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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Saturday, September 10, 2005

subtext and rites of passage

Morning notes: A History of Technology. But I left off keying those to type up another dream (I also spent time yesterday morning typing a dream I'd had). I was thinking of extracting one of them, but on reading them over I think they're too personal for this non-anonymous blog.

I'm feeling my way along as to what level of intimacy to bring to this public document. In the nature of things it can't be as nakedly honest as I aspire to be with my own journal, since such a document is useless (to a writer anyway) unless it is honest. It can be difficult to commit one's true thoughts to writing, since these often are things which may not be spoken to anyone. One of the important features of fiction-writing is just this possibility of depicting characters' inner world honestly--the thoughts we actually think, feelings we actually feel. It is a rare nonfiction work that achieves such a level of honesty--maybe only certain memoirs.

In drama, this sense of the unspoken exists as subtext. Kimmie and I were watching a TV show recently, the British miniseries Island at War, about the Channel Islands under German occupation in World War Two, and I pointed out to her the lack of subtext in most of the dialogue.

"What is subtext?" she said.

I tried to think of a new way to define it (for we've talked about it before).

"If a character is just saying what he's thinking," I said, "there's no subtext. If you get a sense the character is not saying what's really on his mind--that's subtext."

"Ohh," said Kimmie.

"Good drama always has it," I said. "Bad drama almost never does. Bad drama is where characters just report what they're thinking and feeling. It's not like life."

We watched awhile longer, and there was a scene between the two leaders: the German commandant who was running the occupied island, and the island's secular administrator. They were playing a kind of verbal chess with each other.

"In this scene you can't tell exactly what they're thinking," said Kimmie.

"Yes," I said. "That's subtext. And it's much better, notice."

Good writing delivers insights to the reader: things the reader himself or herself figures out or realizes on the basis of what the writer has said. These are much sweeter than any nuggets of information merely handed out by the writer, plain on the dish. It takes skill to orchestrate insights for a reader.

Two rites of passage marked today: This morning Robin was up early to drive up to Whistler to attend the wedding of a former coworker. Kimmie bustled to prepare the wedding-cake she finished yesterday (three torted layers covered with white fondant, like three smoothly upholstered cushions) for transport; I loaded the cake-stages into the trunk of Robin's 1989 Corolla.

This afternoon: memorial for Fred, my friend Tim's father. He died last month at age 98, having been active up until the last days of his life. Tim, in his dark suit, gave the main speech to the large group assembled in the meeting-hall of the little church near here: affectionate but unsentimental. The crowd, mainly elderly, were nonetheless youngsters compared to Fred. I think back to a couple of relatives of Tim's that we visited on our Europe tour of 1978: in rural England a 108-year-old woman lived with her 70-something son in a house. And they, I believe, would have been on Tim's mother's side.

It was an uplifted event; I saw people I hadn't seen in 25 years or more. I appreciated the opportunity too to put on dress pants, shirt, tie, and a nice plushy navy sport coat--don't often take the opportunity to dress properly these days. I trust I wasn't overdressed for Fred, builder and socialist that he was.

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