Have you ever wished, after a good long talk, you had thought to record it? There’s a specific quality to the way we express ourselves in conversation, to the spacing and timing of what gets said, when, and how. In fiction it is always a wonder to read a conversation and have it ring true. As a writer it’s always a prayer, more than a hope with just a little hint of desperation beneath it, that we’ll be able to manage it, at least a little bit, and get something down with that ebb and flow, with the twists and turns, with the unpredictability of conversation.
Talking about writing this noon with a good friend and careful reader – and solid writer too! We talked about the conversations involved in writing fiction.
There are, before we get to any dialogue within the work, conversations implicit in the act of writing itself. A writer is “talking to herself” in every keystroke or scratch of a pen on paper. There is, whether we realize it at the time or not, a reader we are aiming our words at. Either, as the old adage goes, we “Write as if talking to one particular person.” Or, we have a more general idea, akin to scanning the crowd while giving a speech, settling first here and then there as we pause for emphasis. Sometimes we write intimately, sometimes publicly. Each form has its own rhythms and ticks, its strengths and pitfalls.
Beyond the broad and, while useful, rather generic advice this insight offers us, there are depths and nuances available to be explored. Is one’s writing an exploration or an exposition? That is a question related to who we are conversing with and how we do it.
In a conversation, as opposed to an exposition, there is a meander to the path. It proceeds in its own fashion and “getting to the point!” may not be the point at all. How it actually unfolds may be more significant than what gets told. To use a bit of writer’s jargon, “It makes it harder to tell what’s scaffolding and what’s the story, dammit!”
A conversation is not the passing of information. It’s also not one person entertaining another – though there might be loads of entertaining going on. If it is too lopsided it’s a performance not a conversation. A conversation may be a negotiation, a battleground or marketplace for competing agendas. It can also be a dialogue, with a capital D. An opportunity for two or more people to discover meaning somewhere between “in here” and “out there.”
Some conversations are genial. Some are hostile. Some appear to be one on the surface, but are actually the other in retrospect, or something else entirely!
Projection. It’s not just in the movies! As a writer I project an intention on the words that flow through me. This is mediated through editing and reconsideration. This builds up a certain “authority.” We come to expect the writer, “Knows what they’re talking about!” Then sometimes they don’t. Then sometimes they do, but a particular reader – or an entire generation of readers – doesn’t “get it!” Sometimes the projections readers bring to the work enhance it, other times they act as a wall and enforce what could be termed a “willful misunderstanding.”
The tone of the conversation between the writer and the reader may be said to be set by the writer, though this just might be a bit too ambitious a claim! But there is a common sense, there at least may have been at one time, that a certain type of reader comes to a work with a suspension of judgment in the hopes of finding what they realize they might not have known they wanted. In that case, the writer does have the initiative to set this tone. Though the reader holds the ultimate trump; closing the cover, looking away, moving into solitude or another conversation with someone, anyone else….
The writer’s tone may be inviting, solicitous, polite, welcoming, or open. Or it may be garrulous or argumentative. There can be such a rush of imagery or verbiage, either eloquent or ham-fisted, that it draws us in as it also works to push us away, even to repel. There is a certain strain of masochism in writing, and in reading….
All this is the “space” within a conversation. Is it claustrophobic? Does the writer have an odd sense of “personal space?” We have come to expect that! Reading lends itself to the conspiratorial, the confessional, the intimate seduction.
The most obvious bit that distinguishes conversation from any other form of speech just might be the level of elision it can tolerate. Conversation strives on elision. Conversation flies on the wings of elision, buoyed by lightness, by what has been left out!
Some of this, in life, is made possible by our reading body language, gesture, and making eye contact. These carry so much of what we have to “say” to each other. These; along with the energy that arises as two people speak and listen and interact with each other; create something akin to mind-reading.
This might actually be more than just a figure of speech! I do believe that our selves are transmitters and receivers of both form and meaning, and that a significant portion of this occurs in what may be called a “meeting of the minds.” This can and does occur in conversation. And it is fed by, and feeds off, the elisions that can stand-in for the glide, the swoop, the rush of minds meeting.
There are turning points in conversation. Some are “telling.” That is, they mark a point of transition. They stimulate and punctuate changes that cannot be undone. Telling is both a telling of a story and an envelopment within its sweep, of an energy that takes us somewhere.
The telling moment, whether an action or a conversation, takes characters, narrators, the entire edifice of a work of fiction and marks its arrival at its conclusion. The point at which we simultaneously, or in quick succession and possibly stroboscopic alternation, have a recognition of what’s transpired and a sense that this has changed “everything.”
From beyond this watershed we can see the outlines of how we arrived here. And looking ahead, more looking beyond the story than perhaps within it, this point is often the climax and “end” of a story, no matter how much business might follow to complete it’s frame. From there on we are transformed.
This happens to the writer and to the reader. Each in a different way, but there is some transference between the two. There are mirrorings that occur. The sense of discovery and the sense of sharing in the experience, however fictional and vicarious for the reader – and the writer too! No matter how caught up in authorial ownership he might be! – This sense of discovery joins us together. It is a true experience of community. Within fiction or in actual life, conversation joins us.