Unpacking a Statement to See What It Means

shutterstock_95551144I’ve always thought the word unpack was used only to mean “to remove something from a suitcase, a bag or a package, for instance.” But I’ve discovered that another meaning—until recently unfamiliar to me—is “to analyze something into its component elements.”

I started noticing this second meaning of unpack a few months ago while watching the TV talk show Tavis Smiley and hearing the host say over and over again—with what always seemed like the anticipation of discovery in his voice—that he wanted to unpack a statement just made by one of his guests.

Soon, I began listening for all the times Smiley would use this word on a given night or within a week. I didn’t really count the usages, but I became so aware of them that it seemed clear unpack had become his default word when he wanted a guest to explain in more detail what he/she really meant in answering his most recent question.

Once I became aware of Smiley’s repeated use of the word, I started looking for unpack in other places, noticing it in newspapers and magazines, and occasionally online.

Online, for example, I saw it used in Rollingstone.com’s article on Muscle Shoals, a new documentary film about the famous music studios in the Alabama town of the same name. In the article, writer Katie Van Syckle says, “The film unpacks the town’s musical significance by focusing on the two primary local studios—Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound….”

Syckle seems to stretch the meaning of the word a little further than Smiley does, going beyond using it to explain a statement to using it to provide a full description of a place.

Recently, I ran across the word in the 2013 book To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, by Phillip Lopate. In a chapter on James Baldwin, he quotes a long (almost two-page) paragraph from Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son.”

Then he writes, “It’s all there, in this paragraph, but it requires some unpacking: Baldwin’s sheer love of language; his intoxication with adjectives and adverbs….” And he continued to breakdown or open up Baldwin’s paragraph with his own 176-word sentence.

Smiley’s use of unpack seems to have declined somewhat of late, but he’s still at it. One recent week, for example, he used it twice: in interviews with comedian David Steinberg and actress Elizabeth Moss.

Steinberg had just mentioned why he thought having the opportunity to open for jazz musicians when he was starting out as a stand-up comedian was a good experience. Smiley’s response: “Since you went there, let me follow you in. There are a couple of things you said I want to go back to and get you to unpack.”

Moss, one of the stars of “Mad Men,” had just given a number of reasons why she had taken the lead role in the new “Top of the Lake” miniseries, when Smiley remarked, “You said a couple of things I want to go back to and kind of have you unpack for me in no particular order.”

This new-to-me use of unpack is almost visual, like the opening of a flower, carrying with it the expectation of something meaningful and truthful, something not to missed.

Photo: Shutterstock/Marcin-linfernum

A Quote on Editing from Robert Silvers

The fundamental point is that if a writer has something interesting to say, you have to ask, sentence by sentence, if it is clear as it should be or could it be clearer, while also respecting the writer’s voice and tone. You have to listen carefully to the tone of the writer’s prose and try to adapt to it, but only up to a point.

Robert Silvers is describing the essential task of an editor. He should know what he’s taking about since he is the founding editor of the New York Review of Books, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year—and he stills edits the magazine. The quote comes from a long interview with Silvers in the April 15 issue of New York magazine.

What if We Ran Out of Words?

IMG_0420I’ve been worrying about running out of words.

My worrying began recently when I read an interesting essay, “The Ghost Writes Back,” by Amy Boesky, on The Kenyon Review website. It’s about her experience ghostwriting several of the Sweet Valley High books in this series for teenaged girls—while also working on her PhD.

This long essay (just over 5,000 words) is worth reading. It’s well written. And Boesky provides insight into how someone could write these novels—sometimes as many as eight per year—while also attending classes, working as a teacher’s assistant, and writing her dissertation. She also talks about the unsettling feelings she had about being a ghostwriter and about keeping this side job a secret from her classmates, students, and teachers. And she discusses the difference between writing a dissertation that took five years and writing these breezy novels for which she could produce an entire chapter on a weekend morning.

Then, deep in the essay, she writes about a conversation she had with an acquaintance. The acquaintance said she thought that writing the books was creatively risky because, as Broesky asks in the piece, “How did I know that every word I ghost wrote wasn’t depleting my creative arsenal? What if you’re only born with so many words, and you use up the ones you’ve been allotted on writing somebody else’s stories? Then what?”

That statement floored me. What a frightening concept: to have only a specific allotment of words—the very source of writing and communication.

What if, I thought, we have only so many adjectives and adverbs, a limited supply of nouns, and a finite number of verbs, not to mention a restricted stockpile of conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections? And worse yet, what if we have only a certain number of each specific word?

I thought of only one bright side to this tragedy: My supply of the word interesting might soon run out. Interesting is my default adjective when I want to describe something as being appealing, thought provoking, or worthy of our attention. (See the second sentence of this piece.) It’s notScreen Shot 2013-04-06 at 4.27.41 PM a word I necessarily want to use often; there are many better choices. But it just pops into my head. And what’s worse, sometimes it seems to type itself, my fingers tapping the keys without my thinking.

I use this word—and interestingly, its adverbial cousin—too often in the first drafts of my writing. So much so that if I were to have only a limited number of specific words, my arsenal would surely be nearly empty of this one. When it ran dry, perhaps my writing, at least the first drafts of each piece, would be better, I thought.

But in thinking about Broesky’s statement, I knew I wouldn’t be better off if I could no longer use interesting or any other specific word. Not having a word at my disposal, even one I overuse, would be devastating.

What, I wondered, would it be like if every time I used a noun, say strategy, my overall supply of that word declined, as did my opportunities to use any other noun, since all of them share the same grammatical purpose?

How many times could I use the word strategy before running out? Perhaps half a million. Possibly just 30,000. Maybe only 4,877.

None of these amounts sounds very large, certainly not enough for a lifetime of writing. Strategy is a good word to use and there are lots of places where it fits most perfectly in a sentence. It’s not a word I’d like to lose anytime soon.

I wondered if I would have the same number of every word, or at least the same number of each word used as a verb, and maybe a different number for each noun. Verbs and nouns are key to good writing, and none of us could write long without them. So I would hope my supply would be as large as possible. But adverbs and adjectives are important, too.

If I had a limited supply of beautiful, for example, I wondered if it would be possible to exchange other words, which I value less, for this one. IScreen Shot 2013-04-06 at 4.36.47 PM know I have a larger supply of  ugly than I’ll ever need. I don’t like the word and never use it. So, would it be possible to trade in a keyboard full of this word for an equivalent amount of one I treasure more highly. If so, I wondered if the exchange rate would be the same for every word: One ugly would equal one beautiful. Or would the rate vary, with maybe a really good and useful word like communications requiring as many as five harsh and jarring words like sequestration.

Would we know—from the time we start to write, begin high school or college, or when?—that we had a limited number of specific words or parts of speech? Would we know when we were running out?

I wondered how my writing would change if I knew I had to make every word count or I might not have a particular word when I most needed it. Certainly, I’d write more carefully, more slowly, cautiously choosing my words, writing fewer drafts to avoid wasting words that no one would see, rewriting sentences to minimize using those words that I most want in my arsenal.

And I wondered how I would know when I ran out of a specific word. Would beautiful just not be there anymore?

When I put my fingers on the keyboard to start typing it, would they just not move, would they be stuck in place? Or would they automatically form another word, say alluring, an almost-good-enough synonym that would have to serve my purpose every time I try to write beautiful in the future?

When beautiful is gone, would I even be able to see it in my mind? Would I have a concept of the word anymore? Maybe it would be as if it never existed. If that were to happen, would I then not recognize it or not understand its meaning when I saw it in someone else’s writing?

I wondered, finally, how many words I would have to lose before I could no longer write, and if, after all these years, I’m getting close.