Night Bloom : Composing Dialogue

“When I first encountered Mary Cappello’s work, I was knocked out by her original voice, the juxtaposition of its fierceness and elegance, its brutality and gentleness, its sensuousness and intelligence. She’s a writer whose debut memoir you can’t miss; she’s a writer you’ll tell all your friends about, as I did.”

“…one needs to distinguish between transcription and writing, and one learns by experience that transcribing a dialogue is NOT the same as writing a dialogue…Have you ever fallen in love with someone because of their relationship to language? Is love, in fact, possibly based on a shared desire in language, a shared relationship TO language?… perhaps one shouldn’t proceed in creating dialogue until one has considered what a character’s relationship to language is…I think it is important to find resources where one least expects them…all writing is dialogical, and writing at its best makes new conversation possible…”

Questions posed by URI Alum, Lisa Lombardo, URI undergrad, for a class that she was taking:

1. What struggles have you encountered with dialogue as a writer? What struggles have you encountered with dialogue as a teacher? What similarities and/or differences have you noticed between your own struggles and those of your students?

2. Many grammar handbooks and style guides refer students to sections about direct quotations when seeking information about dialogue. What risks do writers/student writers face in having limited information available about dialogue?

3. What advice do you offer to your students about dialogue?

4. Please include resources and/or information (used in the classroom or in your own writing) about dialogue.

Cappello’s Answers:

Lisa: After I started to answer the questions I realized they started to overlap, so I hope it is ok if I give you this treatise (!) on dialogue by way, I think, of answering all four questions more or less. I’m sure you didn’t expect anything too terribly straightforward from me, so you’ll understand. Let me know what you come up with. I’m sure I could learn from your final paper because dialogue, as you’ll see in my answers, isn’t something that I myself have mastered as a writer. All best as ever, Prof Cappello

First let me say that I actually don’t find myself writing a great deal of dialogue mainly because of the genre that I work in–poetry; prose poetry; literary nonfiction; and experimental prose. In other words, these genres really don’t demand or require dialogue in the ways that, for example, fiction writing or playwriting do. I DO however find, on occasion, the necessity to incorporate dialogue in my non-fiction, and I have tried (and I think, failed) to write fiction–maybe my perceived “failure” partly has to do in fact with a lack of mastery of dialogue. I have to say that I find writing dialogue to be very difficult, and I also don’t think I’m very good at it! This doesn’t mean that I don’t have lots of ideas about it, and that’s what I’ll try to share here.

Dialogue became an issue for me most especially in my second book of nonfiction, a kind of extended prose poem with narrative interludes on the forms that friendship might take between a gay man and a lesbian. One of my aims here was to create a double-portrait of sorts, and, because I was keen to be as accurate as possible about the details of my friend’s life–his stories, his history, etc.–I made hours and hours of tapes literally “in dialogue” with him. I “studied” these tapes, almost in the way a painter might work from a photograph of a landscape, and then worked imaginatively with them in my book. But there were places were I thought it might be important literally to transcribe the dialogue we had with each other. I mention this in answer to your first question because I think it points to a real error on the part of writers, and one that they should avoid: i.e., one needs to distinguish between transcription and writing, and one learns by experience that transcribing a dialogue is NOT the same as writing a dialogue. What do I mean by this? Whenever I have attempted to work transcriptively with dialogue, I could see that the results were flat, unexpectedly unconvincing, and dull. While it certainly behooves a writer to listen deeply, carefully and well to dialogues in the “real world,” the act of creating dialogue, I want to say, is never merely transcriptive. The “dialogue” in a piece of writing has, after all, to be part of a weave, a tone, a set of weights and balances, a world already in motion (the work of art), and I would argue, therefore that for dialogue to be successful, it has to be part and parcel of the work, almost like an embedded, inlaid piece.

Of course this leaves the writer in the position of making numerous choices as s/he constructs dialogue: should the dialogue appear in a bare form, unsurrounded by description, or should the writer contextualize the dialogue with the gestures that accompany it, the acts, even a description of the tone. This leads to the idea of the “staged” or dramatic nature of dialogue–in my understanding of it, writers, when they are working with dialogue, almost need to think like dramatists.

Getting back to my own struggles with dialogue: I think that when I have used it, and I use it sparingly, it has worked well, but there have also been occasions when I find my recreation of dialogue to be simultaneously stiff and overly jaunty. My students have similar and different problems with it, though I must say that some students, for whatever reason, show a “knack” for dialogue, and when that happens I am very impressed (recall my own difficulty). On the other hand, student writers sometimes present dialogue that simply takes up space on the page, and I find there’s nothing less interesting than being presented with a story nine-tenths of which is made up of thoroughly uninteresting dialogue (I think what is happening in such cases is that the student writer thinks that in order for the story to exist, it NEEDS to have dialogue, and in these cases the dialogue fails because there really isn’t anything larger, greater, or more specific driving the inclusion of dialogue in the work.)

I have many friends who are accomplished writers and with one in particular, I’ve discussed the problem of unconvincing dialogue. I mention this here because I think it suggests a particular challenge/struggle that students might try to look out for: it’s the simple problem of having created a character and then giving that character words that they simply would never say. So, my friend and I have talked about the problem of his characters sounding like him rather than like themselves if that makes sense. This leads me to offer a set of approaches I might take to helping students with dialogue:

What is the character’s relationship with/to language? It seems to me that a great deal could be learned both about writing and about life if students ask themselves this question, in fact, if they ask, as well, what is their own relationship to language. What I mean by this are things like: are you quiet or talkative? expressive in some situations and not in others? do you invent words, phrases, concepts? do you love language or are you indifferent to it? does language frustrate or excite you or both? do you use language or rely on other resources in tough situations? Have you ever fallen in love with someone because of their relationship to language? Is love, in fact, possibly based on a shared desire in language, a shared relationship TO language? It would be possible to generate pages of questions like this, and answering them could be extremely instructive. To put it simply: perhaps one shouldn’t proceed in creating dialogue until one has considered what a character’s relationship to language is.

What is your aesthetic as a writer? I really don’t think that a student writer should be presented with rules for writing dialogue (even if this might enable the development of a skill) without their also figuring out for themselves what kind of writing they want to produce. For example, dialogue in Henry James is different from dialogue in Samuel Beckett which is different from dialogue in Gertrude Stein. I have two recommendations here: that students study as many models of writing dialogue that they can get their hands on, and that they figure out for themselves what form dialogue should take based on their own aesthetic principles. Dialogue, in other words, shouldn’t be conceptualized as something separate from the larger principles of the writing. James’ aesthetic changed over time, of course, but for the most part his interest in constructing inner life in dialogue led to dialogues filled with ellipses and lacunae–gaps, fissures, unsaid words. Thus in a story by Henry James, one often feels that one is an interloper in a dialogue that never makes total sense to the reader because its purpose is to establish an intersubjective intimacy between the characters. On the other hand, and at the same time, James was interested in the relation between speech and manners–received idioms and their possible reappropriations. James’ The Awkward Age is a novel entirely in dialogue it seems, but one that a reader is hard-pressed to decipher. I’ve written a lot about this book, and I’ll include a paragraph at the end of this set of answers that clarifies the problems, really interesting ones, that are operating in James’ characters’ relationship to their words. So, getting back to my point: a person can’t be told, “this is how to write dialogue,” and proceed from there. The student writer needs to begin to think about what status dialogue will have in his/her work, what form it will take vis a vis the aesthetic premises of his/her writing (does the writer want to be a social realist? Does she want to strive for mimesis or invention? What idea of character drives the work? How might this influence the form that dialogue will take?)

Student writers need to begin to take notice of the forms that dialogue takes–to listen deeply and therefore not take for granted any interpersonal exchange, but they might want, like the pianist and composer Glenn Gould, not only to listen for what people say, but how they say it, and the rhythms, volumes, musics of dialogue.

I’ll make three final suggestions and then close with a meta-meditation on this really big set of questions that you’ve posed:

*I always believe in beginning at the beginning: in other words, rather than assume that we know what we’re doing from the start, I recommend that we go back, far back to the beginning before we begin (sorry to be so redundant): thus, it might be useful for a student writer, before creating dialogue, really to do some thinking about just WHAT dialogue is. How do we know when we’re in the presence of a dialogue rather than a monologue? What is the etymology of dialogue? Could knowing this inform the kind of dialogue a student writer might create? What’s the difference between a dialogue, a conversation and a discussion?

*In an Advanced Creative Writing class, I once taught Mike Leigh’s film, a kind of stageplay on film, Abigail’s Party most especially for the dialogue. What I wanted students to see by way of Leigh’s model was the extraordinary tightness of the dialogue (not a word wasted, to each character his own idiom, and all of it brilliantly orchestrated toward an explosive end.)

*More recently, not in a Creative Writing class but in a course on James Baldwin and Charles Chesnutt, we were reading a book by Michel Foucault entitled Fearless Speech. I mention this book because I think it is important to find resources where one least expects them. In other words, sure it makes sense to read lots of fiction writers and see how they create dialogue, but I think that one can learn to write dialogue and have a more inventive relation to it but studying philosophical and other kinds of texts as well. So: Foucault’s book is about the forms that truth-telling took in ancient Greek culture, and in later democratically structured societies, and one of the things he elaborates and foregrounds is the role dialogue has in truth-telling (one thinks immediately of the Socratic dialogues). My point is that it could really be interesting and instructive to read the parts of Foucault’s book that focus on dialogues and to study those dialogues for the kind of relation to truth and knowledge that the particular dialogue establishes. If a dialogue is structured around questions, what kind of questions are posed, and what kind of knowledge or truth can be solicited given the particular kind of questions asked. I realize this might sound abstract if you don’t know the book by Foucault, but the point is something like this: the questions a doctor asks are different than those a mother asks a child are different from those a teacher asks a student are different from those a stranger on a long bus trip asks the stranger sitting beside him are different from the questions a mere mortal asks the oracle, etc. What is the relation to questions, truth, and knowledge that a writer wants to establish between the speakers in his/her text?

A meta-point that might not seem to have to do with the practical question of how to write dialogue, but that I think is important nevertheless, and related: My final point is that all writing is dialogical, and writing at its best makes new conversation possible. Too often student writers conceive of writing and reading as self-contained, isolated, sequestered and sequestering experiences. Too often the novice writer (especially in the US) thinks s/he is writing from his/her heart all that s/he knows, free of influences: in other words, rarely do we begin by acknowledging what our writing is in conversation with. If all writing is always already in conversation with other texts, other discourses, I always say why not purposefully, carefully, responsibly choose the text, discourse, etc. that you wish as a writer literally to be in conversation with and work from there? I think that new possibilities emerge when student writers try to do this, and the resulting writing is more potentially progressive in the sense of ethical in the sense of cognizant of traditions already in place that one need not have a slavish relationship to but which, in concert and conversation, one can recast, rewrite, renew, etc.

I wish I could share with you writing experiments for helping student writers create dialogue, but you’ve made me realize that I don’t teach dialogue-writing very often because it isn’t as central to poetry writing and nonfiction prose as it is to fiction writing. Thanks for getting me to think about this, and I really hope something here is useful for your project.