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The Art of Unwriting
On the power of the unsaid
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In his 1722 novel Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe wrote one of the most disturbing subplots I have ever read.
After being seduced by two brothers in the household where she worked, Moll is induced to marry one, who dies.
She finds another husband through deception, and again a third who brings her to the colony of Virginia.
There, happy and a mother of three, she discovers that her mother-in-law is actually her biological mother who abandoned her.
Her husband, she learns, is her brother.
Nothing I’d like to read about.
Except… Moll Flanders is a joy to read.
How is this possible?
Defoe achieves it through gentle indirectness.
He does not spend energy painting vivid scenes of repugnance.
He is careful about what he leaves unwritten.
He knows the power of the unsaid.
The Dark Gravity of Secrets
This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the said and the unsaid. Or more accurately, the written and the unwritten.
There are the things we choose not to say; and there are the things we cannot say.
Both exert a strange kind of power.
As anyone who has tried to keep a secret knows, the things that you don’t disclose often have more weight than those you do.
The force of keeping it down makes thoughts and actions bend toward it.
This is why Freudian Slips—revelations of things secretly on our minds—seem to happen.
In a similar way, the books that were once banned are now singled out for celebration.
Censorship often brings attention to what was cut and suppressed.
You can see this effect in the Roald Dahl bowdlerization, and the cuts done to Ian Fleming’s 007 books. It brought immense attention and provoked an outcry. I would be shocked if the sales did not surge.
The Internal Censor
But secrets are different from those things you don’t allow yourself to think.
This is why censorship so deep it becomes self-imposed is the goal of brainwashing.
It is perhaps no accident that Rod Serling, a gifted screenwriter who battled censorship in his early career, went on to create The Twilight Zone, with its themes of the self lost due to due to paranoia, manipulation, and unreality.
As he says in this interview with Mike Wallace (whose interviews from the 50s and 60s are masterclasses of intellectual probing), it’s pre-censorship that succeeds so well, because it leaves no mark but an absence.
What you allow yourself to say and write ultimately determines what you think —and if you’re not careful, what you perceive.
What I’m Working On
As part of my work, I oversee small film productions.
We’re working on one now that required me to call in at 4:30AM.
I’m always amazed to be reminded at the number of details to be mastered for a single shot.
The adjustment of microphones. The tweaking of monitors. The silencing of phones. The banter, breaks, and water bottles.
It’s a humbling reminder that anything that seems easy, and done well, seldom is.
The appearance of ease takes the greatest of effort.
Till the next time,