“Sweet Refrain”

I heard it twice this summer in Sewanee. The first time, it came from my fellow workshopper's flash fiction piece. The second time, it came when Claire Vaye Watkins read from her story collection, Battleborn. Earlier this month, T.C. Boyle called it resonance. “All I want,” Boyle wrote, “… is to hear a single resonant bar of truth or mystery or what-if-ness so I can hum it back and play a riff on it." I call it refrain. Whatever you call it, the writer has first to discover the intent of her own composition.

In the cases where I've found refrain, it is a close relative of traditional plot climax and dénouement. One could argue it is that, but I like to think of it in lyric terms if only because the reader is listening for something more subtle than a glass slipper. A writer captures an image (and you can bet a swollen sentence enables its capture more often than not), and the reader is left feeling the writer stumbled into that image, that it is a subtle thing, and not, after all, a big deal. The story keeps going, and the resonate image nearly leaves the mind. These images hint at something. They seem caught up in an idea without a point, the kind of suggestion we associate with innuendo. The momentum of the story pushes forward so that we have no choice but to forget about it, and maybe that is what the author wanted. Maybe she wanted to remind us of a thing and nothing more, and onward with the text-at-large.

Then she closes with it. She returns to that image, that fading captioned snapshot in your mind, for her lyric moment. For that last sentence. The effect of the lyric moment handled right, I would argue, is a lasting sense of discovery. I talked to Claire after her reading about this, and she suggested that discovering her intent was something that happens in revision, so that a writer might think of a first draft as a time for extracting poignant image, and revision as a time for weighting it in the story. In my own drafting, I have noticed I come back to an idea I left behind a few minutes ago, and when I do that I feel a sense of closure, an idea the piece is done. With revision, the writer is given the opportunity to refine the correlation between that first image and her closing note. In any event, I noticed with my fellow workshopper's story, with Claire's, and with a Joan Didion essay about John Wayne, the seed gets planted two thirds of the way through (or four-fifths, whatever makes you happy). The idea of funneling in a reader and of dénouement both work. I look for swollen sentences.

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Heather Richie

About Heather Richie

Heather Richie is an M.F.A. Literary Non-Fiction Candidate at Sewanee: The University of the South, and studies documentary arts at Duke University. She is presently Associate Editor at Fiction Southeast and an editorial intern at Garden & Gun magazine.