Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Practice Makes...Better

An interesting thing happened last week. I had sent two separate stories to two separate reader-friends about a week apart, and both of them e-mailed me back within a few hours of each other. This was not even the interesting part; the interesting part was that both sets of feedback shared the compliment that I do dialogue well. These are the passages that got those compliments, so you can determine for yourself if these readers are right:

Charlotte scoffed and dropped the lighter on the overflowing coffee table. "If your nose is so keen, what the fuck are you still doing here? You haven’t gotten enough of me?"
"I just love buying you ice cream."
She sat up. "You bring me some?"
"I forgot."
She sat back. "Figures."
Jamie uncapped her pen. "Why don’t you tell me about Estella?"

"Do you have to talk about Raymond so much?"
"All I said was that he used to love this curry recipe too."
"It's like he's always on the side of your life. Like he never really moved out of your head."
"Gene. We were married for twelve years."
"Thanks for reminding me."

Of course I was grateful for the compliments, but I was as surprised as I've ever been about reader feedback. I've never thought dialogue was one of my strong points. I've always considered it a weak point, in truth, and every time I write it, I sweat over each word and revise it with an even more merciless eye than I give the rest of the prose.

The instructor for my UCLA class said at one point that he loved writing dialogue, that it was how he felt himself getting into the story while writing. I marveled at this. I don't hate doing it, but I find it so fraught. So troublesome. I'm constantly afraid I'm doing it wrong: that all the characters within a single story have the same patterns of speech, or that all the characters within all my stories have the same patterns of speech, or it's written unnaturally, or it's written too naturally, or there are too many attributions, or not enough, or something. I never, ever feel like I have the rhythm of dialogue down correctly, whereas I feel reasonably confident about the rhythm of my non-dialogue sentences.

I think this is partly because I like reading dialogue a lot less than I like reading paragraphs. But it's also because I've read so many different kinds of dialogue and yet heard so many teachers/writers say that dialogue has to be this one specific way or it doesn't work. That's contradictory, you know. In genre stories, dialogue can be expository, where in literary stories, its strict purpose is to reveal character. It can't be overly realistic to life or it won't sound right, but George Saunders and DFW write dialogue that's so weird and true and funny that I can practically hear it spoken aloud in the room when I'm reading it. It can't be in big long paragraphs, because the reader won't believe characters could talk that way, but how else can you get a character to ramble, if you need that kind of rambling or if s/he's just a rambler?

If you listen to writing teachers, dialogue seems like it's quite narrow, like it must be a specific way. And yet it can vary so staggeringly among writers. I mean, compare Jane Bowles's dialogue to Jane Austen's. Dorothy Parker's to William Faulkner's. [Read that link, it's short and funny.] Dumbledore's long wrap-up speeches in the HP books; Dan Brown's hilarious expository voicemail messages. A couple of years ago I read The Accidental Tourist, which has pages of dialogue that mostly shoots back and forth unattributed. While I admired Anne Tyler for writing such sharp, highly characteristic dialogue, I was certain I'd never write that way - both because I wouldn't enjoy reading it and because I couldn't possibly write it that well.

Yet according to these two readers of mine, I'm doing something right with my dialogue. And here's the point [at long last]: if I'm doing something right, it's because I've forced myself to write dialogue for years, methodically, one word after another, revising its knickers off. I've pounded away at it and approached it like it's a weak point rather than with easy confidence. This is what interests me about this whole incident - that I've practiced at something having to do with writing and have gotten better at it in a way that can be measured. Even though I don't think I wrote dialogue well in years past and don't think I do it particularly well now, I've never had compliments on it before. That shows me that something is different, and I think the something is that I've had a lot of practice.

Which - I don't know if you've heard - supposedly "makes perfect." Uh huh.

None of this is related to the post above.
I Google Image-searched "practice makes perfect" in the hope of finding a snarky retort to the aphorism. This image, which is available on t-shirts, shot glasses, and other flotsam from Cafepress, kind of blew me away, because it contradicts its own corny-ass (and really quite defeatist!) message with such precision that I couldn't have done it more tidily if I'd intended to. (If you're not a copy editor by nature, look at the word "practice" a little more carefully...) The font choices and the person's other merchandise make me think that this was not an ironical choice,
but oh, it should have been. 

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