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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Writerly Talk/Real Talk

I've never read the DaVinci Code, but I listened to as much as I could stand on a CD once. (I know some people love that book, but it just seemed silly to me. I skipped to the last CD and when I got to the surprise ending, I howled with laughter. Talk about marrying the boss's daughter!)

The Novel of Ideas is especially prone to this kind of goofy talk because the author is concerned with getting across an ideology . The characters are tokens representing opposing viewpoints, each of which must be aired fully and articulately. The DaVinci Code, as I recall, was a series of scenes in which our heroes run to some expert or other, who fills them in on a lot of background and exposition, delivered as a page of unbroken talky-talk before hustling them off to the next expert down the line so they can hear another page-full of exposition from him.

The rest of us who aren't proving a point but merely trying to tell a story do a little better, but not much. My problem is when I write dialogue, I'm trying to get somewhere. Something must be revealed, an agreement struck, friendship or enemyship consolodated, something. I can't allow conversation to follow the meandering course of real life. (Actually, "meandering" implies too much of a destination. "Puddling" is more like it.)

To start with, so much of our daily talk has no meaning; this is called phatic discourse. "How are you?" "Fine." What is really means is "I acknowledge your presence as a human being." Being mildly LD, I sometimes screw up this simple exchange. I muddle "How're you," and "How's it going?" and bust out with, "How're you going?" This doesn't even make sense; nevertheless, my interlocutor responds, "Fine." He wasn't even listening.

It's tempting to say that in writerly conversations, people talk about something, but that's not the case. They talk to it. In real life we talk about things, circling them, crossing and recrossing our steps, returning to them, and leaving them again, but not for long. In writerly conversation, people speak in full sentences and come to complete stops. Once a point is established, it is not repeated. In real conversations, repetition is the norm, and rare is the sentence that gets finished. Instead, one speaker trails off, inviting the other speaker to jump in. And if you can't think of something dandy of your own to say, it's perfectly kosher to repeat something from the other guy. But I'm repeating myself.

Here, as well as I can reconstruct it, is part of a delightful conversation Nancy and I had about The Godfather.

"...Diane Keaton isn't what... It's a life he imagines for himself... the waspy white..."

"Yes, yes, I know what you mean, a better wife for him would be an Italian like his mother..."

"Like that Italian girl he marries in Sicily."

"Right. But Diane Keaton is what he thinks..."

"Right. For the perfect... Zoe! Good girl! Sit!"

That's not exactly how it went, but you get the idea. The reason for the last part is we were walking the dog, and Nancy had to put Zoe's leash back on. Real conversation is even more amorphous, tangential, and fragmented.

I couldn't stand duplicating real conversation with its pointless phatic ritual and endless rambling, but could I make my writerly dialogue a little more like the real thing?


It's certainly worth discussing.

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