Monthly Archives: August 2010

Characters and Dialogue: “Well al-ight then.” Character Speak

Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer has two separate chapters discussing developing character and dialogue. I will combine the two concepts, because I began to see how they were related. Prose demonstrates through classical literature how characters are fleshed-out through dialogue: “In these scenes, both Austin and Eliot manage to establish several complex characters at once, partly through narration and partly through drama and dialogue that allow us to observe the characters interacting.” (p135)

Prose exposes her first writing lessons. She was taught to improve and cleaned up her character’s dialogue. “Unlike us, they should say what they mean, get to the point, and avoid circumlocution and digression.” (p143) Prose confesses that this sanitized dialogue is colorless and wooden. Much better was a writing assignment she did that required eavesdropping and transcribing. In this assignment she discovered what is being said and what is not being said: text and subtext.

I love the character “Ruby” in Cold Mountain. Her mannerisms and language combine to show us the personality of Ruby. Her take-charge personality came through along with her emotional deflection. When it was getting too emotional, Ruby would say in her strange Appalachian-way, “Well, a-ight then.” That tiny piece of dialogue reveals Ruby. Here are some other gems:

Ruby: [about her father] Oh, he’s so full of manure, that man! We could lay himRenee Zellwinger in the dirt and  grow another one just like him.

Ruby: My daddy – he’d walk forty miles for liquor but not forty inches for kindness.

Meet Ruby

Experimenting with dialogue, I use my best friend Ella as a model. She is a wise and talented woman with some strange country-phrasing. I have actually collected her phrases for years. Phrases like “snid bit” or “snatch you bald-headed” are on the list. I want to introduce, Emma Leigh, a very countrywoman with strange speech and a depth of life-wisdom that rivals that of a Ph.D.

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Who Cares? Narration according to Francine Prose

That is my biggest fear when I write, that I will write something not worthy of reading. Why write another sentence that someone would rather not read?  Francine Prose offered a practical suggestion in her book,  Reading like a Writer, that maybe a solution to boring our readers. Prose suggests we write narrationwith the reader in mind. Narration should be directed at someone; who we are telling the story is as important as how we tell the story. (p 86)

Writing with your reader in mind, may encourage us to skip over parts of the plot that are unnecessary. Thinking about someone glancing at their watch or their phone waiting for you to get to your point will cause me to edit my words. My sons are good indicators of when I need to write the story for the listener. Painfully honest, my boys will interject, “Get to the point, Mama!”  Francine Prose says,  “…it forced me to confront the painful question of whether what I was telling was actually a story or merely, say, a rumination.” (p. 86)

In memoir, the narrator is not necessarily the writer. In our Creative Nonfiction class, the author of Writing Memoirs points this out.  Sometimes a memoir requires the memory of another person to tell a complete story. I had to use my sister’s memory to tell my story, “Watching.”

While writing my first exercise, I knew would be read to the entire class, I was obsessively conscious of the fact that other writers would be listening. If they were like me, they do not have patience for 22 sentimental ramblings. I tried to respect my class members and got to the point and conserve my words. Here is the result:

Watching

The world was watching Vietnam become a war in the summer of 1965. Americans were focused on President Johnson as he gave them Medicare and Medicaid. But my mother was distracted with preparations for the weekend Fourth of July party and my third birthday.

Buffalo, New York was never hot enough for air conditioning, and old farm houses built-in the 1800s were not equipped for sweltering summer days.  The troubled property on Route 16 in the Aurora Village was an adventure-filled place for the Moser kids to explore:dark wooded places, large lush lawns, and dangerous structures. In that household of 7, soon to be 10, the kids scattered across the acreage of the Seven Pines looking for something cool to do. Slipping outside with my siblings, I made my escape to the Picnic House.

The Picnic House was an open-shelter with brick grills, built-in cabinets, a glass-bottle Coke machine, and an old Frigidaire refrigerator. The refrigerator was only plugged in for weekend parties to store macaroni salad, condiments, and Kool-Aid.

In the bits and pieces of a developing mind, I remember patches of playing with someone(someone real or imagined), who I thought was my “friend.” We were playing picnic and making hamburgers with mustard. I loved mustard. My “friend” said,

“We don’t have any mustard.”

I love mustard. I went to the refrigerator and struggled with the locking door, but no mustard – it was musty and hot inside. My “friend” told me to be the mustard.So I got in the refrigerator and shut the door. That was the last thing I remembered.

When the door closed it locked. It was 1965, years before refrigerators were redesigned to open from the inside. There was no escape for a child yet to be three.

Ellen carried the weight of being the oldest daughter in a large family with a mother unable to deal with her responsibilities. Ellen was my 9-year-old sister and my savior on that hot July day in 1965. After being blamed for not watching me,she searched harder than anyone. After a couple of trips to the Picnic House, she decided to open the refrigerator.

Forty years later, Ellen still remembers the sight of her baby sister curled up in a ball,her powder-blue sun suit pulled off, and golden curls soaking wet. The next-door neighbor, a volunteer firefighter, rushed me to the village doctor who pronounced me lucky.

“Five more minutes and she would have been a goner.”

What does a young child remember of a near tragedy? I do not like small spaces. I still love mustard. I live with gratitude that my older sister found me. I am resolute to live with purpose, because though my mother was not watching over me, someone else was. I feel protected by an abiding unseen guide. Oh and one more thing – I choose my “friends” more carefully.

Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Oh My!

Reading for the writer tells us “how to” write, whereas an editor or a workshop tells us “how not to” write. Reading beyond what we “like to read” is important because good writing transcends genres. Writers have to read differently – with a teachable heart looking for things we can apply to our own writing.

“Writers learn their craft, above all, from the work of other writers. From

Reading Like a Writer

reading. They learn it from immersing themselves in books.” Maria Arana instructs writers in The Writer’s Life. (Arana) Francine Prose in her book, Reading like a Writer suggests, “A workshop can be useful. A good teacher can show you how to edit your work. The right class can form the basis of a community that will help and sustain you. But that class, as helpful as it was, was not where I learned to write. Like most- maybe all- writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books.” (Prose) Reading widely and inclusively exposes the writer to good diction and sentences that transcend genres. A well-written passage can be isolated in all styles of writing; the well-read writer will have many teachers.

Writing is done one word at a time, one sentence at a time, line upon line, building point of view and a story. Reading as a writer requires an analytical eye being conscious of word choice, sentence formation, the voice and the message of the author. Paragraphs are still a mystery and to write a good one is better caught than taught. The catching requires reading many good writers. Paragraphs are personal and as varied as the “voice” of the writer.

Words
We learned to read word by word and somewhere along the way we are taught to read faster by scanning phrases. Reading passages, word by word, causes the writer to soak and steep in the rich beautiful descriptions and elegant prose of writers like Pat Conroy. In The Prince of Tides, Conroy employs economy of words: “The only word for goodness is goodness, and it is not enough.” (Conroy, The Prince of Tides) We can learn by reading writers as they put each word they write “on trial for its life.” (Prose)

Sentences

In Hemingway’s Paris memoirs, The Moveable Feast, we discover that he was influenced by many writers. He spent time reading other authors and commented on them in his memoir. Whether intentional or not, Ernest Hemingway left a wealth of advice to writers. He tells us to stop writing when we know what comes next. He shows us how he does not think about the story when he is not working. The most profound and most profoundly unexplained precept we learn from Hemingway is this:  “Write the truest sentence you know.” (Hemingway 20)

We learn from him by reading his words – line upon line that writing is a joy. Hemingway’s knows how to write a good sentence. His simple unadorned sentences display his ability to observe the world and simmering it down to one central truth. Hemingway suggests that when we focus on the “one truth thing” that we are on our way to writing what is good. Cutting out the superfluous and unnecessary is the key to a successful sentence.

Hemingway was also quoted as saying, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” (Hemingway) Sentences describing what a character says can make them real. Two of my favorite characters in literature are Ruby in Cold Mountain and Idgy in Fried Green Tomatoes. It is their resilience that inspires and entertains the reader; it is the descriptive sentences that bring them to life. In my work, Ichabod, I wanted to bring to life another strong Southern woman I call Emma Leigh. She is like Ruby in Cold Mountain who speaks in simple phrases like, “Well, all ite then.”  I began collecting sentences from my close friend raised on very old southern phrases to give Emma Leigh in Ichabod a persona expressed from her sentences. A sampling of those phrases are: “I slipped and became unpeeled!” and “I eit just a snidbit.” The sentences of dialogue show that Emma Leigh is Southern but not stupid. Good sentences will create real people for your readers, not characters.

Paragraphs

Francine Prose’s discussion of paragraphs was obtuse. At some points she gives us guidance with guidelines and then yank them away. Prose gives us room to breath and grow as writers by suggesting that paragraphs are as individual as our writing voice. The non-claustrophobic style of Francine Prose frees the writers; She does not micro-manage our writing process.

Writing careers and what I want to do when I grow up

The Bureau of Labor Statistics confirmed what I had suspected about the future of writing jobs Their report projects job growth from 2008 – 2018. Cross referencing the information about writing with Post-Secondary Education positions, the numbers support my suspicion that finding work as a writing instructor/professor in the next few years will be good. Work for freelancers is even more promising as companies outsource writing, editing, and graphic design. The factors influencing the increase in hiring include: demographic changes, digital media, and the growth of community colleges.
Demographic changes
Enrollment in postsecondary schools will rise with 18-24-year-old entering college between  2008 and 2018. In addition, adults are returning to colleges and technical institutions as a result of the failing economy. Therefore, Postsecondary teaching positions are “expected to grow by 15 percent between 2008 and 2018, which is faster than the average for all occupations.”
Growth is due to enrollment of traditional and nontraditional students and retirement of tenured professors hired in the “late 1960s and 1970s to teach members of the baby-boom generation.” Competition for tenured track positions will be stiff, but more community colleges and smaller institutions are hiring adjunct and part-time instructors. An English major with a Ph.D. will have better prospects of landing a full-time professorship.
Digital Media
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Online publications and services are growing in number and sophistication, spurring the demand for writers and editors with Web or multimedia experience.” Writers and writing instructors who can adapt and grow with the new media will have the required skill sets for the future in academics and as freelance writers, designers and marketers.
Recently, while researching for a column, I came across the following statistics:
It took 38 years for radio to reach 50 million users; television reached the same number in 13 years. The internet reached 50 million users in 4 years – Facebook added 100 million users in less than 9 months. Social media is not a fad; it’s a fundamental shift in the way we communicate. More than 1.5 million pieces of content (web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photos, etc.) are shared on Facebook daily.
Digital communications are here to stay. Generation Y (born 1976-2000) is not sitting in front of television but in front of computers. My twenty year old is more comfortable communicating on chat or texting in the next room than talking to me in person. Instead of fighting this new normal, helping this generation write better is the challenge. We are writing more because of the internet and social media, we need to write better. Current and later generations need to communicate effectively online; I want raise the level of online writing excellence
Community College Growth
With a weak economy and the rising cost of higher education, community colleges and technical institutions have grown in the last few years. A graduate of a Masters of Arts in Professional Writing will be able to gain experience as an adjunct instructor at these institutions. These smaller institutions do not want to hire Ph.D.s and the cost associated with that level of education. Many smaller colleges are even offering tenured-track positions to master’s level graduates.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics confirmed what I had suspected about the prospects for writing jobs from now until 2018. Cross-referencing the information about writing with Post-Secondary Education positions in English, the numbers support my suspicions that finding work as a writing instructor/professor in the next few years will be good. Work for freelancers is even more promising. The factors influencing the increase in hiring include: demographic changes, digital media, and the growth of community colleges. http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos066.htm

When I grow up
When I am through with my graduate and maybe a Ph.D. program, I would like to work with college student to help them to write better online. I want to stay current with all the latest digital media and trends and merge them into my syllabus. I would like to help traditional and nontraditional students to acquire digital writing skills that will prepare them for a changing job market.

MAPW Research and Issues 6000

Beginning Research and Issues 6000 class for my Master in Arts of Professional Writing degree,  I am attaching my writing resume and a communications major. I feel like a “hack” being interviewed about writing, but here it is. Notice how I toy with my favorite writing tool – The Sharpie.

Lisa_M_Russell_Writing_Resume