Exploring the art of prose


Her Own Elephant Outright

Image is a color photograph of a desk with a stack of old books next to an open notebook; title card for the new craft essay, "Her Own Elephant Outright," by Joseph Young.


By Joseph Young •

Writers are often told, whether by their instructors or about the internet in general, that in their finished stories, there should be no wasted words, no extraneous sentences, no details or lines of dialogue, that do not serve their work. I’ll put aside my complaint that this advice neglects the surprise that can occur when a reader comes across a description in a story that comes out of left field, the mystery enacted when a line of dialogue that makes no sense is uttered by a character, the humor an out-of-place gesture might engender, and say that this is generally good advice. A lack of economy in a story can knock a reader off their interest, should a writer produce words not carefully attended to.

But beyond this particular issue of craft and reader engagement, there is a second danger in the idea of every element in a piece of fiction serving a story. When we look into the world around us, our material world made up of its 10,000 things—the shape of the house at the end of the block, the way a tree grows on the sidewalk out front, the manner in which the checkout lady says thank you when you leave her register, the song a man sings in his head on the way to work—we might take care that we don’t fall into a solipsism of mind.

The world and its 10,000 things are not ours. The tree growing from the sidewalk does not belong to us, and does not serve us. The tree exists as its own self, its own object in the world, and is not merely an extension of our thoughts and feelings. A tree does not grow to serve as a marker of beauty in our brains, a talisman of our thoughts on nature, or a bellwether of our mood. To take the tree as merely an extension of ourselves is to risk not really seeing it. I know that to some, this solipsism is the only truth, that all we see when we look from our eyes is ourselves. I would challenge you, though, that such intensive subjectivity can cloud our vision, both personal and writerly. The recognition that trees and birds and even power lines have their sovereignty in space can, I think, wake us to new appreciation. We might look with new eyes at the power line and the mark it makes on the sky.

Maybe a year ago, I was writing a piece of flash fiction about a young couple eating breakfast at their kitchen table. The story starts out ordinarily enough, though about halfway through something odd, and disturbing, something uncanny, takes place. Oh, and there’s an elephant in the young couple’s attic—we see her up there, standing quietly beneath the rafters, swaying her trunk, in the first line of the flash fiction.

As I went about writing the story—these two making and eating breakfast, drinking coffee, talking about the snow outside, about the elephant upstairs—a paragraph of exposition occurred to me that took me with some surprise. “This elephant,” I wrote, “is not a metaphor. She has nothing at all to do with the thoughts, wonders, and loves of Tim and Danae. She—as god or the empty stars allow—is her own elephant outright.”

I am, whatever I may have said above, as prone to getting in my own head as anyone. I might be lying on my couch watching Netflix, some not-so-good but diverting-enough series, when I glance out of the window. I see a squirrel run across the weed-draped telephone wire that hasn’t been active in a decade, what with cell phones and digital TV. I look at the squirrel and I realize with a jolt and a pang of conscience that I haven’t looked out that window in a week. I mean, my eyes have been trained in that direction often enough, I was vaguely aware the trees were turning color, but with work and writing and whatever else I was worried about, it hadn’t occurred to me that autumn was here, that the squirrels and crickets were out there doing their autumnal business.

Writing is hard. So hard. When I was a new writer (a period that lasted a really long time for me), I likened it to juggling. How in hell, I would think, do I keep all these balls in the air? There’s character, and description, and plot, and dialogue, and conflict, and so on. I could concentrate on a couple of these elements, maybe character and conflict, but would realize with chagrin and self-hate that I’d dropped the ball on all the rest. The worst was what to do with my characters. They couldn’t just sit in their chairs and think about life, but it was an enormous struggle for me just to get them across the room.

Waste no words, it’s said. Everything serves the story. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Given the difficulty of writing, we hold on to what we can. It gives us, me, comfort to know there are boundaries to the business. We can look through our stories and ask, does this detail belong? Does this scene further the conflict, or does it distract from where we’re headed, the big blowup, or breakup, or revelation at the end? Does my description of the dirty silverware on the table deepen my character, his characterization, or am I just in love with my adjectives? To work until all this unruliness is tamed, until this world and its words, feels good. Unity of effect. Old Edgar Allan would be proud.

It’s become my theory lately that readers are content to “watch” worlds rendered well. When a writer is at the top of their game, anything, and everything, is interesting. The writer can describe two lovers as they walk down the street holding hands, stopping to look into the windows of shops, saying little, no conflict between them, their delight at the objects for sale, and a reader will be rapt. Not that this writer will neglect conflict, that there won’t perhaps be a gun, or at least a really bad argument at some point, as was prefigured when we saw the gun hanging over the mantle as the story began. Yes, conflict is necessary, at least 92% of the time. But what I mean are the nuts and bolts. If you can describe, with care and attention, the lovers’ laugh and the sound of pigeons in the air, the reader will be in love too. A reader loves to look at their world.

My caution, then, is to make sure you care. It will be exciting when the two lovers argue, more so if one of them produces a pistol. But these lovers shouldn’t be yours to do with however you please. They can’t serve you. Their argument can’t serve the story. Their mild irritation in the first paragraph over the dirty silverware on the table shouldn’t be there in service of the conflict. Or, more accurately, not only. If you push the silverware around the table only as agents to your plot, the reader will notice. No, not all of them. Or not all the time. Or not consciously. But some of them, some of the time, even unconsciously, and that matters.

How will you see the world you’re writing, see it deeply and clearly, if nothing in it is actually there? Will you notice, as you write, the way the hair tangles on the forehead of the man waiting by the side of the road in the rain? That particular snarl of a dozen wet strands? If his hair is only an agent of the work, a symbol or foreshadow, and not a material reality, will you, the writer, even notice his hair? Can you describe it with such care to your reader that they’ll love you for it?

All of this close attention is a goal, I think. I mean, it’s hard enough to pay attention to what’s happening in the backyard, late at night when the foxes are running around. Sometimes, you’ll be too tired. Same with the words. You’d become paralyzed, blocked for the rest of your years, if this scrutiny of motivation went on in your head all the time. Okay, sometimes a chicken bone just needs to be there, in the throat of your villain, so he gets his comeuppance. It’s just a device of your plot. Okay.

Attention is the writer’s prize. Not the attention you get for your writing, though that’s sweet as well. The attention you give to your reader. The way you can coax them to open their eyes, pay attention. To details they’ve seen a million times, beautiful in their ordinary way, or scenes they wish they didn’t have to see, brutal in their banal way. It’s your prize, too. Once you pay attention to the things in your story, won’t you see the world around you with clearer eyes?

Anyway, you have to. I can’t see a way around it. Writers have to see, see the world, see how people and trees turn into words on the screen. Even in science fiction, you see the objects around you, or in the pages of tech magazines, or in your friends and neighbors, and they become part of the fantastical world you build for your reader. To be a good writer, no way around it.

Look, I don’t know. Who is anyone to make edicts? You’ll do as you like, as writers and people, in any case. Any of these ideas may, or may not, make sense to you—that’s fine, that’s great. Still, I don’t know, look. Look. There are 10,000 things, and each can make for a pretty good study. Each their own elephant, outright. Take care of them. And of her. She’s a pretty good elephant.


JOSEPH YOUNG lives in Baltimore, where he writes, walks around, and hopefully notices things. Find his writing, his flash fiction in particular, across the internet. His collection of very short prose pieces, The Thing I Was Trying to Tell You, will be released by Publishing Genius Press in 2024. Find him on Twitter @josephayoung.


Featured image by Debby Hudson, courtesy of Unsplash.