What writers don’t say

Look for what writers don’t say and you’ll find their greatest truths or, if not that, important clues to what the story is about, indications that beyond the shallow waters of the obvious, there’s depth and knowledge for readers to discover, and a prickly feeling on the back of your neck that your subconscious mind is being visited by things half-remembered that when found shine a steady light on what the writer didn’t spell out.

Those reading my short story “Moonlight and Ghosts” in the short story collection Widely Scattered Ghosts know that the main character takes a dim view of the state of our mental health system, in part the fact that the centers using the group home approach (that was working) gave way to the cheaper “let’s turn the mentally ill out into the community where, in reality, few people will help them.”

My view, as I wrote the story, was that those released from group homes were basically left for dead. I assert this in the story’s opening lines (copyright (c) 2018 by Malcolm R. Campbell):

“THE LIGHT OF the harvest moon was brilliant all over the Florida Panhandle. It released the shadows from Tallahassee’s hills, found the sandy roads and sawtooth palmetto sheltering blackwater rivers flowing through pine forests and swamps toward the gulf, and, farther westward along the barrier islands, that far-reaching light favored the foam on the waves following the incoming tide. Neither lack of diligence nor resolve caused that September 1985 moon to remain blind to the grounds of the old hospital between the rust-stained walls and the barbed wire fence, for the trash trees and wild azalea were unrestrained, swings and slides stood dour and suffocated in the thicket-choked playground, humus and the detritus of long-neglect filled the cracked therapy wading pool, and fallen gutters, and shingles and broken window panes covered the deeply buried dead that had been left behind.”

One thing I didn’t say in the story was that the hospital was real, one I’d visited in one of its earlier incarnations when it was brightly lit and clean and well staffed but then, as funding cuts showed our true feelings about the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled, the care and facilities ran into a downward spiral until the facility was eventually abandoned. Later it would be razed and the property turned into a neighborhood of upscale homes where it’s my profound hope that the residents hear ghosts on quiet nights.

To reinforce the focus of the story, the opening lines quoted here are a close paraphrase of the style of the opening lines of  “The Dead,” a 1914 short story by James Joyce, a favorite writer of mine. My intent was not to gain notoriety by paralleling a famous writer’s work but to drop a subliminal guidepost into my story.  Goodness knows, folks like T. S. Eliot said “The Dead” was one of the greatest short stories ever written. It would be vain of me to compete with that, but more likely that a few people who read my story might have read “The Dead” and would see that my intent was to reinforce my main character’s belief–and my own as well.

Such clues are left for readers to find. Those who “get it,” “get it.” Those who don’t find the clue don’t lose anything as they read other than a clue they won’t miss. Writers do this a lot and then English teachers (unfortunately) tell students what they did not see. So it goes.

Nonetheless, I think I’ve mentioned here before that writers often conceal the most important parts of their work.