triplets, triptychs, trinities

My high school English teacher had assigned Lord Jim as my reading and term paper project in my senior year. That turned out to be a watershed moment in my (eventual) creative life because it introduced me to Joseph Conrad, whose novels I’ve read throughout the ensuing decades. Some I’ve read more than once. Lord Jim I’ve read thrice. (Maybe more. I wasn’t keeping good records in my callow youth.)

When my reading turned to Philip Roth, and I read some of his nonfiction, he discussed the influence Conrad had on his own writing and teaching. What I specifically remember was his respect for Conrad’s use of threes in a sentence: three examples, three clauses, three points.

I had long noticed by that time that I was commonly using threes in the sentences I wrote, and I was delighted to learn their apparent influence from my extensive reading of Joseph Conrad. Normally I don’t want to know too much about my creative process since I fear familiarity will lead to analysis, which would slay creativity. (Have I really been writing this blog for more than a decade?)

So here is a sentence I recently wrote for a story I’m working on (with the apt title “Three Small Words”*):

“Nonetheless, he wanted to find some moment, some event, some thing in the past that could be blamed and attacked and conquered rather than admit that his father had been mortal all along, was now simply getting old, and had a limited number of days as all men do.”

By my count, there are three incidents of threes in that sentence. I did not do this consciously; it just rose from the murk of my creative subconscious and flowed through my fingers onto the keyboard and then onto the screen.

I realize that it may be one of those darlings you’re supposed to kill, and that my yet happen since I’m only in the first draft stage.

But for the present I’m going to wallow in the perceived influence of Joseph Conrad.

*The three small words in the story are “Don’t tell Mom,” and an argument in the story is conducted with a series of three-word sentences, but the title harkens to some other threes in One-Match Fire including the three notes of the whippoorwill and the words “I love you,” a feeling that permeates that novel in many unspoken ways, so the whippoorwill is given the job of saying it.

Explore posts in the same categories: Humble efforts, Process

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2 Comments on “triplets, triptychs, trinities”


  1. I learned in poet school that people think in threes. Recently one of my academic friends told me that putting a list of three in a cover letter is considered bad because it becomes a rhythm that is easy to ignore. I think academics should read more poetry.

  2. markparis Says:

    This reminds me of the practice in English law of using two words that mean the same thing of close to the same thing (cease and desist, terms and conditions, have and hold). I think it originated in the transition from Germanic or Anglo-Saxon language to one influenced by the Norman conquest.


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