Fiction Is About What We Can’t Say

Silas Dent Zobal

Silas Dent Zobal

If you write fiction, then you don’t want to miss the latest Glimmer Train bulletin, which features three wonderful essays focusing on craft. One of the essays, by Silas Dent Sobal, is a powerful meditation on both how things die and how one writes fiction. Here’s how it starts:

I have a sense that what I ought to do here, on these pages, is speak with you about what it means to write, and about why I keep doing it year after year, and why you shouldn’t unless you feel you must. Maybe, along these lines, I could also offer some entrenched, toadish advice, which I’d only half believe in, about opening sentences, and subjects and predicates, and… 

Well, here’s the thing: I don’t want to talk to you about any of this. I want to talk to you about dying.

I encourage you to read the full essay—click here.

Also check out two other essays:

  • “Risk” by Joshua Henkin: “My graduate students, many of whom are quite talented, are for the most part so afraid of being over the top that they’re subtle to the point of obfuscation. They think they’re being subtle, but the reader has no idea what they’re talking about. I believe writers should risk being over the top.”
  • “Whose Are You” by Natalie Bakopoulos: “The Greek poet George Seferis wrote in his diary: ‘Man is always double: he who acts, and he who sees himself acting; he who suffers, and he who sees himself suffering; he who feels, and he who observes himself feeling.'”
  • Tip: If you enjoy the essays on craft in the Glimmer Train bulletin, I highly recommend checking out one of the compilations that was published.
Posted in Creativity + Inspiration, Writing Advice.
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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10 Comments on "Fiction Is About What We Can’t Say"

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All of the above sound really interesting! 🙂 


Thanks for point me to this essay. It seems that Mr. Zobal is getting closer to writing about what he’s having a difficult time writing about. I wish him luck!

Elizabeth Westmark

Thank you for pointing me to Silas Dent Sobal’s essay. I could relate on so many levels. I think almost every thing I write is about death, even (especially) my last post. An especially timely nugget for me from Mr. Sobal’s essay, as I’m working on my first novel, is this:

“This is all a
little ambiguous, isn’t it? That’s what I want to tell you. Here, right here, is
where you can find the heart of the heart of your story. Not in a place but in
no place. Not in clarity but in ambiguity. “

Florence Fois
What of the ones that are forgotten, whose names are never spoken in prayer, or listed among the dead, honored or loved, remembered in the countless ways we remember them … those no one speak of? Are they the sound of one hand clapping, tree that falls in the forest that no one hears? Dead is an interesting concept, yet to never be spoken of or remembered is not to have lived … that is a death that is soundless. It all dies in the end and what we do haplessly is to pretend imotality. But to be remembered by no one,… Read more »

[…] others) he has experienced to trying and failing to write about things that are difficult: “Fiction is not about what we can say, it’s about what we can’t.” This won’t be for everyone–it’s very much the kind of thing that an […]


Mr. Zobal’s essay highlights one of the most important reasons we should write and keep writing. Perhaps we exist only as memories in other people’s minds, and when they fade and die, so do we–unless we have written down our selves and our lives. Even if we’re never published, someone somewhere in the future–a grandchild, a niece or nephew, even a thrift store customer–will find the things we wrote and then hid inside boxes and folders and cookbooks, and they’ll know us.
Perhaps they will even smile.


[…] to Jane Friedman for the […]


Mr. Zobal’s writings about death were perfect.  Right down to hearing someone’s ribs crack. Perfect details at the right time. Thank you for sending us there!

Friend Grief

Thanks for sharing this, Jane. It resonates so strongly with what I’m doing on my blog and my books. It’s clear to me that he’s writing with uncommon honesty. If he weren’t, his words wouldn’t be so powerful.

In the end, he’s writing about loss (death as a permanent form of loss). Everyone experiences it, and the ones that affect us the most are the ones we can still hear and taste and smell.

Diane Turner

This is fabulous! Thanks for sharing.