again.Thanks for your excellent posts, Joe.

    Posted by nadia Ibrashi | April 13, 2014, 1:06 PM
    • Well, I’ve been to some of those critique sessions. I’d call them anything but leisurely. :-)

      Posted by jpon | April 13, 2014, 7:17 PM
      • The critique pitch is intense, but I meant to say “leisurely” as in offered to various critique groups over a period of months, sometimes years.

        Posted by nadiaibrashi | April 18, 2014, 12:13 PM
  4. an intriguing, thought-provoking way of thinking about a story. we tend to think about “giving voice” but perhaps that’s not what we’re doing. or not doing all the time.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | April 14, 2014, 5:12 PM
  5. The silenced story is the one that has been thought through. That resonates. There is absolutely something to being afraid to tell a story, for whatever the reason, and being afraid for long enough that you’ve told it in your mind a million times. You’ve laid in bed both alone and with your best friend, an still can’t speak it out loud but tumble it over and over in your mind: how would I tell this story, if I were telling it? It seems like a lot of b.s. and kinks can get worked out before the shame and/or fear passes, and the story finds its way into the world.

    Posted by Teri | April 15, 2014, 1:42 PM
    • Yes, but it’s a story that MUST be told. Maybe that’s why the idea of it won’t leave you, and yet there is the fear of telling it just right.

      Posted by jpon | April 15, 2014, 11:34 PM

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