You know that feeling; you get home from a trip with this suitcase full of stuff, and you have to decide whether to unpack right away, or whether to postpone the chore in favor of plopping down in your favorite chair, or on your favorite sofa, or in your favorite bed, just to rest. And if you have another trip coming up soon, there’s the decision of whether to leave some things packed or whether to put them away and pack them again in a few days. Traveling, like writing, is hard work. So many choices.
I just got back from the a writers’ conference where I taught a creative nonfiction workshop. In that genre, we’re always thinking about what can be unpacked in a first draft. We look for the places where a writer hasn’t said enough through the reflective, meaning-making voice that tells rather than shows.
As someone who moves back and forth from creative nonfiction to fiction, I’m interested in how this unpacking works in the latter. It’s easy enough to see that in a first-person novel or short story, the narrator often seems like a memoirist. Nick Carraway, for example, steps center-stage quite often to tell us what he makes of Gatsby and the others, and what he makes of the experience he’s had with them. The first-person narrator in fiction often functions as a guide and interpreter.
But how does this work in a third-person piece of fiction. If we take a novel like Kent Haruf’s, Our Souls at Night, chosen for its minimalist style and restraint, we see Haruf often letting action and dialogue stand alone without need of comment. The novel opens with a widow, Addie, coming to ask her neighbor, a widower, Louis, whether he might consider coming to spend the night with her, not for sex, she assures him, but merely for companionship. He says he’ll consider it. Haruf stays out of Louis’s consciousness for the most part; we get no glimpse of his mind working over the question of whether he should accept Addie’s invitation. At the end of the chapter, he watches Addie leave his house:
She stood and went out and walked back home, and he stood at the door watching her, this medium-sized seventy-year-old woman with white hair walking away under the trees in the patches of light thrown out by the corner street lamp. What in the hell, he said. Now don’t get ahead of yourself.
It’s only the question he poses and the admonition he gives himself at the very end that does any sort of unpacking of this particular moment of the narrative. For the most part, Haruf relies on the restrained presentation of detail, dialogue, and action. The same holds true for the next evening when Louis arrives at Addie’s to accept her invitation. He carries a paper bag with toothbrush and pajamas inside. He sleeps with Addie that night, and the next morning, when he leaves, Haruf again is direct and plainspoken—just the details at the end of this chapter without any sort of reflection on the part of Louis or Addie:
He went out and walked home on the sidewalk past the neighboring houses and went inside and made coffee and ate some toast and eggs and went out and worked in the garden for a couple of hours and returned to the kitchen and ate an early lunch and slept heavily for two hours in the afternoon.
Surely, there’s a lot going on inside Louis’s and Addie’s hearts and minds, but for the time, Haruf allows them to keep everything packed.
Then toward the end of the novel, at a major turning point in the plot, Haruf allows us to be more intimate with the characters’ feelings. Addie’s son, Gene, has come to forbid her from seeing Louis:
After the talk with Gene, Addie and Louis still saw each other. He came to her house at night but it was different now. It was not the same lighthearted pleasure and discovery. And gradually there were nights when he stayed home, nights when she read for hours alone, not wanting him to be there in bed with her. She stopped waiting for him, naked. They still held each other in the night when he did come over but it was more out of habit and desolation and anticipated loneliness and disheartenment, as if they were trying to store up these moments together against what was coming. They lay awake side by side silently now and never made love anymore.
Here, Haruf still isn’t close to a single character’s consciousness, but the narrative voice that stands behind the characters is indeed acting as guide through the aftermath of Gene’s demand. That narrative voice is unpacking that very pivotal moment. We know that the pleasure isn’t the same for Louis and Addie. We know there are nights when she doesn’t want him in bed with her. We know that their physical intimacy comes now from habit and desolation. We know everything that has changed for them because of Gene’s demand. Haruf could have shown us his character’s thoughts and feelings via action and dialogue, as he has throughout the novel, but now he chooses to let the narrative voice tell us things. He lets that voice unpack this moment.
The question is why, and perhaps the answer is even in a minimalist narrative, there comes a moment when so much pressure has built up—the prospect of losing all that Louis and Addie have built together—that showing alone won’t suffice. Even in this type of fiction, there are moments when a writer has to unpack the details and tell us what’s inside the characters, to make their emotional states more palpable to the reader. You’ll notice, too, that Haruf decides to tell us this at a time when the two main characters are feeling distant from each other—so distant that they could never talk about any of this. This is a moment when their actions and words can’t make a reader feel. That’s why the narrative voice has to do a little thinking and telling on the page.
To sum up, even in a piece of fiction that’s not particularly interested in unpacking its characters’ thoughts and feelings, there comes those pivotal moments where the stakes are precarious and the narrative has to tell us exactly what to make of them. The chore can no longer be avoided. The suitcase opens, and we start to see what’s inside.