Sunday, December 11, 2016

Put a Little Elephant in the Dialogue

When you first heard the term "triangulation," you were were in a drafty room of the Men's Gym at UCLA, drowsing your way through mandated classes in Reserve Officer's Training Corps, fixed in your notion that ROTC produced one of the more disagreeable products of a military life, the second lieutenant.

For a matter of the four or five classes in which triangulation was presented, and the topographical maps used to demonstrate and embed the techniques were distributed, your interest awakened, became charged with the notable enthusiasm of a student who wants to learn more, and who is excited by what he has learned to date.  

At the most basic level, triangulation provides an observer who knows two fixed locations with the means to calculate the distance of a third location of doubtful position.  On the basis of what you learned in that drafty room, you were also able to learn from your astronomy professor how triangulation is put to practical use in the gaping vastness of the space in which our universe and yet other universes orbit.

There was one temporary downside of triangulation, one in which you came to see how you might not have had the difficulties you had in dealing with geometry, when it was first presented to you. 

Over all, you came away from your classroom experiences with triangulation feeling the chipper optimism of a young person who saw possibilities for dealing with the vast randomness inflicted by Reality. You were haunted by lines from Thomas Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," where in "Full many a rose is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air."

The concept of triangulation emerged later in your life, during the tenure as POTUS of Bill Clinton, who used the approach for political negotiations, for building consensus necessary to effect legislation or accords.

More recently, triangulation found its way into your thinking as a useful tool for an integral part of dramatic narrative and your own relationship to that integral part as a user of it, which is to say as a writer of it, but also as one who has edited that aspect of dramatic narrative as an editor, and as one who has attempted to convey the use of the integral part as a teacher.  The dramatic aspect of which you speak is dialogue.

Early in your dealings with your own writings, you tended to regard dialogue as carefully managed conversation, troubled in the way your dialogue emerged as lacking something you were always able to find in the dialogue of John O'Hara, but not able to, as Mark Twain, another splendid renderer of dialogue, would say, "get the hang of it."

Triangulation caught up with you and your attempts to reach that third place, that unseen presence of such vibrant effect in the hands of the writers you most admire.  Here, in Reality, we talk with the Teflon coating on, over our true feelings, tempered by our wish to be such things as civil, polite, observant of one or more social conventions.

John O'Hara, more so than Ernest Hemingway, spoke to the elephant in the living room everyone in his stories and novels appeared to tiptoe around, doing so in such a way that the reader could see the elephant of intent and the dance to avoid revealing the bareness of the intent of the hidden nature of the agenda.

Then along came Philip Roth, who seemed to you to be dramatizing the numerous ways in which individuals were struggling to articulate what they felt, to grasp the true meaning of what others were saying, and, in consequence, being pulled along in the slipstream of story in much the same way you felt pulled when the VW Beetles you drove from the mid 50s through the early 70s were pulled when passed on the highway by an eighteen wheeler.

In your longtime admiration for the novels and short stories of Elmore Leonard and your opportunities, both when you worked for his paperback publisher and when he was a frequent visitor to the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference during the years of your tenure there, the metaphoric pigeons of dialogue came home to roost.

"Write a conversation between any two persons of your choice," you tell your students, "in which they speak with direct, open, literal honesty. Try to remember times when you ever heard real persons talking that way. Try to recall writers you admire presenting such dialogue."  Then you wait for the implications to sink in and the often revealing comments about the assignment.

"Now write a scene," you continue, "in which two individuals, who might be male/female, female/female, or male/male have met on some online dating site and are conversing about their romantic goals and ideals. Assume that one of the reasons this pair had some flicker of attraction each to the other, was because of a mutual love of and ownership of horses. The fondness for horses is the triangulation point.  Individual A compares self to a thoroughbred, being used to the kind of care and training associated with thoroughbred horses, but seeking in a mate the equivalent of a quarter horse or working horse, or even a wild horse.  These two individuals are in effect each trying to seduce the other with their comparisons of self to a particular kind of horse.  Write the scene and see if the couple decides to have a second date."

All that's missing from conversational, lackluster dialogue is the subtext, the unspoken influences on what is said and what is not said.

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