Spoken/Unspoken/Unspeakable

Mark Doty, in a class on writing memoir, said that three forces are at play in any personal narrative:  the spoken, the unspoken, and the unspeakable.  The dynamic between these triune forces is what gives a story life.

As I understand it, the spoken force consists of the words on the page—that is, the story as we’ve consciously told it.

The unspoken force is made up of those emotions and ideas that lurk just beneath the surface of the story; we must “read between the lines” to find what is unspoken.  The author is conscious of this material, but for whatever reason has chosen not to name it.  The “unspoken” is always accessible to the reader who is willing to work.

In the “unspeakable” realm we find all that material for which we don’t have language.  Sometimes material is unspeakable because no language exists to describe it.  The natural world has a silent, pulsing life that words invariably misrepresent.  The territory of the spirit, of profound emotion, of enormous mystery, of birth and death and love and complicated relationships and profound horror—these are ultimately indescribable.  While we can attempt to represent this realm with words, and can do so with elegance and art, we inevitably fail.  Language can point us toward the unspeakable but never map it.

The unspeakable also contains material from the author’s unconscious.  Our shadows, our hidden truths, our real brilliance all reside beyond our reach.  The unconscious realm is always evident in creative work, no matter how hard we try to mask or deny it.  Every conscious act carries its subconscious counterpart.  And so behind the words we’ve chosen for the page and behind the words we’ve deliberately not written is a hidden story of motivation, ache, and mystery.

Doty presented these forces as a dynamic triangle, each point communicating with the others, resonating, hiding and revealing.

The more I’ve lived with this image, the more helpful it’s become for revision.  Our work in revision is to grow increasingly aware of our material and to be quite deliberate about what appears on the page, what is left unsaid, and what hides below the surface.  In a first draft, we know absolutely nothing about the unspeakable realm.  As we pay attention to what has emerged and as we read between the lines, hints of the unspeakable bubble up.  The unspeakable is not static.  It’s a well, and we can draw from it to add texture and depth to our work.

As an example, consider a time when a group of people have read your work.  They observe a theme emerging in your story that you hadn’t intended, but that excites and scares you.  This theme feels true.  Or perhaps they ask you to write a scene that’s largely missing from the draft.  When you begin composing this scene, you realize it absolutely belongs; it’s crucial to your piece’s heartbeat.  In both cases, you are mining the unspeakable realm, pulling material out into the realms of the spoken and unspoken.

Readers know when writers have done this work.  Unconscious motivations and manipulations are no longer evident.  I believe that the more material you pull forward, the more truly mysterious is the material left behind.  A lovely tension emerges, then, between the crafted work toward which you have increasing awareness and authorship, and the depth of the unspeakable lurking under the spoken and unspoken.  The best literature uses language and gaps within language as a container to hold this great mystery of being human.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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