Sunday, September 9, 2012

I Dream of Genie, out of the Bottle


Conversation is the sharing of opinions, information, and observations with a range of acquaintances ranging from family, intimate friends, and work associates to complete strangers.  The tone may in appropriate degree, range from formal and guarded to close, even intimate. 

At one time, in an earlier stage of your ongoing attempts to acquire skills in the writing craft, you were of the belief that a direct relationship existed between conversation and dialogue. 

Painful as it is to recall now, you even went to the extremes of trying to capture conversation, which even then you recognized as likely to wander, surrender logic at the slightest provocation, and roam freely from one subject to the next without anything resembling a spine or vector or dramatic throughline.  In cold, painful fact, conversation and dialogue shared the same gym locker.

That was—fortunately—then.

You wish dialogue to give the impression that it could pass for conversation, but only on the barest of terms.  In fact, now, as you construct dialogue, conversation is one of the last things in your mind, being pushed aside by a character’s agenda, his or her immediate and long term goals.  Conversation should have the same chance getting past the writer as a teen-ager has getting past the bouncer at a rock cafĂ©.

You first began to “suspect” dialogue after reading exchanges that stayed with you long after having finished the story.  This was true of nearly everyone you were reading at the time:  John Fante, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Dorothy Parker. John O’Hara.  Flannery O’Connor. One by one, you tried their dialogue in what you thought were near appropriate situations.  Doing this only enhanced the sense among others that you were from another planet.

An entire universe of nuance was in play in the least of the narrative of those mentioned writers.  As you saw this web of nuance encroaching on what you were beginning to recognize as essential to story, there was a growing awareness of the need for what characters said to carry more thrust than mere conversation.  Such a seemingly benign question as, “What do you take in your tea?” can be met with “I’d think you’d know by now.”

Yes, in real life, seductions are conducted via conversation, job applicants are interviewed, graduate theses are defended, and auditions are conducted as well.  In story, these moments are hyper-charged by unseen forces the writer must help the reader to see through the uses of hyper-conversation, which is to say through interior monologue (see Thomas McGuane’s short story, “The Casserole,” in the current issue of New Yorker.) and through pointed dialogue.

Story is about a visible throughline or dramatic vector, moving through a mine field of unseen forces, a metaphor chosen because it is mixed, thus demonstrative of the workload dialogue has to carry (and conversation can’t).

In many stories and dramas, a scene ends when one character tells another, “I have something to tell you.”  The splendid spinner of unseen forces stories, Alice Munro, has a collection of short stories, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You.  Such moments are dramatic and simultaneous in their provocative nature because we readers are left to imagine and anticipate the “something.”

Conversations fade.  The burden of an accelerating argument or conflict or disclosure advances on story and the individuals involved in it.  Fading conversations will not support the burden.  Dialogue is the required element.

In some ways, story is the genie in the bottle.  The cork is removed.  The genie becomes aware of this, departs his prison with haste, a pissed genie out in the world.  Whatever he might do, he is not going to engage in polite conversation.   

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