heath-heather

The Sentence

This is a story I’ve been working on for a several months, having published a much shorter version a few years ago. It’s part of a collection-in-progress, and is about two girls’ (Stoffi and Gert) severed friendship over a stolen brush that escalates into other, more violent acts in Pre-WWII Germany. In the scene I am working on, Stoffi, whose parents raise German Shepherds, overhears at school that a puppy has drowned, and realizes that Gert was the one to steal it.

1. Stoffi was successfully not listening to the girls talk about the camping trip, and would have continued to believe that a ghost had snatched the puppy from their pen had Emma not said that Rebecca was the one to find it.

In the first version of the scene, the reader knows that the puppy Gert stole has drowned. In this sentence, Stoffi gleans that something happened to the “it,” but doesn’t know what it is.

2. Stoffi was doubly invested in not listening when she got to school, and would have succeeded had Emma not said that Rebecca was the one to find it, the it being anything, tracks in the dirt, raccoon scat, a bird’s nest, any of one nature’s wonders.


In the current version, both the reader and Stoffi do not know what the “it” is. The “not listening” has changed from “successfully” to “doubly invested” because it doesn’t fit for Stoffi to be “successfully” engaged in any activity, whereas “doubly invested” has an innocent quality. Perhaps “doubly devoted” would be better? The doubling can refer to her not listening as a rule, and to the story of their camping trip in particular. Emma and Rebecca are also background characters, referred to only in passing. The “it” that can be “any one of nature’s wonders,” can only be one thing. I wanted to use specific imagery but they fell flat, as did the tone of “any one of nature’s wonders.”

3. Stoffi was doubly invested in not listening when she got to school, and would have succeeded had Emma not said that Rebecca was the one to find it, and Helen not said that she thought it was Ingrid who first saw it, and Maddy not asked Emma if it was she who found it and Emma not said I didn’t know it what it was. What did it look like?

I’m feeling for something here, and what I’m feeling for is imprecise. It’s about not saying, the way Stoffi is not listening, to create a mirroring effect of negation. Now the sentence has included Helen and Ingrid and Maddy. The question of who was the first to find “it” is absorbed into the girls’ chatter, but returns at the end of the sentence, and the change into the present tense adds urgency. The tone feels off. Is it critical or not? Who is speaking? Does it matter? And who poses the question of what it looked like? The girls’ curiosity about this “it” obviously stands for the reader’s curiosity. However, Emma saying “I didn’t know what it was” is a non-starter, leading to the rather banal question of what it looked like.

4. Stoffi was doubly invested in not listening when she got to school, and would have succeeded had Emma not said that Rebecca was the one to find it, and Helen not said that she thought it was Ingrid who first saw it, and Maddy not asked Emma if it was she who found it and Emma not said I thought it was a duck. A duck?

Here it’s clear that I’m struggling to sustain momentum, and have lost the thread of what I’m searching for. The duck is a last-ditch effort to save the sentence from collapse.

5. Stoffi was doubly invested in not listening when she got to school, and would have succeeded had Emma not said that Rebecca was the one to find it, and Helen not said that she thought it was Ingrid who first saw it, and Maddy not asked Emma if it was she who found it and here Emma paused, knowing that by saying what she thought it was, she was revealing her secret desire to see this thing, which did not live in these parts.

Okay, I feel like I’m onto something with “and here Emma paused.” The sentence has opened up just a bit with this clause, because I’m moving away from Stoffi, the dog, the chatter, and onto Emma, whose own “secret desire” has its own texture and motivation.

6. Stoffi was doubly invested in not listening when she got to school, and would have succeeded had Emma not said that Rebecca was the one to find it, and Helen not said that she thought it was Ingrid who first saw it, and Maddy not asked Emma if it was she who found it and Emma not paused, knowing that by saying what she thought it was, she was revealing her secret longing to see the mammal she read about in one of her mother’s books.

Now, the imagery is more specific. I’m focused on Emma now and her “who may or may not have been the first one to find “it.” The “it” has shifted, too, as does access to what “it” is. “One of her mother’s books” is more interesting to me, but like “mammal,” it is too generic.

7. Stoffi was doubly invested in not listening when she got to school, and would have succeeded had Emma not said that Rebecca was the one to find it, and Helen not said that she thought it was Ingrid who first saw it, and Maddy not asked Emma if it was she who found it and Emma not paused, knowing that by saying what she thought it was, she was revealing her secret longing to see the mammal she read about in one of the travel pamphlets her mother wrote away for. When she spoke, Emma said it very softly, knowing that by saying it she would never see it in her lifetime.

“Travel pamphlets” is more evocative than “books,” opening up, again, more imaginative possibilities. That her mother “wrote away for” them also helps me to think expansively. I can picture this woman writing away for them, which reminds me of how my father loved National Geographic as a child.

My current obsession has been Tin House’s The Writer’s Notebook series. Aimee Bender talks about Gertrude Stein’s How to Write in her essay “On the Making of Orchards,” where Gertrude Stein proclaims that a “sentence is not emotional. A paragraph is.”  In the next sentence, Emma said “it” very softly because she knew that by saying it, “she would never see it in this lifetime.” So, the “it” then is something very particular, and her fear of uttering it because she wants to hold onto it, feels true to me.

8. Stoffi was doubly invested in not listening when she got to school, and would have succeeded had Emma not said that Rebecca was the one to find it, and Helen not said that she thought it was Ingrid who first saw it, and Maddy not asked Emma if it was she who found it and Emma not paused, knowing that by saying what she thought it was, she was revealing her secret longing to see the mammal she read about in one of the travel pamphlets her mother wrote away for. When she spoke, Emma said it very softly, knowing that by saying it she would never see it in her lifetime.

Platypus.

I’m not revising here as much as working toward this “it,” which came to me, finally. I love both the sound of it and what it conjures. The break is repeated throughout the story; a structural change I thought would help the reader navigate through many scenes and points of view.

9. Stoffi was doubly invested in not listening when she got to school, and would have succeeded had Emma not said that Rebecca was the one to find it, and Helen not said that she thought it was Ingrid who first saw it, and Julie not asked Emma if it was she who found it and Emma not paused, knowing that by saying what she thought it was, she was revealing her secret longing to see the creature she read about in one of the travel pamphlets her mother wrote away for. When she spoke, Emma said it very softly, knowing that by saying it she was relinquishing a dream of seeing it in this lifetime. The it came out so, so soft.

Platypus.

I’ve refined this sentence so that “mammal” is now “creature” to stave off the revelation. By “relinquishing a dream,” the “it” has cost Emma, and so she whispers it.

In response to Stein, Bender writes, “If a sentence has an emotional impact, which of course it does all the time, it does so in large part because of its placement against other sentences, and because of how, almost musically, the emotion will land on a paragraph or scene or moment or white space or word.” For me, the emotional connection that Emma has to her “it” is as important at Stoffi’s, but ultimately it’s up to the reader to decide what connections are or are not made. For instance, I don’t return to the “travel pamphlets” but they serve as a marker for the difference between what people long for and their lived experience. But, I’m free to move forward in the story, even if I’m never quite done with filling in (or not) white spaces with words, breaks, or quiet.

Marcelle Heath

 

Marcelle Heath is a Portland, Oregon-based fiction writer and editor. Her recent work has appeared in Matchbook, [PANK], and Wigleaf. She is Editor-at-Large for Luna Park Review. More online at  http://www.marcelleheath.com.

 

 

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