Friday, November 19, 2010

Write Right

I've lately been reading Miss Marple murder mysteries by Agatha Christie, whose work I love. The key to Jane Marple's knack for solving mysteries is her aptitude for grasping human behavior. She commonly sees the people involved in the crime du jour and draws parallels between them and people in her small village, where she says everyone is much the same as anywhere else, but can more easily be observed. Los Angeles is no small village, but I do my best anyway. I don't expect to be put in the position of unraveling a whodunnit either, but understanding people (or at least wanting to) is good for my chosen line of work as well: the arts. To me it's all about uncovering truths about the human experience and finding ways of conveying them to people via one medium or another.

I was witness to something on the train last night that made me think about writing. Specifically, I got to thinking about dialogue. I had just rushed from some blocks away down into the station and onto the train. Two men were there already, talking quietly. This is the kind of thing I like to have transpiring when I'm on the train: something peaceful and inoffensive. It was worlds away from unwanted buskers or raucous and course sexual discussions that sometimes rule the day. What they were talking about is what arrested my attention. One man was in some apparent anguish as a result of his beloved being far away. He spoke of the difficulty posed to him by not having her right there beside him, and of how communication from a distance was inadequate to the task of maintaining closeness. His friend was sympathetic, and gamely attempted to help the man. It was quite touching, especially coming as it did from a couple of men like that.

That conversation struck me because these were not a couple of bright, articulate writers, and so they didn't sound like it in talking. They sounded like the not-heavily educated tradesmen I would guess them to be. The point that brings out is that often bright, articulate writers have a failing of being somewhat lazy in their writing of dialogue. What happens too much in their works is that whether the character is a poet or a plumber, he sounds like a bright, articulate writer. Don't think for a minute that I'm suggesting that ideas and concepts are restricted to particular types of people. Anyone could and does feel as the man I described. US senators, star athletes and dog groomers suffer heartache. They all express it differently, however. I place no relative value on how the bricklayer says what he thinks versus the same from a quick-witted comedian. What matters is authenticity.

One of the reasons Mark Twain is judged to have made the splash he did was that he was able to popularize the use of the common American vernacular in writing. He listened to how different people spoke, and was fairly successful in capturing that on the page, bringing diverse and distinct characters to life in so doing. Some hundred years after his death, not everyone who sits before a computer with the idea of composing fiction has gotten the lesson. Sadly, those intransigent pupils are frequently the most well rewarded. No one ever said that it always pays to do the right thing however, or at least they should not have said so. We must wait until the light changes before crossing the street and we must do the things that make for good art, not for acclaimed art or remunerated art. We must have hope that they will all be the same art someday.

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