The Three Sillies


 Laura Kalpakian

 Learn to worry in advance. Do this often, intensely, reflexively. Writers are always asking themselves: what if, constantly sorting through possibilities that don’t yet exist, considering what might happen, what could, bracing for the not-at-all-inevitable. This affliction, alas, cannot be confined to the page. The writer equally sweats the knuckle-gnawing possibilities (What if a drunk-driving yahoo is on the road while my son is cycling to work?) as the mundane (What if we run out of toothpaste?). Your friends will roll their eyes. People who know you well, your grown children, for instance, will mock you without mercy.

Worrying in advance is an occupational hazard. I do it because I’m a writer and writers are constantly thinking about structure. Structure is essential to narrative prose, yes? Structure, how the tale is told—any tale—is every bit as important as the tale itself. The larger the canvas—fiction or nonfiction—the more the question of structure will vex the writer. The writer is constantly shuffling the narrative deck, and each little change necessitates new thinking, worrying way in advance of the actual challenge. Where to begin? Where to end? How much to tell in between? When to impart key information? How much to withhold?

The novelist is not alone with this affliction. If you are writing nonfiction or memoir (and of course, your memory is absolutely unfailingly vivid and correct) you still wrestle with narrative questions. How much goes in? How much stays out? Are you missing something scenically, thematically telling, dramatically important?  These questions keep the writer awake at night with worry. I often do my best thinking in my sleep. I wake, unrested, but clearer in my head. Sort of.

Consider a simple example. Your characters are going to________, (fill in the blank). How will they get there? Car?  (Nifty little foreign sports car? Family sedan? A rusted station wagon with no speedometer and the gas gauge broken and the tires bald? Does the radio work? Is it winter and does the heater work? Summer? Does the car overheat?). Send them by train? (Where’s the station? How do they get to the station? How much is the ticket? Does the passenger beside them reek of garlic?) Plane? (Ditto all the train questions, but throw in the vicissitudes of security.) Bus? (All the above, minus security, plus the grit-strewn ambience of the Greyhound station.) How long is the journey? Will they need to eat? To bring their own food? Live on candy bars?  The writer is responsible for these characters as though they are unruly guests. All characters are unruly. Many are unpleasant. You must answer for their being hungry and cold and needing to pee, or sweating like pigs, shaving (the men); do they get sick, break arms, have PMS (the women) suffer jet lag, allergies, bee stings, frostbite or sunstroke…? The perils of what might befall your characters are endless, and irritating and essential. (And there is always the possibility that no one gives a shit about the journey anyway.)

This particular affliction of the writer’s life always seems to me best exemplified by the old folk tale of The Three Sillies:

A well-to-do farmer had but one daughter, a lovely girl who fell in love with the handsome son of a neighboring villager. The couple was set to marry. The young man was invited to dinner, and all was in readiness, a fine feast, prepared by the daughter, and her mother, and presided over by the proud father.

They were about to toast the wedding when they realized they had not brought ale up from the cellar. The girl said she would fetch it. She took the pitcher down to the cellar and had her hand on the tap when she looked up overhead where an axe was stuck in a thick beam. The girl’s eyes filled with tears, and she began to cry bitterly.

Upstairs, they waited for her. Finally her mother said she would go down to the cellar and see what the problem was. Once there, she found her weeping daughter. “What is the matter, dear?” The mother exclaimed. “Why are you crying?”

The daughter said: “O Mother, I am crying because will marry and have a beautiful son and one day he will come down to the cellar to fetch something and this axe will fall from the beam and crack his head open and he will die, and I will be heartbroken for the rest of my life!”

The mother too broke into a paroxysm of tears and sat beside her daughter, weeping into her apron.

The father, growing restless, excused himself, saying he would go see what was keeping them. Down in the cellar he found his wife and daughter crying their eyes out. He ran to them:  “What has happened?”

The Mother said: “O Father, our daughter will marry and have a beautiful son and one day this boy will come down to the cellar to fetch something and this axe will fall from the beam and crack his head open and he will die!  Our lives will be shattered.”

The father too fell to weeping and they all three sobbed together.

The young man finally went down to the cellar to find all the Three Sillies crying into their hands. “What is the matter?” he implored. “Why are you all three weeping?”

They all three told him that he would marry and have a beautiful son and the son would come down here, the axe would fall, crack his head open and kill him. “There,” the daughter pointed to the floor, “is his hair in a pool of blood.”

The young man declared: “You are the three silliest people on the face of the earth!” He turned, left, and counted himself well out of that family.

All three Sillies are writers. Probably of your acquaintance. The young man is a CPA.