The Pregnant Silence

Adapted from a recent column.
Wendy Hornsby

My husband has a multi-purpose signature epithet.  Though there are variations in volume and tone, any frustration or catastrophe from searching for a misplaced phone number to accidentally catapulting over the edge of Half Dome will be announced by the same six-syllable burst.  Children and ththose of delicate sensibilities may read this, so I won’t spell it out.  Let’s just call it the Epithet.  

He doesn’t use it often, so when I hear it I usually pause whatever I’m doing and wait for either an all clear or a call for help.  For example, something crashes to the floor, the Epithet follows, I inquire, “You okay?”  If he needs a tourniquet, he’ll tell me.  “Do you have shoes on?” usually means broken glass is involved.  The sound of his computer mouse being slammed says the problem is computer related.  The Epithet followed by my name usually means he’s lost something and suspects I’ve thrown it out; every family has a keeper and a tosser, and I’m the latter. 

I’ve lived with him long enough that I can generally, though not always, read the nuances of the Epithet and differentiate between something serious and a simple expression of aggravation.

There was an Epithet moment recently that, as I work on the early parts of my next book, has made me think about the many ways other than with words that we communicate.  When writing a passage full of dialogue the writer also has to convey the context and the nuance of the conversation and the relationships of the people speaking.  Usually, just a bit of side business will do that better than a long explanation of how everyone felt and why they felt that way.  For example, if I wrote,  “’I love you,’ he said, flicking a piece of lint off his lapel,” you would get a particular sort of picture in mind about this relationship and this man.  If instead I wrote, “’I love you,’ he said, wrapping her in his arms,” you have something else.    

In a story, as in music, a silence can be very compelling.  Which brings us back to the recent Epithet moment. 

I was pecking away at the keyboard in my office at one end of the house and Paul was at his computer at the other.  I heard a crash, a fairly big one, coming from his end.  I paused, waited for the Epithet.  Nothing.  I called out, “You okay?”  No response.  All of us who have raised children know how scary Kaboom! followed by silence is.   We run, expecting blood.  So I ran.

Calling Paul’s name, I headed down the hall.  Same silence.  His computer chair was empty.  I checked bathrooms, no Paul.  Kitchen, living room:  empty, silent.  I called out again.  And still no response.  This had never happened before.  Alarmed—okay, beginning to panic—I started looking in places he might have fallen.  I was checking the far side of the bed when he walked in through the patio doors.

“What’s up?” he said, serene as ever.  Not a scratch on him.

He’d been at his computer when he heard a giant C-17 coming in to the nearby Boeing plant.  So he went outside to watch the approach, as he is wont to do when something unusual flies by.   On his way out he knocked over a fan, set it aright, and kept going.  Big noise, not a big deal.  To him.

He was fine, but it took a few minutes before I was.   Gripping him by the shirt front, I told him that next time, for my benefit, please swear.

There you are.  Sometimes, it’s the words left unsaid that move the story along better than a long explication would.  For example:  “I love you,” he said.  She picked up her drink and went outside to watch the giant C-17 approach.

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3 Responses

  1. Great read and great writing tips. Thanks, Wendy!

  2. Funny and very, very true.

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