If You Want to Send a Message, Call Western Union*

By Rebecca Kennison (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0

There is a story I read when I was a younger person (in, of all things, a compendium of fiction and articles from the first 100 years of the Ladies Home Journal) set in the 19th century, and about a young English woman working in a huge Russian household as a governess, who is trying to navigate the politics of this large group of people**.  Because she is not exactly a servant, but not exactly a member of the family, either, all the other members of the household attempt to get her on their side in the internecine wars and arguments and turf wars.  Their vehicles?  Their diaries.  She, being a nice English girl, regards the privacy of diaries as a given, and is boggled to see people just leaving them out all over the place.  They regard their diaries as means of communication: they leave them out to be read so that their co-habitants can understand their opinions and feelings without them having to say any of it directly.  The refrain of the story is, “But didn’t you read my diary? I said it all there…”

For years, especially since I became active on the internet in many of its loci, this story has jangled around in my head. Indirect communication, how do I not love thee?  Even before the internet had many people posting every single feeling/thought/idea/opinion they’ve ever had, there were people who did essentially the same thing: “Gee, I posted it on Facebook, didn’t you see?”  Or “It’s in my blog!” Reliance on indirect communication isn’t new, it just seems to be moreso these days. 

Just as in the days of mouth-to-ear or diary-to-reader, it’s often the person who is supposed to be the recipient of whatever the information is, who gets taken to task.  “What, didn’t you read my blog?” “Didn’t they tell you?” “I thought you’d see it.”  I have a friend whose relationship broke up because her significant other forgot to hit “send” on an email, then resented that she didn’t address what he had said, and *boom*.

In sort of the same way, there are the friends who will launch into a long story about people I don’t know without giving me context or background, expecting me to get the significance of something I absolutely have no chance to understand.  I think this comes from a sort of “well, I know, so you must know, right?” thinking.  With the friends I know who are prone to this, I tend to tune out when one of these stories comes out, which is a shame because they want to communicate something to me, and if I only knew what they know.  This is unfortunate when it happens in real life.  It’s even worse when it happens in fiction writing.

There is an elusive quality in some things I read: the quality of elusiveness.  You’re reading along, engaging with the situation and the characters and setting…and then there’s a passage where the author, and all the characters, steam ahead under the impression that I got the reference, or the action, or the meaning of a conversation. And because the reference, or action, or meaning, is wreathed round in un-specificity, I don’t get it, and I feel stupid.  If this happens often enough, I begin to resent the book and its writer.  Which is, at least as I understand the writing process, exactly the opposite of what one wants to happen.

Every writer has passages where they think they have gotten across what they meant.  That’s why an editor or beta reader is so invaluable: “Um, in this passage, what exactly is going on?”  And you realize that you saw the movie in your head but didn’t describe it so that anyone else would.  This isn’t just a new writer problem, either.  One of my favorite lit’ry anecdotes involves Robert Browning, buttonholed by a young fan of his poem “Pippa Passes,” who asked him to explain the meaning of a line.  He read it, read it again, read it one more time, then handed the book back to the young lady and said, “When I wrote this, only God and Robert Browning understood what it meant.  Now that privilege is reserved to God alone.”

I want to understand every nuance.  Be clear.  Say what you mean. 


*Attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, this was more about movies with Big! Important! Messages!, but I think it’s germane here too.

**I wish to God I could remember the name and author of this story, as I’d like to re-read it and see if it’s the way I remember it.



About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


If You Want to Send a Message, Call Western Union* — 10 Comments

  1. Good piece. I love the Browning quote! I confess that when I started to read this, I thought you were going to address the opposite problem that I too often find in books, and especially in films–where the author hammers home a message by telling us (in words, not example) again and again and again what we’re supposed to Learn. But it’s equally frustrating to have to try to decode a passage where the author didn’t take the time to be clear.

  2. So very true, and yet, understanding and context are not always equal things. We can see from the stunning popularity of certain books for youth wherein things are spelled out (show and the authorial voice helpfully tells the reader what to think about what has just been shown), threadbare cliches because “everybody knows what they mean”, overused character tropes and plot points, are thrilling to the young reader without much life experience because to them this is all new.

    Then there are the writers whose work appeals to readers with so much experience in life and in books that they are jaded by the obvious, and grab onto the arcane, the difficult, because the joy of pique and surprise has become so rare.

    And of course then are the great books, the ones you can read when young, and love, then read later, and discover an entire layer that was invisible to you until you gained experience. Each reading furnishes something new.

    • One of my favorite things to hear from my daughters on re-reading a book is “I get this so much better now.”

      I re-read Jane Eyre about once a year. I always liked it, but it has now become one of my indispensable texts, and it’s never the same book twice.

        • Good God, until the end not much goes right for poor Jane at all. Other than Rochester being dead or married to Blanche Ingram when she goes back to Thornfield, what else could go wrong? Picked up for vagrancy? Dead on the cousins’ doorstep? Yikes!

          • Come, come. She contrived to retain her virtue and marry her True Love — a happy and virtuous conclusion. Suppose we cut one of those. Suppose she hopped into bed with Rochester at one or another one of those fraught moments at Thornfield. Then she could show up on St. John Rivers’ doorstep, barefoot, starving AND PREGNANT.

  3. The month on the backburner can help a writer see the assumptions, sometimes, but there is no substitute for other eyes.

  4. “(in, of all things, a compendium of fiction and articles from the first 100 years of the Ladies Home Journal) “—I recall enjoying the short stories in my mother’s Ladies’ Home Journal and Redbook. I haven’t picked one up since I was about 15, so I shall sail on assuming that they were quite good.

    • I may actually have brought the compendium back to San Francisco when I was clearing out my parents’ books. At some point when I have a spare nanosecond, I should check.