One thing I know for certain: If you write in dialect, your computer’s spell-checker is going to demand over-time wages—but it won’t do you a licka good nohow, so don’t pay it no mind, y’hear?
Listen, I love writing in dialect—I just don’t recommend it. Not because The Wonderbread Publishing Corporation ‘experts’ tell us not to, but because most of you probably aren’t very good at it. I know that’s harsh, but who am I to Tom Sawyer the truth? Notice how I excluded myself from the pack? Well, that’s only because I’m arrogant and have come to the conclusion I am blessed with an unusually ‘well-attuned ear’. Yeah, I’m a pretty good listener. So, those of you who also possess well-attuned ears are free to exclude yourselves as well—assuming you’re arrogant enough to pull it off, and aren’t averse to wearing Kevlar undies. It’s amazin’ how many enemies a feller kin attract jes’ by scribblin’ this way.
In order to write believable dialogue in dialect, you must be able to hear it. Did you hear me? You have to hear it. If you can’t truly hear it, my friends, you can’t write it.
Listen, we all know that guys from Brooklyn speak in dese, dems, and dos, right? Sure. But if that’s all you got, man, you ain’t never heard Lefty the Nose shuckin’ the jive down on Flatbush waitin’ for the green line to shake down the tube, hear me? That’s Brooklynese with no dese, no dems, no dos. The upshot is: no matter what you think, if you ain’t been on his block, man, you ain’t never heard his music, and you can’t pretend to pitch his patter. Simple as that. There is nothing worse than dialect written in stereotype without the proper rhythms, inflections, and colloquialisms. And you’re whistlin’ in the wind if you try to approximate it without you ain’t heard it. If it ain’t burned into your inner ear, friend, you can’t sing it.
But don’t be too discouraged, friends, because I’ve got a little trick, a shortcut, to share with you. I listen to actors. Yeah, actors. Good actors. Actors whose ears sing unto my ears, and sing me the truth.
When I want to write New York wiseguy, I filter my dialogue through Joe Pesci’s voice. Don’t laugh. It works. If you can truly hear Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, and you’ve mastered phonetics, you’re halfway home when it comes to writing the New York wiseguy dialect. Halfway. The other half requires you to provide Joe’s voice with the appropriate words, rhythms, and nuances. I’m not talking about plagerizing famous screenplays, I’m advocating cultural assimilation via cinematic immersion. Forget the words, just listen to Joe’s rhythms and inflections. I can’t stress it enough—writing dialect is about hearing music. When it’s on pitch, it’s tight harmony. When it isn’t, well, it’s embarrassing.
You want to write good cowboy? U.S. western dialect? Easy. Commit to memory all of Robert Duvall’s lines from Lonesome Dove. If you can approximate Gus McCrea’s drawl, and Larry McMurtry’s genius for colloquial dialogue, you are going to be one mighty convincin’ dialogue-slingin’ hombre.
Listen, the world is full of dialects, vernacular, idioms, and colloquialisms. And when handled with care and aural acuity, they can deeply enrich your work, and enthrall all but the laziest of readers. But I caution you to be very careful. When it comes to dialect and vernacular, if you can’t sing it, you can’t write it.
ABOUT LEE ALLEN HILL
In her recent essay A REAL WRITER, DJS Harrington talked about the difference in writing as art vs. craft. She suggested that the sometimes homogenized, craftsman-like requirements of compositions written for money aren’t compatible with writing artistically – freeing oneself from hard and fast construction rules and allowing one’s creativity to flow. She believes a writer must make a choice between writing’s rules and originality. DJ goes so far as to assert that learning the basic rules of writing actually hampers creativity.
From a professional as well as a personal standpoint I agree there are different forms of writing with very different technical requirements. Where we differ is that I think a writer’s goal is to master the skills required by all of them.
This week, I received an e-mail from a purported high school student who agreed wholeheartedly with DJ and tried to turn her words into an excuse not to learn the basics of English grammar or to comply with writing guidelines in class. This student argued that what was said was more important than the way it was expressed, and so learning the rules would be an impediment to creativity.
On behalf of teachers, editors, and readers everywhere, I’d like to say, “Nice try!”
Let’s talk shop.
If good writing – the art of clear written communication – is something of a religion to its practitioners, its Holy Trinity is spelling, punctuation and grammar. They’re so important that writers and editors have turned them into the acronym SPAG. To be told your writing is full of SPAG is not a good thing.
Spelling encompasses everything to do with vocabulary—using exactly the right word in the right way, spelled correctly. “Easy,” you say? One writer recently confided to me that he checks as many as five thesaurus entries for each descriptive word he uses. The prose that results from this attention to detail is rich, lively and remarkably original. He communicates his vision exactly as he envisions it, often using double meanings, metaphor, and even nonsequiturs to facilitate the reader’s understanding or to inject humor. But he couldn’t attain this remarkable achievement if he didn’t begin with a strong vocabulary and the ability to spell at least well enough to look those words up.
In my opinion, grammar is our second most effective writing tool (vocabulary is the first). The style of grammar we use defines our characters. It brings our settings into focus. It gives us our Voice. As such, I don’t believe there is any such thing as “good” or “bad” grammar. Grammar should be appropriate to the character, time, place and effect we’re trying to create. Getting it right requires knowledge, research, and a well-tuned ear.
What about punctuation? Do we really have to memorize all those rules? Well, we’ve all read jokes in which stories mean outrageously different things depending upon how they’re punctuated. Writers love to make readers laugh. But it’s better when they laugh with us, not at us, right? Those dots and dashes and squiggles we call punctuation are the traffic cops of language. What you use, and where, really does matter if you want to make your meaning clear.
So there it is. Yes, creative writers really do have to learn the rules. They’re our creative tools. With practice, we learn how to use them effectively and don’t have to think about them so quite so much. At that point, we can let our creativity flow, reasonably confident that the intended meaning of what we write will be understood and enjoyed.
I always hated poetry. It’s a big drawback when your specialist subject is English Literature. I remember being forced to study Byron, Shelley and all the rest. I used to fantasize about inventing time travel so that I could go back and torture them. I would read their awful words to them as they roasted slowly on a spit. Just before they breathed their last, I would read Vogon poetry to them. Oh, I had it all planned.
Things didn’t improve when I did my degree. It wasn’t that I couldn’t understand it; I just hated it. I wrote very good essays on the poems I studied because I worked out what my lecturers wanted me to write. I understood that a good poem should have certain elements in it, so I knew what I was looking at. I didn’t have to enjoy it, did I?
Why did I hate it so much? Well, I think it wasn’t the poetry itself; it was the pretentious bollocks that went with it. My university lecturers would wax lyrical over forms and meanings and it left me cold. They dissected the greats as though studying the anatomy of a frog, which ruined the whole experience. They managed to make the poets sound like pretentious idiots.
To be fair, it wasn’t helped by the choice of pretentious idiots, sorry, poets on the syllabus. I would have preferred Roger McGough to Percy Bysshe Shelley any day of the week, but McGough was not considered high literature. I wish my lecturers had familiarized themselves with Bloody Poetry. It’s a brilliant play by Howard Brenton about Shelley and Byron, which exposes them for the arrogant, degenerate fops they really were.
Poetry seemed to be a very showy art form. The poets were saying, ‘look at me! I am clever! I can put words into some sort of order, and I can use the words from the arse-end of the dictionary that none of you plebs have heard of.” At least, that’s how it seemed to me. They weren’t writing for the likes of me; they were writing for an elite group of higher beings. Intellectual masturbation, that's what I'd call it.
I graduated with honours and a reinforced love of classic novels. I forgot the poetry completely. I didn’t look at a poem for ten years. I was forcibly dropped back into poetry when I began work in the theatre. One of the ladies on box-office duty fancied herself as a poet, and she did nothing whatsoever to dispel my loathing. To say she was pretentious was an understatement. On her Facebook page she would post her work, accompanied by a nauseating little status – ‘Everyone’s talking about Ann Boleyn, so I wrote this little poem.’ Show off! Stop trying to sound clever, it really doesn’t suit you. That might sound harsh, but she really was insufferable.
I was fortunate enough to meet the great Pam Ayres at the theatre. She did an evening of poetry, and really was a lovely lady. I was operating the lights for her show, and I thought she was brilliant. Her poems were funny and endearing, but, like Mr McGough, not worth considering by the literary elite. It was suggested some years ago that the public should choose Britain’s Poet Laureate, not the Queen. One of the objections put forward by the academics was, ‘if they vote, we’ll end up with Pam Ayres.’ What would be wrong with that? Why does poetry have to be high-falutin’ waffle?
This was the beginning of a change in my view. Not all good poetry has to be deep and tortuous. It can be lighthearted and funny. Poets don’t have to be dark, brooding ponces. I really don’t understand why the academics don’t see this. Pam Ayres’ grasp of form and metre is just as good, so why isn’t her work taught in schools?
I've now discovered a few more poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah who don't have delusions of grandeur, but I'm afraid it isn't quite enough to turn me into a poetry lover. I'll stick to prose, thanks very much, and leave the fancy stuff to people who think frilly shirts look good on a man.
ABOUT EMMA FAWSON
“To be an artist is to risk admitting that much of what is money, property, and prestige strikes you as just a little silly." "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron
Did you read that quote carefully? Read it again. I don't know about you, but I had an "ah ha" moment when I first came across it. This is not a book review. I have done that in an earlier posting. When I came across that particular statement, I knew it was important. It spoke to me in a way I needed to understand more deeply.
The quote forced me to admit I would dearly love to earn money and prestige as a writer. In addition, I recognized if I kept those things as my goals, I'd suffocate my creativity. If my eye was constantly on the prize of fame and fortune, then who was I writing for? Was I expressing who I am? Or was I writing to please someone else? By pursuing publisher and agents, was I forcing boundaries on what I created?
To find the answers, I had to delve into my original motivation for picking up a pencil. Like many of you, I started very young. It felt natural to write down my feelings and flights of imagination. It was like a toddler who babbles until she stumbles on to the right combination of sounds to make words. With these words, comes power. “Mommy stay”, “Daddy no”, or “I want.” Mommy and Daddy listened and reacted.
It was the same heady emotion when I completed those first badly done poems or stories. I remember the pure joy of holding those papers in my hands. Reading what I had created filled me surprise and satisfaction. Look at what I had done! I was a writer. When did I start questioning that? Who made me decide that I wasn’t a “real” writer? At what point, did I begin to believe that only a select few deserved that title?
Ms Cameron has a theory that the distinction between someone who writes and a “writer” begins in school. Academic assignments usually have strict guidelines for what is acceptable. When a student strays from the topic, red-penciled comments reprimands the budding writer. Correct grammar, sentence structure, and orderly paragraphs replace vivid descriptions and imaginative narratives. Students quickly learn higher grades are earned by paraphrasing facts than by original ideas.
Wanting to please and win praise, the child writer suppresses her innate desire to share her view of the world. She conforms to succeed in school. Comparing her writing to what is given high grades; the student begins to question the validity of her own creativity. Writers, she learns, are those chosen few who are published. Who am I to believe I’m a writer? Too often, self-doubt replaces the joy of putting words in beautiful disarray and discovery of a perfect reflection of her thoughts.
Even those of us who kept scratching away, we still retained the notion that we aren’t “real” writers. That prize is reserved for those who catch the eye of a publisher or agent. Only then, will we attain the elusive title “writer.” Until then, we are just amateurs. Take another look at that word, amateur. It’s from the Latin verb amare, “to love.” Isn’t that we all have, a love of the written word?
Just like the two year old who grabs on to each new word like a prize, shouldn’t we embrace this love? Why should we allow approval from the business of publishing to decide whether or not we are writers?
In my opinion, we shouldn’t. Each time I let the flow of creativity move my hand, I am a writer. I gift myself with the title artist. All the money, possessions, or publishing contracts in the world will not change that. If no one but me reads my work, that’s OK. I’m grabbing on to the joy of each word and celebrating the amateur in my soul.
Yes, Ms Cameron, to believe one has to earn money or fame to succeed is very silly. We are all artists.
ABOUT D. J. S. HARRINGTON
editor's note: All reviews are the sole opinion of the author. They are not an endorsement by Page & Spine. -NKW