What Sculpture Taught Me about Writing Dialogue

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(Photo via Good Free Photos)

The town I live in goes in for public art in a big way, which is very nice except that the piece of public art nearest my home is a statue I don’t like.  Actually, it’s a statue I hate.  This statue is—unusually, these days—representational, and I like representational art.  I should like this statue.  Instead, it evokes an active loathing in my soul.

My daughter—who’s an artist—would probably tell me that this very loathing is the proof that, as a work of art, the statue is a success.  The principal function of art, she tells me, is to make people uncomfortable.  (I think that’s what she said.)  Whether that’s true or not, this statue that I hate has been useful to me.  It’s helped me to write better dialogue.

The statue is of a young woman who looks like she might be waiting for something.  I’ve always assumed she was waiting for a bus because a) the statue is positioned at a bus-stop; and b) she looks a little bored.  Not a lot bored; just a little.  It’s life-sized, which means the young woman is taller than I am because almost everybody is, and she’s dressed very casually in jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie with the hood down and resting on her shoulders.  A light breeze stirs her hair.  Her head is turned slightly to the side, and she stares down the road, watching passively for the bus, which on this particular route runs every hour, seven days a week, except on Christmas and New Year’s when the buses in this town don’t run at all.  Every detail of her face and clothing (her hands are concealed in her pockets) is absolutely correct and in perfect proportion.  Even the aglets on the ends of her shoelaces are visible.  She looks, in short, exactly like a slightly bored young woman of between 18 and, say, 25; casually dressed; who is waiting for a bus—and who has been dipped in bronze.

I’ve lived here for sixteen years, which means (if I’ve done the math right, and allowing for days off) that I’ve driven by the Statue I Don’t Like at least 4000 times on my way to work.  I’ve loathed it every time.  But sometime about viewing #2847, I realized why I didn’t like it; and that the statue had a lesson to teach.

I used to spend a lot of time trying to make characters in my books converse with each other in a way that I considered to be absolutely true-to-life.  Grammar, vocabulary, idiom—I wanted them all exactly those of real people.  Nobody popping off an “oh, very well” in my books, when nobody in real life has said “oh, very well” for a hundred years.  No siree.  And the dialogue I produced that way was the literary equivalent of Bronze Bus-Watcher.  Go to any bus-station and see her equivalent in the flesh; listen to the conversations going on around you and hear my characters’ dialogue.

So when it comes to statuary and dialogue, I conclude, true-to-life is overrated.  True-to-life is an undistinguished young woman rendered faithfully but soullessly in bronze.  Good dialogue—not the stuff I write; but I’m working on it—is Michelangelo’s David.  One hand is bigger than the other, and his eyes don’t track; but you certainly can’t go down to any old bus-stop and see him.

I’m working now on making dialogue that is untrue to life; but, I hope, more revelatory of my characters’ souls.  I’m big into baring souls.  Souls are more interesting to me than even plots—which is saying quite a lot.  This new way is hard for me; but I like it.  I can make my characters say anything I want them too now, even if it’s something nobody in “real life” ever has said, or would.

So far, they have never wanted to say, “Oh, very well.”

Religiousness

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My mother didn’t give me a lot of useful advice.  That is, she gave me plenty of advice—but it wasn’t necessarily useful.  She told me not to put bananas in the refrigerator (which was good to know), but also that white shoes and straw hats must not be worn after Labor Day, and furthermore that one’s shoes must always be darker than one’s hemline.  I have no quarrel with the white shoes/hemline things because I never wear white; but Mom also informed me that a lady never wears diamonds before 4 pm, or a wristwatch after, which means that a lady who is lucky enough to have scored a diamond-studded Rolex can never wear it.  My mother wasn’t young when I was born—she was the age of most of my friends’ grandmothers—and I think some of her dicta may have been a wee bit out of date.  Anyway, I’m a woman, not a lady, and stand on my right to do as I please with regard to diamonds.

I am, however, in perfect agreement with her about one thing:  Religion and politics are not good topics for social conversation.

This conviction makes it just a little bit awkward for me that the third and final question that my English-language students almost invariably ask me is, “Why are Americans so religious?”

I say “almost,” because in fact, the Asian students I’ve interacted with never ask this.  What they know of American culture is what’s penetrated the filter of their own home-culture; and American religion mostly doesn’t penetrate the filter.  They see American-style Christianity all around them, and don’t recognize it.  An Asian student who had been in America for four years was amazed to discover that the figures in the Christmas crèche represented The Holy Family, rather than just “a family.”  It’s the European students who are curious about American religion.

The reasons Americans appear to be more religious than Europeans (I don’t quite concede that they actually are more religious, but they may seem that way) are many and varied, and since I love history and particularly the history of my own country, I think I could probably expatiate on them for several hours.

But I don’t.

For one thing, these are students of biochemistry, not history, and a lecture like that would bore them to death.  For another, to talk about religion at all would be as unsuitable as to wear that lovely fancy diamond-studded Rolex watch that I don’t own either before or, regrettably, even after four in the afternoon.

But it would be rude not to answer them at all, so I just look ‘em in the eye and I say, “Americans are religious because our country was founded by the people YOU drove out of your country for being too religious.

“Now, let’s get back to the proper use of the passive voice, shall we?”

I Must Show out a Flag and Sign of Love

flg_medOnce the international students that I tutor are satisfied that they understand why Americans eat so much meat (because we can!), they start asking me harder questions. And by harder, I mean things that are even trickier to answer than whether the entire English language contains even one verb that isn’t, in some way, irregular (answer: “ah—define irregular”). These are bright, educated, and very thoughtful young people, and their questions are deeply reasoned, and felt. They’re also quite varied (only the one about meat is of near-universal interest), but there are two others besides the one about meat that come up repeatedly.

One is why Americans are so enthusiastically, openly, obviously, and even (let’s face it) sometimes almost comically patriotic (“U-S-A!  U-S-A!”), and at the same time, so hypercritical of their country?

The first fifty times I was asked this, I really had no answer to give. I wasn’t even willing to concede that the inferences of the question were true. World-wide, I’d usually counter, most people love their native land. They love it the same way they love their mother; which is to say, a lot, and despite all her faults and failings, to which they are not blind. It’s just natural. Americans aren’t unique in this regard.

But I travel quite a bit (mostly in Europe), and I’ve even lived abroad; and after a while I came to the conclusion that the students had a point. (This is why I love it when the students ask me questions. I learn so much that way!) Go to a window in almost any European country and look out, and count the national flags that you see. Unless your room overlooks a souvenir shop, or it happens to be a national holiday, you won’t see many. But in the US, nearly every public building and many private homes fly the American flag every day. Cars sport window-flags, and patriotic bumper-stickers; houses are furnished with star-spangled throw-pillows and the birds in the garden are offered wooden replicas of the Statue of Liberty to nest in (I desperately want one of those; either that, or an Uncle Sam whirligig). I lived for years in a city where the local symphony orchestra—no matter what else was on the program—began every performance with a rendition of the national anthem.

It’s not that I haven’t seen comparable patriotic displays in other countries. I have. But not so many.

The conclusion that I’ve come to about all this is very much like the one I arrived at regarding the American passion for Meat. Our patriotism isn’t genetic, exactly. But it has been passed down through the generations.

The international students who are amazed by our flag-worship are the offspring of generations of people who, overall, had pretty good lives in their native countries. People who have it good someplace stay there. Nobody forsakes everything and goes off to live in a foreign country to do menial work and struggle with the irregular verbs of a new language on a whim.

Americans are the children of people who didn’t have it so good in the Old Country. People for whom America represented a chance—possibly the only chance—for a significant improvement in their quality of life. Consequently they were predisposed to like America before they had even arrived; and if they did prosper, and stayed and raised families here (thirty to fifty percent—depending on which source you read—of those who arrived on the immigrant ships went back home again), they taught their children that America was a great place, entirely worthy of incessant flag-waving, laudatory speeches and “Proud to Be an American” bumper-stickers which, unless you’re a naturalized citizen, make no sense whatever. (Your parents may be proud of their foresight in choosing to give birth to you in American; but, as a fetus, you yourself had little or no say in the decision.)

I don’t need to say any more than this to them before the international students tell me they suddenly understand why Americans are both hyper-patriotic and yet also very critical of their country. No country, they speculate, could possibly continue for subsequent generations to live up to the rosy picture of it painted for them by their parents and grandparents, who had exchanged a bleak existence for one full of promise.

Either that, or it’s something in American water. I lived abroad for two years. I loved every moment of it, and my existence throughout was anything but bleak. Yet I couldn’t wait to get back, fly the flag, eat a hot dog, and I always get a lump in my throat when a band plays the national anthem.

Where’s the Beef?

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I don’t know what they’re teaching young people in other countries about American culture, but whatever it is, I think it must be wrong. The international students that I tutor all appear to be suffering from a high degree of culture-shock. As soon as I’ve worked with them just long enough that they’ve begun to feel comfortable with me (which, coincidentally, is just about the time that I introduce them to the indicative perfect, “have begun”) they announce that America is not at all what they expected it to be, and the questions start pouring out.

These questions, like the students’ difficulties with English verbs, are specific to their particular home cultures. Students from more authoritarian countries want to know why Americans are so lawless; the ones from the Netherlands ask me why Americans are so excessively law-abiding. Honestly, that one makes me wonder how the Netherlands even continues to exist. A lot of them are stunned to find out—often the hard way—that things like the “No Parking” signs around campus are meant to be taken seriously. I’m asked the same things over and over again, year after year, except that in the past decade the sheepish inquiries about how Americans signal sexual attraction have really tapered off. I guess I must look too old now to be a good source of information on that topic.

There are three things about Americans that all of the students, from every culture, want to know—and one thing that only one student has ever wanted to know, which was if I was afraid of Mormons. Yes, Mormons; and yes, afraid. Never did figure out where that came from.

Anyway—as I mentioned, there are three characteristics of American culture that preoccupy all my tutees, and the first one is:

Why do Americans eat so much meat?

So far I’ve been asked this question 4,652 times, and never once, as far as I can tell, in a disapproving manner. In fact, the point is most apt to be raised at one of the semi-annual lab barbeques my husband and I host at our house, where the foreign students watch, awestricken and envious, as the Americans heap their plates with beef, pork, and chicken, and afterwards never have to wonder whether they made the right choice among the meats.

“How do they do it?” the international students ask, and the correct answer to this question (which I supply) is that it’s genetic. America was settled by people who loved meat, and we are their descendants. If you have ever read—as I have—the letters early immigrants wrote back to their various Old Countries, you will have noticed—as I have—that aside from a little family news, they’re simply catalogues of Meat the Said Immigrants Have Eaten; Meat They Are Currently Chewing; and Meat They Happily Anticipate Eating Very Soon. It’s like a sick obsession. Meat was apparently available in American in a way that it just wasn’t elsewhere; and meat-lovers couldn’t stop talking about how good—in regard to meat, at least—they had it here.

And then those letters motivated other meat-lovers to immigrate to America too; and pretty soon the whole continent was filled up with humanity’s most avid carnivores.

(I also tell the students that quite a lot of the meat the immigrants bragged about eating was game that they’d shot themselves, which probably goes a long way toward explaining why Americans are gun-crazy, too.)

The next time I write a novel about early America, I’m going to put a lot more hunting and meat-eating into it to provide that nice little touch of historical veracity that divides the ordinary historical work from the one an editor is going to demand big changes to. Editors are not interested in history; they are interested in sales. I wrote a novel once about the 1830s wife of a Congregationalist minister, and an editor informed me that the book was basically great, but would be much more commercial if she wasn’t religious. I’m not bitter or anything, but this is why I self-publish.

After we’ve dealt with the meat issue, the students and I then move on to the two other burning questions they all have about America; but I’ll leave those for another time.  The only thing I’ll say for now is that, happily, questions two and three have nothing to do with food.

Simplify, Simplify

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Sometimes when I need cheering up, I remind myself that I’m one of the lucky few in this world who is able to make my living doing what I love—writing.

Of course, it’s stretching a point to refer to what I make as a “living”; and it’s also not absolutely true that, in the course of an average working day, I actually get to write very much.  Mostly my job consists of re-writing what other people have written.  I also fill out a lot of paperwork, because much paperwork must be filled out before anything, from a major scientific breakthrough to changing a lightbulb, can take place at a university.  But still, I like my job, and I wouldn’t change it for anything that paid less than three times as well.

Okay; two times as well.

I work with biochemists (and biochemistry trainees), and, as I think I’ve mentioned, I’m also married to a biochemist, so I think I may state with some authority that the reputation biochemists have for being highly intelligent beings is generally well-deserved.  Their reputation for being incurably nerdy and somewhat absent-minded is also well-deserved; but I’m not going to get into that now.  My point is that they’re as bright a group of people as you will ever find, and like most really intelligent people, they usually write pretty well.

But as English becomes, more and more, the international language of science (and I think it could be argued that it is becoming simply the international language), a new, sub-dialect of Scientific English is evolving, and part of my job—my favorite part—is to translate regular Scientific English into this new dialect.

I learned this dialect in part by doing another of my little jobs around the lab, which is to correct the written English of the international students.

The difficulties the students have are specific to their nationalities.  Chinese students have terrible problems with verbs.  In speaking, some of them actually try to avoid them altogether (not recommended), or consistently use a single, particular verb-form—usually, for some reason, the present participle.  Nearly all of them have trouble distinguishing between an actual verb and a noun derived from a verb.  I let “we mixing the reagents,” or “I rotation the test-tube,” pass in conversation, but when the students bring me drafts of scientific papers they intend to submit, I know I have a duty to do.  Luckily, clarity is everything in a scientific paper, and style is nothing, so I’ve decided the Chinese students can live without the pluperfect.

Europeans have difficulties understanding the fine differences in meaning conveyed by the use of the definite rather than the indefinite article; students from the Middle East resist using articles at all.  “Such thing have no purpose,” an Iranian gravely informed me.  (She had trouble with her verb endings, too.)  The entire French nation apparently nurses a stubborn conviction that the word “information” should be plural.  “This informations was new to the investigator,” French students blithely write; and then they resist me when I demand that they change it.  (I avoid arguments by endorsing the use of alternate terms, such as “fact”.)  To a Russian, a double negative makes, not a positive, but a particularly emphatic negative.  (Russians also like the word “informations” a lot, though not as much as the French.)  All of them mistake slang for Standard English, which gives their papers a casual breeziness that reviewers absolutely hate.

Then after I’ve worked on the international students’ papers, I take what I’ve learned and apply it to the scientific papers written by the lab’s native speakers of English.  World-wide, many scientific journals are now published in English only.  Consequently it’s necessary, when writing papers for submission to these journals, to keep in mind that English isn’t the first language of most of the people who will read it.  Years ago, when I first started at the university, I combed draft papers principally for slang, idiom, and (in those pre-Spell-Check days) typos.  Now I flag unusual words, and simplify complex grammatical structures for the benefit of non-native speakers.

I haven’t quite resigned myself to changing my own writing style, though.  I probably should.  With the decline of the corner bookstore and the rise of Amazon-style world-wide book distribution, the more generally comprehensible a book’s style and vocabulary, the more likely it will be widely read.  Unlike many other writers, I have the experience necessary to take advantage of this.

I’ve been thinking, in fact, that given that there are over one and a half billion people in China, I should probably write specifically for the Chinese market.  I’ll write a book with a suitably Socialist plot—comrade gets girl; comrade studies Mao’s aphorisms with girl; comrade loses girl—and without any verbs at all.  It’ll be a smash.