Corner Post: “Develop a Second Sight”

When I was growing up, working on fences with my father and my brother, the corner post was the most important. It determined how tight our barbwire would be and for how many years that tightness would hold. The corner post held the fence together no matter the distance the fence stretched across my father’s land. And so in writing this column for Fiction Southeast, I’ve been thinking about the different corner posts that structure a writing life so that in turn, we can write compellingly, not just write stories made up of competent plotlines with good intentions. Stories like that flatten out quick and no one will read them for long, except our dearest relatives. Don’t read those last two sentences as something to be afraid of. Instead, read them like this: we should all aim for something more in our writing and our lives—the two are interconnected. So aim. Bravely. Here are some ways to get there.

Develop a second sight. Which means consciously record the world. Say you’re talking to someone, a close friend, and pretty soon there’s a back and forth rhythm. She says something. It triggers a response in you. She responds to that, and on it goes. During the conversation, every so often, take an extra breath to note what is being said. You won’t, I promise, remember everything. In fact if your brain is like mine, a huge chunk, maybe all will be forgotten by tomorrow. But pieces of the conversation will resurface later in a story you’re writing. At least, that’s how it works for me.

More important than remembering the words themselves is being able to write the flow of the conversation, to recall where emphasis was placed and what gestures your friend made when placing that emphasis, when she looked you in the eye so you would believe she was telling the truth, when she didn’t, when her laugh was hiding something else. But to write that flow you have to recall it. And to recall it you have to consciously be aware of it while it’s happening.

What I love about talking to people are two things: 1. The gaps. Because you never get a complete story about that trip to the grocery store or what happened at the bar last night. So when I listen, I listen for the gaps, the misdirections, those places where things are almost said, those places I can fill in, invent what happened or what I think should’ve happened. When you listen to someone, create a story out of what is not said. If you do this, I promise, you will never be bored at dinner parties again. 2. The incomplete way people put words together. Because those half sentences and jumbled utterances are a much better guide to creating sentences on the page than any proper usage guide to the English language. The way we talk is an extension of our complicated thoughts and also how we breathe. When revising, I think of the shape of sentences, how they follow one another, as a sequence of breathing—jagged at times, flowing at times, full of hesitations and open to the possibility of making a wrong turn. Otherwise, my prose becomes stagnant. Sentences need motion. Openness leads to surprise.

But it all starts with paying attention to the world—how people flow on a sidewalk, how cars flow across a bridge, shadows from moving clouds, all the places light comes from at different moments of the day. Try to pick up on the world’s motion. That, too, will give shape to your sentences. But be more than just an observer. Observing is important. It allows for reflection. But if all you do is observe, you will find yourself creating remote main characters who don’t know how to enter their own story and be a part of it. Characters need to participate. They need to interact with their world, and so do you. The key is to force pauses into reality as it unfolds. So pause. Take that extra breath. Develop your second sight.

James Braziel

About James Braziel

James Braziel is the author of the novels Birmingham, 35 Miles and Snakeskin Road. His work has appeared in journals and newspapers including the New York Times. Currently, he teaches creative writing at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.

  • Heather

    I love Mr. Braziel’s suggestions. Now I won’t ever be bored at dinner parties again… I’m bookmarking this now.

  • Linda Chaffee Taylor

    Thanks for this. I, too, have been told to observe (which is important), but it seems far more important to participate, as you say. And I never thought of listening to dialog that way–listening for what isn’t said. Very interesting insights!