Songs I Sing When I’m A-Lonesome (A List)

 
 
RRProvisoYard-JackDelano-LOC

 
 
 

Ten o’clock at night in my office.

I stare at a wall painted the color of gray French silk.

I think and breathe and think some more.

All of my stories have had hard births this week; all of my revisions fought me to the back teeth.  The edits bit into me like grit in my shoes on a long walking day.

And here I sit, again, way past the hours I normally keep, blunt-faced at my desk with three notebooks open.

I dance around my fatigue, breathe from deep in my gut, and think of you.
 
 
 

In the small black notebook, I have block-printed the word “EXODUS.”

In the hardback composition notebook, the phrase “Twyla Tharp covered all of her mirrors,” rolls across the page.

In the poetry flip-top, I see this in my private handwriting, the shorthand no person can read—  “A narrative cannot be found.”
 
 
 

I observe another late night blooming in my palm.

It is an orchid curved across four days of hard writing.

The petals are the color of notebooks and the leaves are the tint of the shadows below my eyes.

Lamplight echoes across the walls, and outside my window— is the stem of an indigo night.
 
 
 

Eleven p.m.  I am rewriting. 

I read from the page in front of me, make a mark in a notebook. 

And I read what I have written, again.  Again.  Again.
 
 
 

I slash a paragraph.  I torque a verb.

I revisit the opening section.  It is not good enough. 

I stare at the wall, the French gray wall that cools my skin.

I am dowsing for words underneath the white, white page.

So far, all I see is a vast sea of silky French gray.  It is not good enough.
 
 
 

Discipline serves the dancer, the artist, the writer the same savory dish— it is the gift of ritual so familiar it calls up the deep breath in the gut.

No matter how much you would rather be somewhere else right now, you are here.

You go through the ritual.

You are immersed, and your immersion is the gift that inspiration, fickle child, cannot give you.

The gift of discipline is muscle.
 
 
 

The white page ripples on my desk where the fan hits it.  I smooth it down with a finger.

I lift my pen.  And I begin.

Again.  Again.  Again.
 
 
 

These are the stories that writers do not tell.

Some weeks the words do not want to come to you.

You cup your hand and beckon; they shy away.  So, you write your way into their presence.

It may take hours.  It may hurt like hell.  It may test your ability to be patient with yourself.

Do not blame the page for being blank.  Call gently.  The words will come, somehow.
 
 
 

Midnight.  I have gone through four revisions in five hours.  Today is the fourth day of hard writing.

I glance at the notebook in my lap, at another rough draft of a poem— And, lo, I was unprepared for craving, for its absence.

I was base jumping, in the dark—

Plunged headfirst into the whistling night—
 
 
 

Again. Read it again.

And, lo—
 
Again!
 
 
 
 
 
 

PHOTO CREDIT: From the LOC Commons: “Work goes on 24 hours a day at C & NW RR’s Proviso yard, Chicago, Ill. (LOC) Delano, Jack,, photographer. 1942 Dec. One transparency : color. Originally shot for the Office of War Information.)

To read more about the LOC/OWI, please consider reading one of the stories about our mad, passionate love for the history of early modern photography, which you can find here: A Smörgåsbord of Posts
 
 
 

I originally wrote “Songs” as part of our regular series The Bluebird Pillow Book, an idea based on The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. The Pillow Book, as I see it, has a very elastic form, but a singular intent— to help me be aware of, and intimate with— this wealth of genuine experiences before me.

“Songs I Sing When I’m A-Lonesome” originally ran on April 20, 2012. I’m giddy with anticipation to hear what you think of this short, elliptical piece of mine.
 
 
 

Why a repost? Go here for a partial explanation as to why we’re reposting this week.
 
 
 

A NOTE: I mentioned late last week that I was going on a trip, right? Well, I am in BIG BEND U.S. NATIONAL PARK. It has panoramic vistas and one verrrrry crowded WiFi spot. (See the Bluebird Blvd. FB Page for pictures and links.)

Y’all know that I said I would do my darndest to be online each evening for a bit during these three nights in Big Bend to chat here on Bluebird Blvd, but the fact is— it’s too darn cold and dark, and the next time I will have access, the conditions will be… cold and dark.

What that means is that I’m going to have to catch up with everyone on Saturday afternoon. (Sorry for that!) (Why not Friday? I think I’m going to be flat-out exhausted after a seven-hour trip home that day.)

Today, I have been under the weather, so I decided to use part of the day as an exercise to shoot the cabin where we are staying. The cabin is a work of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the height of the Great Depression. I was really excited about this aspect of our trip because I haven’t seen as many works of the CCC outside of the city where I live. I am thinking of you, and I am thinking of the way the natural world ends up surprising us all. I believe in the grace of unexpected things, and I think the unexpected is what stitches us together in the end. (Hence, my unabashed adoration of y’all, and to a much lesser extent, the CCC.)

 
 
 

THE BLUEBIRD BLVD. GENUINE PHOTOGRAPHY/STORY CONTEST CALL FOR ENTRIES: The GENUINE call for photos/self-portraits/100 word stories is open! See the link for deets and rules.

 
 
 
 
 
 

The Poem Will Not Bite You: Sonnets Demystified (Lesson Four)

 
 
 

Extension school on meats held at Cherry Valley, NY, in 1915. The instructor is ...

 
 
 

SCENE:  A set for a cooking show, but the view from the camera is crooked and lopsided.  COURTENAY BLUEBIRD is speaking loudly to the cameraman.
 

BLUEBIRD:  (Gesticulating wildly.)  Joe!  Keep that steak over your eye!  I am so sorry! (Squints at lopsided camera.)  Oh!  Are we on?  Whoops!  Ha-ha! (Cameraman Joe tilts the camera to the right position with some difficulty because he needs one hand to hold the steak on his eye.)
 

BLUEBIRD: Today is a really special day!  We are going to start to pull our sonnet making skills together into one cohesive whole!  Yes!  I had a, um, visual metaphor I was going to use… involving bouncing SuperBalls and the tightness of meter and form and quatrains, but we, ah, practiced in the studio and I hit Joe.  In the eye.  With a SuperBall.  The ball that bounces back!  Ah-ha-haaar-ah.  Hum. (Mouths “I’m sorry” to Joe.)
 

(Cameraman Joe exaggeratedly adjusts the steak over his eye and glares at her.)
 

BLUEBIRD:  Oh, Joe!  You’re such a card!  Anywayyyy— though that mishap has shaken all of us up a little bit, I think we should go forth and talk about the awesome power of the sonnet.  Do you have your two notebooks?  Your thesaurus?  Your dictionary?  Your pen or pencil?  Good.
 

BLUEBIRD:  Well, so far… (Something goes THUNK!)  OW! (Scratchy sounds of microphone)  The boom mike just… fell on my head!  That’s never happened before!  (Cameraman Joe shrugs and smiles.)  That really hurt!  Can we cut to commercial?  No?  Jeez, LOUISE this hurts!  Ah-ha-HA!  Ow.  Okay, we’ve covered rhythm and we’ve talked about meter.  We’ve even talked about the couplet.  And we’ve talked about method a little bit,  but we need to pull it together to make the engine GO.  (Aside.)  Can somebody at least get me some ice for my forehead?  That’s gonna be a lump!
 
 
 

Extension school on meats held at Cherry Valley, NY, in 1915. The instructor is ...

 
 
 
BLUEBIRD:  Do you remember that I said that sonnets are mathematically intriguing because of their shape and meter?  Mathematics and rhetoric—logic— tend to run together as well— and a sonnet is designed to be a beautiful argument.  A-HA!  You see what I mean?  Okay.  We have the math of the fourteen lines and the three quatrains and the couplet at the end and the meter and the rhythm.  (Aside.)  I’m not fooling now.  I need some ice.  My head is killing me!  Joe?  Could you help me out?
 

(Joe makes it a point to stare at Bluebird while adjusting his steak over his eye with a slap.)
 

BLUEBIRD:  (Turns around but keeps talking to herself. )  This is a kitchen set.  There’s got to be ice around here somewhere.  (Opens refrigerator and keeps talking.  Her voice is amplified by the interior of the fridge.)  So a sonnet opens with an argument—  the first four lines, or quatrain, set the limits of the argument.    Seriously?  Ah, ice!
 

(Grabs handfuls of ice cubes from a bucket in the freezer and holds them against her scalp.)
 

BLUEBIRD:   If I were to write a first quatrain talking about the beauty of the SuperBall, my second quatrain would give examples of its beauty.  I would tell you that it bounces really high.  That it is a perfect sphere, and on and on.  In the third quatrain, or Paripatela, I would give a reason against my own argument.  This is an old rhetorical trick.  Anticipate your opponent’s argument, and fold it into your own.
 
 
 

Extension school on meats at Dansville, NY, in 1916. Photo by Wagner Studio, Dansville, ...

 
 
 
BLUEBIRD:  For instance, some might say that a SuperBall isn’t a weighty enough metaphor to carry a sonnet— that it is, after all, a child’s toy.   If you adhere strictly to form, line nine is where you make the switch and change your argument to reflect this new insight— the after all it’s a child’s toy part, in this example. Line nine opens the third quatrain— the counter-argument— and it is called the volta, or turn.    But, WAIT!  (Flings hand up.  Ice flies everywhere.)
 

BLUEBIRD:  Here’s where you bring it all back home—  the couplet at the end!  The couplet is the marriage between the first half of your argument and the second half of your argument.  It is where you reconcile your own difficulty with your new idea.  In my SuperBall sonnet, I might say that toys often carry us into adulthood and that once bounce from a SuperBall can change the way we view the delicacy of life.  Like when I hit Joe in the eye!  (Joe glowers at Bluebird.)  You got it?  Of COURSE you do!
 

(As she’s describing this, the boom mike lowers dangerously around Bluebird’s head.  She has no idea.)
 

BLUEBIRD:  BUT!  There’s one MORE important thing!  We’re going to add in the rhyme scheme now.  All rhyme schemes are marked with letters in descending order to let you know what rhymes with what.  All A will rhyme with A all  B rhymes with B—  C with C, D with D and on and on.
 
 

Like this—

FIRST QUATRAIN—  OPENING ARGUMENT/IDEA
A

B

A

B
 

SECOND QUATRAIN—  DEVELOPMENT OF ARGUMENT/EXTENDED METAPHOR
C

D

C

D
 

THIRD QUATRAIN—  REVERSAL/CONVERSE ARGUMENT— DEEPEN METAPHOR

E  (The VOLTA!)

F

E

F
 

COUPLET—  (MARRIES THE ARGUMENT WITH ITS COMPLICATION/REVERSAL)

G
G
 
 

BLUEBIRD:  You see?  You see?  I think you do!  One more thing.  You’re going to write the whole sonnet using iambic pentameter.  And if you remember our discussion from earlier this week, you’ll know that means the rhythm goes da-DAH, and the meter is five feet long—
 

    da-DAH da-DAH da-DAH da-DAH da-DAH

 
 

(The boom hovers lower.  Bluebird looks up.  The boom disappears into the overhead area.  She looks down.  The boom mike begins to lower again.)
 

BLUEBIRD:  Ohmygosh, my head hurts!  So much!  But it hurts because many of you think your rhymes need to be exact— and they don’t.   Unnecessary!  And a contrived rhyme sounds contrived.   The rhyme is there to serve the poem, not the other way around!   Remember your near rhymes and your semi-rhymes and forced rhymes and half rhymes.    You are not writing the poem around the rhyme.  And if you find yourself writing around the rhyme, try writing one without rhyme at all, but keep the meter and the rhythm.  You savvy?  Yeah, you do!
 
 
 

Four photographs of food dishes taken by Troy in 1916 for Miss Canon for ...

 
 
 
(The boom mike drops heavily on the top of her head with a THUNK.)
 

BLUEBIRD:  GAH!  (Clutches head)  The pain!  How does this keep happening? Okay, so I’ll see you next Saturday!  You bring your sonnets and I’ll bring a helmet.  Ha-ha!  Maybe Joe won’t be so mad at me for smacking him with a SuperBall now that I have concussion.  Does everything taste flurple to you too?  I think I need assistance!  I’m gonna… the floor…  sit now. 

(Bluebird slides behind the kitchen counter, pulling her two notebooks on top of her. Screen credits roll.)
 
 
 
Our FUNDAMENTAL SONNET INSTRUCTIONS come from the “For Dummies” series. Don’t be put off by the name! The instructions are really well-written! I was impressed, personally, and I’ve read a lot of these sorts of things.
 
 
We looked at rhythm last week in LESSON TWO, but this next link gives a nice, clean overview of the basic terms that are not listed here— RHYTHM and METER 
 
 
We will be talking Shakespearean sonnets again on Saturday!
 

Please feel free to release your poetry panic in the comments, but this time, maybe you should try a quatrain (first four lines of a sonnet) in iambic pentameter with an END RHYMES! Take your new sonnet skills for a TEST DRIVE!
 

And definitely read this Wikipedia link on rhyme, specifically focusing on GENERAL RHYMES.
 

ONE MORE NOTE: My friend Professor J and I will be doing a BLOG CARNIVAL on May 17th! The topic is the FIRST POEM you EVER READ! If you are interested, please contact me by email— bluebirdblvd@att.net.
 

BLUEBIRD: (Staggers from behind kitchen counter) FLURPLE! Get the Joe, Joe? It’s the VOLTA! (Bluebird wanders off of the set and through the door marked EXIT.)

 
 
 

The Poem Will Not Bite You: Sonnets Demystified (Lesson One)

 
 
 
Henry Lawson, 1915 / photographer William Johnson
 
 
 


Earlier this week I posited seven shaky hypotheses my overheated brain currently believes.

Many of you believe in similar hypotheses.  Especially the one about dessert.

What surprised me most is how many of you really do want to try number six on the list.

Well, I say it surprised me.  

When what I really mean to say is that my brain is terribly overexcited that you, too, think number six is hypothetically possible.

In case you’ve forgotten, let me refresh your memory with the specifics of item number six:
 
 

    6) I believe everyone should try writing a traditional sonnet at least once in his or her life.  Formal poetry is mathematical in construct.  If you can do basic algebra, you can write a working Shakespearean sonnet that does not use hackneyed end rhymes.  (Rain, Spain, pain, blue, clue, shoe— you get the picture.  Don’t use these at the end of your rhyming lines.  Go with double-syllables) I have dyscalculia, so I cannot test this idea personally.  Yet, I do write sonnets.  Can I get a volunteer for this hypothesis?  I need someone who is functionally literate in math, yet has never written a sonnet.  Meet me in the comments section.  We’ll talk.

 
 

Here is what I am proposing for those of you who hinted, that maybe, you’d like to try writing a sonnet… someday?

Would you like to try writing a sonnet— starting, you know, now?

Sure you would!
 
 

LESSON ONE
 
 

WHAT THE HELL IS POETRY?

Poetry is the most concise way to express tone and narrative in a small space.

Give your brain a minute to let that sink in, and we will move on.
 
 

NEXT QUESTION:  WHAT THE HELL IS TONE?

Tone is a complex array of feelings that express the inexpressible.  When I think of tone, I think of music, which is the other major artistic vehicle that is designed to express a specific and surprising grouping of feelings.    

A Pu-Pu Platter of feelings is one way to think of it—  a little dish of this, a little taster of that—  all of which are pleasing to the palate, but indistinguishable as individual ingredients.
 
 

AND NARRATIVE?  SO CONFUSING!  LADY, YOU’RE KILLING ME!

Narrative is an umbrella word for story

Not all poems tell a story, but they often convey the idea of a story, or pieces of a story, or a slice of character that implies a story.

That’s why we use the word narrative— it covers a lot of bases.
 
 

To repeat: Poetry is the most concise way to express tone and narrative in a small space.
 
 

OKAY?  WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

A poem tries to tell you the most complex ideas in the shortest space using the most elegant and brief methods that it possibly can. 

In order to tell you a complex idea in a short way, a poem will use devices.

Rhyming, for instance, is one poetic device (of thousands of devices).

Often contemporary poetry does not use rhyme at all, but does use structure, shape, and other poetic devices in a pattern that follows an internal logic. 

Think of a poem as if it were a building.  It needs a floor and a ceiling and walls.  The way that floor, ceiling and walls are constructed must follow some sort of logic so that it stands up.  So does a poem.
 
 

WHAT’S THE GIST OF IT? (THERE’S NO GIST.)

Having talked a little bit about non-rhyming and rhyming poetry, I must be honest— poetry is a vast arena of ideas and theories well beyond these two distinctions.

For example, there are things called prose poems, where the poem is a series of densely constructed paragraphs.  See poet Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. (A personal favorite of mine.)

Other poets might make list poems out of a series of nouns that have some relationship to one another— the words sound alike, or the nouns tell a broken story.

There are poems that feel like the shape of a letter that you might write to someone— that type of poem is called an epistolary poem.

Formal poetry, unlike free verse, uses a particular rhythm and shape to express tone and narrative in a highly-structured fashion.

Some established formal poetic forms use rhyme as part of their structure, some do not. 

Forms where rhyming devices are central to the style include the ballad, the villanelle, the aubade, and the sonnet.  (There are a ton.  I’ve listed… four?)

We’re going to look specifically at the sonnet on Saturday.
 
 

Meanwhile, read these links to prepare your mind:

Writing A Sonnet For Dummies   I know it sounds odd, but this piece is one of the clearest explanations of formal poetry I’ve seen anywhere!
 

5-Minute Dance Party: Sonnet 116 (Chicken Shop Shakespeare)  A sonnet performed flawlessly by the fabulous team of Chicken Shop Shakespeare! This will get your blood running, folks!
 

Shmoop: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116   (I just found Shmoop, and I have fallen in love at first sight. It’s a no-nonsense resource for literary explanations.)
 

If you’ve already begun your sonnet, please do settle in and ask questions or post sections of your first draft in the comments.

Also, please do feel comfortable to start yelling and running in circles in a poetry panic in the comment section below. 

If you would like, trying yelling in couplet form.  That would be nice.

 
 
 

Henry Lawson, 1915 / by William Johnson

 
 

Our Sunday Best: The Myth of the Second Act

 
 
 
X-ray of a Boxer's fractured hand.
 
 
 

Near the beginning of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing career, he penned The Great Gatsby, a modern age novel that explores, explodes and exiles every deeply held myth of the American Dream.

Toward the end of his writing career, an ego-bruised and soul-wrenched Fitzgerald is alleged to have scratched the following line in the notes for his posthumously published novel The Last Tycoon:

There are no second acts in American lives.

 
 
Ah.

I know.

You’ve heard this unverified quote or something like it.

It’s a bitter sentence. The meaning behind it is black as peat.

You only get the one go round, Fitzgerald is saying.

You don’t get that next wave where you grow and stretch, do something different.

They like you when you’re new or when you’re young. Both if you can manage it.

There are no second acts in American lives.
 
 
 
Everyone with an artistic vocation wonders whether there are, in fact, second acts in a creative life.

You don’t have to be American to feel fear.

You are/want to be an artist.

Or a writer.

Or a musician.

Or a photographer.

Or an actor.

I can feel you here, next to me right now shaking your head.

You’re here because you are trying to feel your way through your second act.

Where to begin? Where does it go? Is Fitzgerald right?

There are no second acts in American lives.

Bullhockey.

I do not believe it.

And I’ll tell you why.
 
 
 
Please slip under the ropes in that metaphorical boxing ring of my writing space.

On my rainiest days, writing feels about as good as a punch I caught on the jaw.

I need to get up off of this mat.

I need to get stop getting sucker-socked by language.

Keep finding a way to spar with words.

The thesaurus isn’t working.

The deadline is looming.

On my rainiest days, I know that I’m boxing shadows and the shadows are winning.

I do what any sane Bluebird does—
 
 
 

Bennet's fracture X-ray (1)

 
 
 
I call my mother.

She answers. Thank goodness.

On the phone, her voice is beautiful— soft, full, slightly deep.

She speaks the way people sing— lots of inflection, with a surprising range of tones and moods.

Everyone loves her voice.

My mother steps into the metaphorical boxing ring of my writing space and speaks to me.

I’m flat out, emotionally exhausted, creatively wiped.

I am lying there on the mat. I am refusing to get up.
 
 
 
She says:

— Grandma Moses. Grandma Moses got her start as a painter in her mid 70s.

I lean my head into the phone to get as close as I can to her voice. Writing. How am I—

She goes on:

Laura Ingalls Wilder. First book in her 60s.

—But what if—?

No “what ifs.” You write because you write. Set it aside. This is what you do.

I get my head off the mat inside my mind. That mat smells of old sweat and strong punches. It’s still raining outside.

—But how do I—?

I can’t even finish the sentence.

You’ll find a way. Winston Churchill. Kept failing. Prime Minister. Twice.

—What if it isn’t any goo—

Einstein. Terrible at school. Beatrix Potter. No one wanted to publish stories and pictures about animals.

—But I don’t know where I’m going to go—

No such thing as second acts. Prior to the electronic age, people didn’t get information quickly, nor did they expect to get things quickly. Lots of people didn’t start things until they were 40 and 50, or later.

— The publishing industry likes their young geniuses, Mom. Forty is a pretty big cut-off. I’m coming up on it.

Don’t look over your shoulder. The past is the past.

I stand up. I shake my head to get the blood moving to my shoulders. I bounce on the balls of my feet.

The room is warm with the promise of more rain. My sweat makes a fine sheen on my forearms.

— How? On days like today?

Keep moving. Don’t rely on inspiration. Inspiration is fickle. It’s the muscle of the everyday. Make sure you have strong, clean work.

— Okay, Mom. Okay.

It’s just you. You compete with you. Keep it clean. Keep it up. Keep moving forward.
 
 
 

Metacarpal fractures

 
 
 
I thank my mother and she shoos me off of the phone to go work.

It’s still raining. Why is it always raining when I have one of these days where every sentence, every word I write, is tinny and off? I stare out the window for a moment. The water slides down the glass, blurring my view.

I put the house phone back on the cradle.

I am not here. I am not anywhere. I am there with the words.

I’m up. Blood is moving. The pen is in front of me.
 
 
 

    MY MOTHER AND THE MYTH OF THE SECOND ACT

    I love my mother. She’s given me this speech so many times over so many years that I can recall parts of it without conferring with her. (Still, I asked for her permission to write this story.)

    As a bonus, she allowed me to grab a quick interview with her while she was on the fly.

    It’s been a few months since I’ve called and asked her for “the talk,” so I wanted to see what she found recently that she loved.

    At the bottom of the page, you will find a list of Our Sunday Best links based on her recommendations.
     
     
    LATE BLOOMERS

    ME: I think of the term “late bloomers” as derogatory, but when you go to look up information on the internet, this is how you find it.

    MY MOTHER: We call them late bloomers, but they didn’t see it that way. I think there are two kinds of late bloomers. There’s one type that does not come into their own for whatever reason until later. This type wasn’t really sure what they wanted to be, and discovered what they wanted to be later.

    (The second type) Some late bloomers deferred their own dreams because they had responsibilities. After they raised their children… then they did what they wanted to after they took care of their responsibilities. For instance, many people quit school in the (19)30s and ’40s because their families needed them, and came back to what they really loved much later.
     
     
    KNOWING YOU ARE ON THE RIGHT PATH

    MY MOTHER: When you know you’re in your element, you lose track of time. When you love something, time changes for you. And you have one hundred percent of fulfillment.

    If you’re doing a job and you’re not in your element, it’s painful.

    When I see someone coming into their own, it’s amazing how a small amount of encouragement and kindness goes a long way.

    They give more; they dig deeper. They expect more of themselves. They’re blossoming. It’s their time. There’s no late. Just now.
     
     
     
     

    OUR SUNDAY BEST— (MY MOTHER’S RECOMMENDATIONS)

    It’s a Wonderful Life (“He was a late bloomer. He thought he wanted to do something else with his life, and it turned out that what he was doing then was what he really loved.”)

    Miss Potter (“She had to promote herself entirely.”)

    Late Bloomers: 75 People Who Found Fame, Success & Joy in the Second Half of Their Lives by Brendan Gill.

 
 
 
(CODA)

In any life, you must allow what comes next to come next.

An early start in your vocation, your career, is not a ward against failure.

Starting early only means that you will experience the moment of failure a little earlier than some.

You absorb the shock of it. You learn from its shape, and you move on.

In other words, you learn to take a punch.

Even now as I walk towards my office, muscles warm, ready to go, ready to write— I hear my mother’s voice, whispering away:

Isak Dinesen. Jacques Tati. Theloneous Monk. O. Henry. Helen Keller…
 
 
 

 
 
 
 

Our Sunday Best : Most Have Their Norgays (Dialogue Edition)

 
 
 
Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzig Norgay Shaking Hands
 
 
 


Wrigley: Who are you looking for?
 
Miles Massey: Tenzing Norgay.
 
Wrigley: Tenzing Norgay? That’s someone she slept with?
 
Miles Massey: I doubt it. Tenzing Norgay was the Sherpa that helped Edmund Hillary climb Mount Everest.
 
Wrigley: And Marilyn knows him?
 
Miles Massey: No, you idiot. Not the Tenzing Norgay. Her Tenzing Norgay.
 
Wrigley: I’m not sure that I actually follow that.
 
Miles Massey: Few great accomplishments are achieved single-handedly, Wrigley. Most have their Norgays. Marilyn Rexroth is even now climbing her Everest. I wanna find her Norgay.
 
Wrigley: But how do you determine which of the people on here are…
 
Miles Massey: How do you spot a Norgay?
 
Wrigley: Yeah?
 
Miles Massey: You start with the people with the funny names.
 

From the movie Intolerable Cruelty,
The Coen Brothers

 
 
 

For professional writers, dialogue is the ultimate Mount Everest.

Rendering the conversation between two people badly can spell the difference between Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and a Looney Tunes episode.

To climb those hills properly, professional writers have their Tenzig Norgays. We call them many things: our primary readers, our mentors, our heroes, and our editors.

Today, I am going to do my Bluebird best to be your Tenzing Norgay. I am going to attempt to give you, in one post, the basic tools that you will need in order to write conversation. And I will try to convey to you the same information that I might convey if you were in one of my writing classes and your ultimate plan was to become a professional writer.

What I’m saying is, I respect what you know. I’m just here to enhance that knowledge.

Are you still with me? Okay? Okay.
 
 
 

Hillary and Tenzing

 
 
 

IS THIS GOOD?  I CAN’T TELL.  IT’S GOOD, RIGHT?
 
How do you know the difference between good dialogue and bad?

Anyone who has ever slammed out the first few drafts of a short story asks this question.

In reality, you should be asking this question if you’re writing anything.

Newspaper stories included dialogue in the form of quotes.

Poetry can include bits of conversation. Or it can be made of a conversation. (Robert Frost was good at this trick.)

Essays feature dialogues and may even focus on a dialogue as the central theme.

Screenplays tell a story through dialogue.

You remember all of this hoo-ha, but I’m reminding you of why it is important— humans first told stories to maintain oral tradition through auditory memory.
 
 
 

Nothing conveys the “sound” of a story better than dialogue.

Communicating with each other was our first way of creating story.

Even as children, the first way we learn to tell stories is to listen to stories being told to us.

Dialogue is exactly that important. It is the original seed of story.
 
 
 

Here’s what good dialogue does:

Good dialogue enhances the flow of the story and moves it along.

Good dialogue tells you something about the character who is speaking, and something about the way that character perceives the person with whom they are conversing.

Good dialogue pops, slithers, dances, surprises, and delights without taking you out of the moment.

(Yes, yes, you do know all of this stuff.)
 
 
 

The thing everyone wants to know is: What is the right way to craft dialogue?
 
Well, this question is where writing get interesting.

It’s no so much that dialogue is in the ear of the beholder, it’s more the idea that dialogue falls into two camps.

And never the twain shall meet for supper (unless for comic effect).

 
 
 

Mt. Hood (11,225 ft.) one of America's famous mountains, from Lost Lake, Oregon, by Underwood & Underwood

 
 
 

YOU SAY “DIALOG,” I SAY “DIALOGUE.”
 
The two types of dialogue are naturalistic and stylized.

Naturalistic dialogue gives the impression that this is what you would hear on the street if it were rendered by a writer. Now, realistically, it’s not what you hear on the street. Why? Because most conversations are not that interesting, honestly. And all real conversations are longer than you think they are and full of a lot of dross. That’s why it’s called “naturalistic” dialogue, not “natural” dialogue. Most naturalistic dialogue turns up in dramas. Think Spielberg’s serious movies. Think Hemingway’s short stories, and possibly Flannery O’Connor’s short and long fiction.

What stylized dialogue does is subtly craft the same conversation but in a singular style or voice. Think of anything written by The Coen Brothers. The Coen Brothers don’t attempt to make their dialogue sound like people you know or people I know. These mega-super-talented writer-director-producers use the powers of verbal repetition and timing and vocal musicality to make their story sing. In no way, though, does a Coen Brothers script sound like anyone you know having a conversation.

From here on out, we’ll divide our conversation between the two styles of dialogue as they pertain to various forms of writing — not just screenplays.
 
 
 

Planning motor car expedition across Asia 1930

 
 
 

NATURALISTIC DIALOGUE IN THE WILD

 
To understand why you’ll never hear a truly “natural” conversation in a movie (or a documentary! Editing is writing in documentaries!), you might want to read this fantastic short post by William M. Akers.

A study is floating around right now in linguistic circles that proposes an increase in language convergence in the dialogue of popular movies.

Cracking the code of naturalistic dialogue is pretty easy. Here’s a simple exercise to try at home:

Get permission from a friend to tape record a conversation between the two of you that lasts 30 minutes or longer. Then, play it back and transcribe it word for word.

At first, the conversation will sound stilted as the two of you are aware that you are recording yourselves.

Wait for the part where you forget about the tape recorder. Writing the whole thing down will show you what a real conversation does in practice: how it moves, where the pauses are located, where meaning is dropped or lost.

The next thing you’ll want to do is print that conversation and look at the following awesome free site, which has scripts from every major movie out there and many television shows that showcase naturalistic dialogue. Stop there. We’re going to come back to this exercise in a moment.
 
 
 

Tenzing & Henderson

 
 
 

STYLIZED DIALOGUE IS PRETTIER THAN ME
 
Stylized dialogue is a different beast because it doesn’t try to emulate the way people talk, if people were speaking in dialogue.

But, actual speech is never dialogue. Why? Because dialogue goes someplace. Dialogue isn’t just crammed into a story to make it pretty. Dialogue is another device that takes you from a to b to c.

A direct example: My dialogue style is extremely stylized. In fact, if you pause for a second and scan anything I wrote in the last week where a person is speaking, you’ll notice that when I write dialogue, it tends to punctuate an idea,. A favorite trick of mine is to use rhythm in conversation to heighten tension— note my mother “speaking” in yesterday’s short essay </ Fever Interlude. I also use repetition, where the same words may turn up in a different sequence, said by the same person or several people, to create a through-thread of an idea.

Writers who use stylized dialogue to fantastic effect: Kurt Vonnegut, Don DeLillo, T.S. Eliot, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood and Anne Carson all pop to mind in seconds. These writers are each mindblowingly poetic in style, and each comes to dialogue with a mastery that goes beyond the fundamentals.

In their hands, dialogue is no longer a tool, it’s an instrument.

And that’s the real difference between a good writer, and a great one: Good writers? Tools. Great writers? Instruments.

Watch this clip while listening for the repetition of certain nouns.
 
 
 
 
 
 

You hear that? The Coen Brothers managed to make this scene from Intolerable Cruelty not only comedic, but musical as well. That’s talent.

How do you write dialogue that masterfully?

I’ve got your answer, but boy, you better be ready for it.
 
 
 
RE-VISION: TO SEE AGAIN
 
 
 
Earlier this week, Chuck Wendig posted on Twitter that if you weren’t reading your work out loud, that he should take a crowbar to your head.

While I may not jokingly threaten you with a crowbar, if you aren’t reading your work out loud, as in reading it out loud as you revise it, meaning putting your work through multiple drafts where you rewrite entire chunks and chuck parts and really write like a writer does, then, frankly— a conversation about writing dialogue isn’t gonna help you do jack.

Writing is revising. Period.
 
 
 

And revising means, in Latin, to see again. No joke. And part of revising is reading your work out loud over and over and over, word for flipping word. Your craft will improve overnight by adding this one step of reading your work aloud as you redraft.

Here’s a two-dollar tip: If you can’t stand to read your own writing out loud, why should anyone else want to read your writing at all?

Remember the exercise I mentioned earlier about recording a conversation with friend? Here’s where the next step follows. Take that conversation and see how much of it you can cross out with a pen and still have it make sense as an a to b to c story. (Excising seventy-five percent of it sounds about right.)

See how much more “natural” your now “naturalistic” dialogue sounds? And think, that’s only a first draft?

Want to hear a master writer (a master revisionist) who uses naturalistic dialogue? Listen to this beaut: Truman Capote reads from Breakfast At Tiffany’s at the 92 St. Y in NYC (1963).
 
 
 
 
 
 

I’ve been told that many people love the movie.

I do not. Capote’s rabid, fear-inducing novel eats that insipid, spineless movie for breakfast. Because I read Capote first as a horrid, pretentious teenager, I can tell you that by the time I saw the move at twenty, I felt as though I had been mugged.

Where’s Holly Golightly the hustler and sometime prostitute? Where’s the gay upstairs neighbor who is fascinated with her, but ultimately steals her life story bit by bit because he’s a writer, and writers take everything that’s not nailed down?

Where’s the misfit cast of characters who cannot get past the magic of Golightly the hustler, even after she leaves the scene? And why is Mickey Rooney affecting a weird racist accent and a pair of plastic teeth? Plastic teeth? C’mon Rooney!

Okay. I’ll stop ranting now. If you love this movie, I’m okay with that. The costumes are great. I’ll allow that because I am a fan of Givenchy. Audrey Hepburn is a class act. But, please promise me you’ll read the book, okay? It’ll blow your socks right off.
 
 
 

W. Stanley Moss - Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition

 
 
 

GRAB MY HAND, WE’RE CROSSING THE FINISH LINE!
 
Okay, so we’ve talked about the function of dialogue. And we’ve looked at two styles of dialogue, and we’ve even allowed me to rant on about the movie version of Breakfast At Tiffany’s.

I have two more delish tidbits for you to sample today.

If you’ve never read Elmore Leonard’s essay on the fundamentals of writing, you are going to learn so much in the next ten minutes. You can find this touchstone on writing fundamentals in the New York Times regular feature WRITERS ON WRITING: Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

Another growing favorite of mine for grammar yummers, is Grammar Girl. Her “Quick And Dirty Tips For Better Writing” is a fantastic snapshot for functional English grammar. Here’s a little ditty you can either read or listen to at your leisure on “How to Write Dialogue.”

And to finish our ultra-long blargalargh on dialogue, let’s run headfirst into the famous “Dimitri” phone conversation from Dr. Strangelove:
 
 
 
 
 
 

All good dialogue takes you away from the story you expect, and drops you in the middle of the story that you embody.

Sellers does this so well we forget that though he’s supposed to be having a two-way conversation, he’s really the only one speaking.

Sellers is one of those rare talents who used everything he had as an instrument, even when he himself was quite a tool.
 
 
 
 

OH! HEY!   Want to read more writing about writing? Our Sunday Best: Lit From Within and Our Sunday Best: Haiku You might get your pen roaring!
 
 
 

PHOTO CREDITS:

First photo: Tenzig Norgay and Edmund Hillary Shaking Hands— Kete Horowhenua : Horowhenua Historical Society Inc. Second photo: Norgay and Hillary on their famous expedition by Jamling Tenzing Norgay, from a Danish site about the Tenzig Norgay Trek. Third photo: “Mt. Hood (11,225 ft.) one of America’s famous mountains, from Lost Lake, Oregon” by Underwood & Underwood. “Planning Motorcar Expedition through Asia” by Harris and Ewing. Fourth photo: John Henderson and Tenzig Norgay by Dirk Pons. Fifth photo: “W. Stanley Moss behind Vivian Fuchs, Edmund Hillary and others, Scott Base, Antarctica, 1958. Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition” by Gabriella Bullock. (All photos courtesy of WIKIMEDIA COMMONS. Please check there for individual Creative Commons licenses for these photographs.