Wednesday, November 29, 2017

There Should Be Voices in Your Head

I asked my characters why they speak to each other the way they do. They said,

“We don’t think about things before we say them.”

I erased a line of exposition from a previous paragraph and told my characters, but I think about everything before I write it down.

“Do you really though?”

I added a note to the margin of a previous page, she wouldn’t really react this way.

“She may not react that way, but she’s certainly thinking about it. We know, we asked her. She whispers instead of shouting when she’s upset and you have her there on that page yelling.”

I erased the line of dialogue and wrote, she whispered his name before she turned her back. She said, “I didn’t know.” As she walked, her dress brushed the floor, emptying the silence.

“Good, that’s good. But couldn’t it always be better?”

I put my hand to my forehead and resisted the urge to bang my temple against the page, so that the words would be imprinted on my cheek in pencil and I could show everyone how hard I’ve been working.

“Don’t think about the function. Think about the lyric. Listen for the music. Picture the sound in your mind, the sentence has to breathe like stars do, right before they fade.”

She whispered his name before she turned her back. She said, “You know I’m bad at conversation. I didn’t know you would be gone in three months.” As she walked, her dress brushed the floor, emptying the silence.

“Good enough,” they said.


I believe I read somewhere that dialogue should read like poetry. Characters do not always need to speak (to the same degree that some physical humans should not always speak). Therefore, when characters do talk, I make sure that their words have significant meaning in that they themselves are telling parts of their own story. Or, I make sure that their words benefit the exposition surrounding them, that the spoken words essentially sound ‘pretty’. At least this is what I try to do. Sometimes dialogue comes more naturally and therefore becomes something I have to cut repetitively in editing due to the fact that a lot of what people say is less important than what they do. I find this to be true for most of my characters as well.

With every line of dialogue I write, I try to pay attention to the line-by-line purpose. As an example, the characters above speak directly to me instead of speaking directly to my character. They are both demanding and specific. I, both as a writer and a character, do not always say anything back. Perhaps this is an exercise in getting purpose down onto the page without all of the excess, flowery language… perhaps I am simply hearing voices. Either way, dialogue, I think, can be a fun way to play with your characters. It can be a useful tool when addressing description, setting and atmosphere. For me personally, it's a really in-depth way to practice getting inside of my characters’ minds. This should make characters unique because no two characters are exactly the same, their voices should sound different as their minds work differently. Unless, of course, you are writing a story that involves two identical minds. In that case, I applaud your approach, question your sanity, and would like to read a copy.

I find that dialogue does not always have to serve a function. Instead, it brings the words on the page to life and sounds more like a rhythm, or lyric. It’s like that last piece to the puzzle, the outer edge or corner that only fits in a certain spot and deserves a lot of practice of placement. 

Emily White is a first-year MFA student currently trying to accomplish the daunting task of completing a story. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

A Dilemma

It was during my time as undergraduate, in my first creative writing course, Intro to Creative Writing, that I learned some topics may be off-limits. Our TA, in an effort to help us come up with a story, told us to “Write what you know.” And that I did. I knocked out a 16-page short story inspired by personal events my family and I at the time were in the process, of well, processing. It was a relatable subject, something that I felt a reader could latch on to. In my effort to make those real circumstances less real and more fictive, I changed the names of every real person involved. To make sure I had a solid, error-free, fiction piece to submit to the workshop, I asked my mother, one of the “characters” who I portray in my story, to proofread my work. She gladly obliged.

Five years later, I am realizing sometimes you can’t always write what you know. But, I still do it. I find it difficult to find that balance of crafting original characters and moments in a work that does not somehow slightly taste of the very real and original people in my life. In the space of those five years as an undergraduate and now graduate, my mother has not volunteered to read a piece of my writing. The two exceptions being poems that do not refernce her. Her issue, which I failed to take into consideration, was not only the personal subject matter of the story but also her representation in it. 

Much of what I know is family. Much of what I write about is family. Within these past two years in the MFA program, I’ve been thinking about how to tackle this dilemna:

As writers, do we have free range to write on all and any transgressions/memories/experiences we are directly or indirectly involved with?
As a writer, is calling yourself a “storyteller” a liable pass to translate these intimate moments to public narrative? By doing this, am I capturing moments or exploiting particular situations and people involved?

I’m not sure entirely how to differentiate this, yet.

Maybe time makes the difference. I often find myself in it, in a scene, but it’s not really a scene, it is my life. Needless to say, I am in that particular moment and I think how the events unfolding around me would make for a great short story. I then go on to conjur up that story still present in the ongoing event. This is problematic in the sense that this is me almost certainly “living to write”.

I think this might be where we can differentiate. Maybe as long as these moments and experiences are organic and not procured by a writer intent on experiencing moments for writing material then it can be okay, no?

As a writer, I don’t want to commit forgery and write a shell of a personality. If I am going to capture those initmacies around me it is my onus to ensure I respect the personalities I am inspired by. But then who says these very real people want themselves replicateed at all? They haven’t signed their experiences and personalities away to me on loan.

By borrowing from reality, I can’t help but think that I am, at times, trivializing these experiences for my gain, for my “art”.

By changing names and avoiding truths does the retelling of these personal moments, whether fiction or nonfiction, become a façade, a plastic rendition of what was?

That sounds a bit pretentious. I’m still trying to work this out, clearly. I write what I know. And I’d like to write more of what I don’t know and have yet to experience. I’d like to write something my mother might not be concerned with. She is, after all, what I know. I’d rather not take what is not mine, but more often than not I am drawn to write what is familiar, what is close. I am still trying to figure this all out, so bear with me.

Janine Shand is a second-year MFA student studying fiction. She dabbles in prose but mainly writes fiction that reads like nonfiction. That is her dilemma.