Editing Analysis: Alexie Sherman’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem”

Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.

Alexie Sherman’s “What You Pawn I will Redeem” adheres heavily to Browne and King’s established tenets of dialogue mechanics as emotion-based rather than description based. Typically avoiding any adverbs ending in “-ly” or verbs attempting to replace “said”, Sherman conveys emotion through a very minimalist use of action interwoven with dialogue.

Unlike some stories that would attempt to modify the flow of conversation with a beat, “What You Pawn” typically includes blocks of dialogue ended with “said”, and finally punctuate it with an isolated action. For example:

”Well, sometimes I think of it that way. And other times I think of it the way they want me to think of it. I get confused.”

She fed him morphine.

”Do you believe in heaven?” He asked.

”I’m talking about the Heaven where my legs are waiting for me.”

They laughed.

In Brechtian fashion, these character simply speak, then commit an action, then speak again. A more standard way of writing these actions may have been:

”Well, sometimes I think of it that way,” He said as she set up the morphine bag. “And other times I think of it the way they want me to think of it. I get confused. Do you believe in heaven?”

Similar to Saunders’ “Spiderhead” short story, we have a writing style that isolates dialogue within its space, bringing attention to a certain detachment the writer may want to convey to the reader.

But there may be some emotional reasons that may have motivated Sherman: “What You Pawn” is a generally melancholy story with bits of levity, and themes of lived alienation can be throughout. This alienation can be conveyed by also alienating the reader by slightly detaching description and action from dialogue, causing readers to read it without any deep emotions.

This leads into the second possible motivation: that Sherman’s isolation of dialogue can accentuate its content. The protagonist introduces himself with an admission that he has a tendency to keep quiet with white people, yet half of his dialogue exchanges involve those same white people. Sherman seems eager to explore this complicated relationship with dialogue rather than character action.

In one sense, Sherman’s dialogue without action and direct description could point to the author’s intent on using these characters as vessels for his own ideas about Native American identity and relationship with urban centers and white people. Like radio show hosts, these characters are more defined by what they say rather than what they do. With such deep focus on dialogue, the physical world in which they exist is not important to the ideas they portray.

With (seemingly over-) emphasis on dialogue mechanics, especially avoiding replacements for the traditional “said” and beats to break up lines of dialogue, Alexie Sherman looks to convey his tone of writing through style over “physical” substance. Jackson’s character study does not spend much time on his movements throughout the world, but instead places its efforts into the conversations he has with various Native Americans, authorities and store clerks. With small kindnesses occurring between dialogue scenes, we find a warm-hearted yet still alienating story touching on mental illness, cultural identity, and urbanization.

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