Dialogue Rules

(This blog is about fiction-writing techniques and is a departure from my usual subject-matter. If this isn’t of interest, feel free to skip until next time!)

One of the things I particularly struggle with in fiction writing is dialogue. Considering how much of our lives we spend blabbing to each other, it doesn’t seem like it should be hard to create realistic dialogue on the page… but it is. Continue reading “Dialogue Rules”

Letter to No One

Dear Friend,

It has been far too long since we’ve talked – or rather written. I miss our old exchange of ideas, the conversation, the flow of words, the surprising revelations that only written thoughts make possible.

Oh, Facebook can be very charming. I appreciate the news of babies I would not have heard of, job successes and health problems and hilarious videos and pictures. I enjoy all of this. The trouble is, Continue reading “Letter to No One”

Going to Your Brother, Again

My husband and I both have a particular small failing, and not so long ago we received a complaint about it. We could see that the relationship with this person had suffered because of this failing, and we felt bad. “Why didn’t you tell us before?” we wailed.

“I did,” was the devastating response. Continue reading “Going to Your Brother, Again”

A Portrait of The Poster

lettuce

I worked with a guy who had this as his desktop image. This was in the days before Facebook was such a big deal; certainly, long before it became so meme-heavy. The image had novelty, and in fact I was so tickled by it that I ran to the internet, found it, and saved it for my own future amusement. (To be honest, I still can’t see lettuce without giggling a little inside.)

In a discussion about Facebook today someone posited that the things people post – even silly memes – “reveal much about those who post. It could be a way to revealing a bit of the emotional struggles that they are going through (under stress, need to laugh, or a need to share with others).” And as ridiculous as it sounds, that honestly had not occurred to me in that specific way. At least not in the context of silly pictures of cats (to pick just one scapegoat).

The use of such an image – and the ones that succeeded it from the same site – was completely in character for my coworker. He was famously random, off-beat, even eccentric, but his randomness had a predictable hilarity to it that was regarded with indulgent fondness. I have no doubt that if he is active on Facebook, his page continues to make his friends tilt their heads to the side and say, “That’s really odd.” And then laugh.

I have several intelligent, well-educated friends who frequently post intriguing articles it is impossible not to read – even when they’re on subjects I wouldn’t have said I was interested in. I have a number of witty or “punny” friends, and friends who are always having small adventures, whose statuses are not only enjoyable but immensely repeatable. I have friends with definite interests (writing, gardening, travel and photography, off the top of my head) and friends with unique voices. I have Facebook-friends who are honest about their lives in large and deep ways that make me determined to have them as real-life friends. There is even one person who shows up in my feed whose statuses are confined to such cheering things as “I’m tired” or “bad day” or “so bored”.

And I would say that all of these things are true to who these people are in person.

Yes: what we say and do says a lot about who we are, and that’s true whether we’re in person or online. Whether we are kind or dismissive, joyful or negative, goofy or serious, that comes out in what we share. No, nobody does this perfectly. I certainly don’t. Nor is there anything wrong with presenting different facets of ourselves at different times. There is not even anything wrong with posting silly memes (after all, many of them are clever and most are funny enough to elicit an involuntary smile, even from me!).

The same person who made the comment about posts revealing the poster added something very wise:

Social Media can be a lot like attending a party. It is not always easy to control what the others are bringing to the party. You can only choose to respond to those conversations that appeal to you.

My husband is fond of saying that Facebook’s problem is that it does what nobody would ever dream of doing in person, because it is an obvious recipe for disaster: collecting everybody you know in one place and having an open conversation that any and all of those people can participate in. In such a situation, there is absolutely a need for people to take the above advice, to tune in or out as they desire.

And yet… in face-to-face conversation, most of us recognize certain responsibilities. You have the responsibility not to be deliberately offensive. To avoid (at least in certain contexts) controversial subjects. Not to monopolize the conversation with a topic your hearer has no interest in.

Do we have these same responsibilities online? I believe that we do. With hundreds of potential hearers, no, it is not possible that everything you say will be interesting to everyone. But most of what you say should have value or meaning – preferably a variety of types of value. You should post at intervals that allow others’ newsfeed not to be dominated by you.

Of course people can block you if they don’t like what you have to say. Just as someone you’re talking to at a cocktail party can zone out or ignore you. But it’s not a pleasant position to be in – and why would you force someone to block you if you could possibly help it?

And yet… even if you think that online all the responsibility rests on the hearer, there is no getting around the fact that whether they react or not, people will evaluate you based on what you share.

I don’t think I know too many people who are accurately represented by pictures with silly captions. So the question is: are you risking being known as the person whose main contribution to the conversation is silly pictures and ecard wine jokes? And is that the impression you want to give?

Bravery & Honesty

I recently wrote and submitted an essay to a popular wedding-and-marriage themed website. It was the sort of post that gets praised as “honest” and “brave” and I was almost certain it would get published.

After a week of suspense, it did. I even received a kind note that the editorial staff “all really loved what you had to say.” Naturally, I was tickled pink. I was thinking to myself, “If what I have to say helps even one person, I will be so happy.”

On the appointed day the post was posted, I (naturally!) eagerly read the comments, and promptly realized why honesty is so often labeled as “brave.”

It was, surprisingly, something I had never thought about before. My approach to life is very much: let’s all be open with each other, without taking offense, so that we can all learn together. There are certainly people who think there are better ways of interacting and I have, in certain situations, given in to that advice… probably for the best. But in general I haven’t noticed any overtly negative reactions that would make me change my view. My honesty has almost never called for bravery; and it had never called for bravery after the courage to confess was mustered.

I wrote the post because I had felt alone, realized belatedly that I was not, and hoped to spare others the same shamed loneliness. And then all the comments up until lunchtime were about how others had exactly the opposite experience I did. They were perfectly happy. They had never had this problem. Though I have never seen a truly trollish comment on this site, one person did go so far as to say that perhaps her experience was different because her parents had provided a good example. (I didn’t mention my parents in the post, and as it happens, they were also a good example. But thanks for the implication, sweetie.)

I spent my lunch hour near tears.

In the afternoon, however, the tone changed. Several people thanked me for the post and said it was exactly what they needed to read.

So I stopped reading comments. I’m sure the post has acquired more, and perhaps the not-so-kind commenter, who was gently rebuked by others, has even backtracked. A part of me is curious. The bigger part of me knows that I don’t need to know. Whatever the sum of the reactions, what I said helped one person – more than one person – and that is enough.

It was a small experience but an important one. I can now be brave when I am honest. But it changes nothing else. The world needs more honesty. And perhaps more bravery too.

Fixing the Problem is the Problem

This is sort of a companion piece to Complaining for Peace, which I wrote nearly two years ago. During that time I’ve read new books, watched some situations play out, and come to think about things slightly differently.

To be clear, I still stand by everything I said in that post; telling me when I’m off base is absolutely the greatest act of friendship there is. I’m sad that I don’t feel able to be a true friend to more people. In the last few years a lack of honesty about “wow, you shouldn’t have done that,” both to me and from me, has driven a wedge in several valued friendships.

But… I’ve also come to realize that sometimes being brutally honest just isn’t a viable solution, or even the best option. Unfathomable as it is to me, there are people in the world who don’t want to hear truth and will hate you for forcing them to see it – however briefly. Or, more understandably, there are people who absolutely would want to change if they could see what needed to be done, but aren’t ready for it yet.

A few years ago I took a personality/aptitude test that said my most dominant characteristic was a desire for “Harmony.”

People strong in the Harmony theme look for consensus. They don’t enjoy conflict; rather, they seek areas of agreement.

I scratched my head for a full week. So did everybody who heard of the results. How could the girl who never shied from an argument dislike conflict?

Then I started thinking, well, yes, I do want harmony. I want the peace that comes from an absolute absence of friction. I hate the conventional wisdom on literature that says a story needs conflict to be interesting; it annoys me when characters cause problems for themselves – I just want them to do the right and logical and reasonable and generous thing, and be happy.

The odd twist I put on it is that whenever I find conflict, I want it resolved, not just glossed over. For many years I had a certain OCD about telling people whenever they were doing something that negatively affected themselves or others. Despite what others might have thought, (most of the time) I wasn’t trying to be superior – I was trying to be helpful.

Which is perfectly valid in certain circumstances which meet all of the following criteria:

  1. the person would want to change if they knew
  2. the person is capable of hearing what you have to say
  3. the person is ready to hear what you have to say
  4. your delivery doesn’t interfere with their hearing

But, unfortunately, many situations will not meet the criteria. And in those cases, saying something will not only not resolve the current conflict, it will create a new one.

In such cases, the best option is to cultivate one’s own patience and peacefulness – and tolerance, even love, of others and their foibles.

But I expect there will be a third part to this series in another few years, because keeping in mind George Bernard Shaw’s statement that “The only man who behaves sensibly is my tailor,” one must assume that someone who is not ready to hear at one time may well be ready at another – and I have not yet learned how to retake that measurement. I look forward to that day.

Peeing on the Carpet

Our five-year-old dog, who had been pretty well-behaved since her puppy training, has recently decided that every time we leave her alone she’s going to, shall we say, moisten her surroundings. Because she clearly knows this is wrong, and slinks around the house as soon as we get home, we’ve been classifying this as vindictive, manipulative behavior, but I wonder whether it isn’t something else – whether, like most acting out, it isn’t an expression of simple unhappiness.

I can almost hear her reasoning. “It makes me so unhappy when they leave me. I’m sure if they knew how unhappy it makes me, they wouldn’t do it. But I can’t speak, so I’ll have to think of something else. I know! I’ll pee on the carpet. I know they don’t like it, but surely they’ll realize something is very wrong if a good girl like me does something bad like that.”

The thing is, of course, we know she’s unhappy. She frowns at us when we leave for work and assumes an expression of grave concern at any unexpected getting-ready-to-go-out.

Nor is there any way for her, as a dog, to understand that no matter how much she might wish otherwise, we have to go to work and we aren’t going to change our minds about leaving her on a Sunday so we can attend a friend’s wedding.

So the question is: when we encounter one of those situations in life that is what it is no matter how we feel about it, or in which the only way for us to express our feelings is to make a scene, hurt or cause discomfort to others, do we have the maturity to realize that what we want is not always relevant and keep our feelings to ourselves, or do we pee on the carpet?

Summer School

When this blog went on extended hiatus this summer, it was not a rejection of the Eschewing Easy project. On the contrary (as many of my readers will know), I was committing to it for the rest of my life: I got married. I rather suspect that living happily ever after will provide the seed of many new Eschewing Easy posts.

The biggest lesson learned this summer? Planning a wedding is not easy or fun.

It is also great practice in leadership: from my perspective (although I’m sure others will disagree!), the bride can be regarded as the “CEO” of The Wedding. An involved groom is like a 40% shareholder – you’d better listen to what he wants. When the parents are paying, the Mother of the Bride is like the Board of Directors – the only person who can tell the bride what she absolutely cannot do. And the goal of it all is to fulfill the CEO’s vision while showing the “customers” – the guests – a good time.

I admit I thought of all this rather late in the process and therefore didn’t manage and lead the chaos as well as I might have. Turns out that no matter how determined one may be not to be a Bridezilla, planning a wedding does tend to focus one’s attention on Self and what “I” want. That’s a very hard position to lead from; you have to take a larger view if you’re going to manage (and keep happy) different factions.

The other thing I realized, at least more practically than I had previously, was that it’s hard to find the balance between being warm and emotive without being emotional, and between being decisive without being or seeming inconsiderate of others’ ideas.

Craving simplicity in a complex process, or just a brief respite from constant discussion, it’s easy to over-do the decisiveness, to pull rank, to put your foot down. It doesn’t work. Without consensus, or at least without others knowing you’ve given open-minded consideration to their ideas, resentment builds, everybody digs in their heels, and discussion accelerates – at a greatly increased level of tension.

Still, I’d say the end product was worth it all.

first kiss

Mother of the Bride and family friends under the pergola
Mother of the Bride and family friends under the pergola
friends enjoying the party
You know your wedding has a relaxed atmosphere when friends wander away and seat themselves on the grass.

It’s good to be back.

In the Face of a Royal Pain

Among the armfuls of books I pillaged from the closing of the local Borders was one I first read over five years ago, Sex With Kings, which tells the story of various royal mistresses in various European countries over the last 500 years. It’s not quite as salacious as it sounds, and I found it even less glittering when rereading it.

You see, royal mistresses sometimes weren’t very pretty, and even the most beautiful woman at court might not hold the king’s interest for more than a few weeks. (Madame de Pompadour, the quintessential royal mistress who held the attention of Louis XV for 19 years, didn’t even have sex with him for most of that time.)

To be the maîtresse en titre (“official mistress,”), a formal position that was usually held for years, even decades, required intelligence, loyalty, creativity, and, most often, a sweet disposition that put the king above all else.

In her early years as royal mistress, Madame de Pompadour was often required to accompany Louis on his frequent hunts… in all kinds of weather. Despite the fact that these excursions often gave her pneumonia, she put on her riding habit and omnipresent smile and went off to join the king.

Perhaps her best role was that of royal listener. The king had the unfortunate habit of recounting the same stories innumerable times, of discussing the same themes – hunting, illness, and death. And his mistress, who hated talk of hunting, illness, and death, concealed her yawns behind a smile….

Nor could she leave her apartments for exercise or a change of scene lest the king suddenly appear wanting food, conversation, or sex. Despite the daunting challenges of her schedule, she never permitted herself to show fatigue, boredom, or illness, never expressed frustration, anger, or crankiness.

Two incidents in particular show her remarkable self-control under constant and extreme stress:

In one case, Madame de Pompadour, suffering from a horrendous migraine, sent the king word that she was ill and unable to attend dinner. He insisted she come down anyway. And so she went, and was pleasant to him when she got there.

Later, her 10-year-old daughter and only child died at school. Within two weeks, Madame de Pompadour’s father also died. But it would be fatal to bore the king with her grief. Someone who saw her soon after reported:

“I saw the Marquise for the first time since… a dreadful blow that I thought had completely crushed her. But because too much pain might have harmed her appearance and possibly her position, I found her neither changed nor downcast.” Though the prince saw her chatting cheerfully with the king, he thought that she “was in all likelihood just as unhappy inside as she seemed happy on the outside.”

In fact, there is only one recorded incident of Madame de Pompadour losing her temper at the king, and I suspect that was a deliberate strategy to make her point.

In the end, her reign over the king ended only with her early death – likely hastened by the constant strain on her health for those 19 years.

My point? Yes, she chose her career and evidently thought the rewards were worth the suffering, and while I might not agree with her weighting of those things, the fact remains: if she could show that kind of patience, forbearance, and calmness of temper for that long, and in the face of that kind of unreasonableness – how do I ever think I have any excuse for showing my annoyance?

Road to Nowhere

I can’t remember now what set me off, but I was in one of my annoyed, impatient moods, and so we were having a disagreement about something I would usually accept as the status quo.

‘Being a jerk is a shortcut.’

‘No it’s not.’

‘Yes it is.’

‘No, it’s not.’

‘Well, it would be for me.’

It was an effective final word, but I’ve been nagged by it ever since. I meant it at the time and I’m sure I was making a very specific point, but – a shortcut to what? What benefit does one get from being a jerk that isn’t obtainable by, say, not being a jerk?

It’s possible that being a jerk could be a misguided attempt at success and mass respect. We tend to think that if we’re just adamant enough about what (we think) we know, others will come to see us as the geniuses we are. Or we think that slowing down enough to get others’ input or make our colleagues feel appreciated will cost us our chance at winning the rat race. But I don’t think that applied in this case.

No, more likely what I meant was that being a jerk is a coward’s way of communicating. Manage it with enough panache and you can skate, apparently unaffected, out of so many distressing situations. Say something tactless and cause offense? Announce, “But everybody knows I’m a jerk,” and walk away, as if it’s their fault for being too sensitive. Flirt a little too much, give someone the wrong impression and raise hopes you didn’t mean to raise? Instead of the embarrassing but considerate “I’m so sorry; that isn’t what I intended” conversation, just ignore them pointedly! After the initial confusion and hurt, they’ll realize how wrong they were. Clearly, you can’t be held responsible. And while you’re at it, be sure to imply that people who do care about their effect on other people are weak and lacking an individual personality.

What we want is happy, peaceful, drama-free relationships. If you can’t be bothered with other people’s problems, then you can pretend that’s what you have. And it is doubtless easier to “resolve” certain difficult situations by being a jerk. When other people frustrate you, there’s a certain appeal to being so annoying to them that they give up on you. It saves you the hard work of strengthening the relationship and – added bonus! – you get to blame them for leaving you and play the victim.

Yes, I can see how being a jerk could be mistaken for a shortcut. But I suspect if you followed the shortcut long enough, you’d find it was a dead end.