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Tin House Live: On Dialogue with Dorothy Allison

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David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida’s That Hair, an autobiographically inspired tragic comedy that interweaves memories of childhood and adolescence, family lore spanning four generations, and present-day reflections on the internal and external tensions of a European and African identity. Says John Keene, “In That Hair, Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida’s wrily ironic and slyly beautiful new novel, translated with grace and nuance by Eric M. B. Becker, the author offers us a ‘philosophy of hair,’ she creates a compelling post-colonial feminist and critically raced poetics of the self, and of being and becoming in contemporary Portugal and the West.” That Hair is available now from Tin House books.

At the beginning of the last episode with Mark Haber, we talked about the bookstore where Mark is operations manager in Houston, Brazos books and the new bookstore bypassed Between the Covers guest Kelly Link called Book Moon Books as two places to consider supporting all bookstores are closed by ordering books from them online. Today, I wanted to mention an initiative here in Portland to support the hundreds of employees of Powell’s Books who were laid off because of the pandemic, some of whom have worked at the store for two or even three decades and yet leave without any safety net for their service. Tin House will be donating all of its online sales for the month of April to the Powell’s employees worker Relief Fund which has been set up through their local union. So as you consider what to add to your quarantine reading list, consider purchasing some books at and support the dedicated booksellers who, for now, can no longer sell you books. If you’d rather donate to the fund directly, you can do so at, if you choose to donate this way and then email your donation receipt to Tin House at the email address, you will receive a Tin House surprise Swag Bag in return. Links to all this can be found at the Tin House website.

Lastly, I approached Lance Cleland, the director of the Summer and Winter Tin House Writers Workshops, about the possibility of ramping up the availability of the content from the workshop archives, the many craft talks, readings, and panels over the years during the pandemic. We are hoping, in the coming months, to give you more of these and more frequently. While we wait to get approval to share these talks from the writers themselves, we’re going to kick off the Spring Tin House Live series with one of the highlight episodes from the old Tin House podcast, a lecture from the 2011 Tin House Summer Writers Workshop given by the singular Dorothy Allison On Dialogue, on what is said and not said, on dialect and rhythm, on pacing, patterns in speech, and most importantly, the language of gesture and avoidance. Like the recent lecture by Alexander Chee from a couple of months ago, this one rewards multiple listens. So without further ado, here is none other than Dorothy Allison On Dialogue.

Dorothy Allison: Early-warning, I cuss, just be ready. I just love that these things are so phallic [laughter] and one always wants to do something really obscene with them but that’s so predictable so I won’t. All right, let’s get my notes together. We know that we’re approaching the end-all because I’ve lost my favorite pen. By the time that’s gone, we’re getting ready to head home. I’ve lost my tape recorder. I lost two pages out of a manuscript. If you see two pages with a lot of cussing, that’s me. [laughter] Bring it to me. So this is about dialogue. What happens, maybe you don’t know how all this works, that dulcet-toned young man either calls you or send you an email in which he inquires of you what you would most like to speak about and you’re like, “I don’t want to talk, I just want to read fiction and flirt with girls.” [laughter] But you know that in the exchange of the community, you got to give back, it’s tithing, it’s necessary, and you’re thinking, “Oh, fuck, what can I talk about?” and you think, “Oh, I know all this shit. I can probably make something up.” Next thing you know, you’re talking about place and you think, “What do I know, dialogue? I know how to talk. I can do that.” [laughter] Then weeks later, you realize, “Oh, my God, I gotta talk about dialogue. I better make some notes. I better figure out what I know. I better pull out some stories and read some dialogue.” I did that. I don’t know shit about dialogue. [laughter] After I started reading, I pulled out Cormac McCarthy and read Suttree and I’m like, “You know, that man talks through that book and he’s talk-talk-talking and I’m like I’m dirt, I’m fecal matter, I don’t know anything.” [laughter] We should get him to come talk about dialogue. But I will know, my motto is “be of use,” be useful [laughter] so I can give you a few signposts and some embarrassing revelations from my own history in learning how to write and learning how to write dialogue or I could trade with Steve and I could do the deep of humor.

Audience: Nope.

DA: Nope. [laughter] But I should tell you that early on when I was a baby writer, I thought my job was to fill pages. I thought my job was to get as much copy on the page as possible which led to exchanges in which there was a lot of dialogue, hell of a lot of white space, and dialogue like this, “Hey.” “Hey.” “How are you doing?” “Not bad.” [laughter] “You been here before?” “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.” “It changed much?” “Well, you know, it’s always different.” [laughter] Now that fills the page. I don’t say anything. “Hey.” “Hey.” “Hey.” That is not dialogue. Dialogue actually should accomplish something. Now, if you Google the rules of dialogue, you’ll get some stuff that I don’t necessarily agree with, but early on, one of the things it will tell you is do not reduce yourself to profanity and slang. [laughter] But I don’t actually understand anybody that doesn’t cuss and I don’t know how to talk out of people that don’t cuss or use slang. I find that dialogue with cussing and slang is like a rock and roll band with a good drummer. It works for me and it layers and textures. So let me just say that if you Google the rules of dialogue, you will find some really useful information which I can get behind and some people that ain’t writing because they’re not making people cuss. Let me be clear, people cuss in situations of extremity; and actually, shouldn’t story be extremity? Shouldn’t story be something fuckin’ happening? If something is happening, then people are going to react, they are going to exclaim, and they are going to give their own particular cussing. Now, it is the case that we are here with some math nerds, the boys I love to death in the little flyers and [laughter] those things that got tie to their necks [laughter] and the intercultural faith something or other people. [laughter] so that if you walk across Reed campus as I do with your mind wide open, a notebook in hand, or the little tape recorder that I have left somewhere, you will find people making exclamations, having conversations, or the far more common thing, walking along talking to their cell phones; and I find myself stopping to write down everything I hear. My most extraordinary, oh, yeah, here you go, no, that was the dirty thing the girl said, [laughter] “Lovely, lovely woman in a really nice dress, tall black short hair, expansive gestures, stepping right outside of [0:09:28]. I’m halfway down the sidewalk and from behind, I hear her exclaiming to the gentleman who appears to be a presbyterian minister standing next to her and she says, ‘Well, shut the church door!’ And I stop so long and I turn around and I’m like, ‘What the fuck?’” I miss that one and I grew up among people who have a world of exclamations. What does it mean to say, “Well, shut the church door”? Now, that’s an exclamation. That’s a piece of banter. It’s not dialogue until the presbyterian minister says, “Uh-huh,” and that’s actually all you need, you need an exchange. So, let’s make some rules for dialogue, dialogue happens between, dialogue is an exchange. To a certain extent, it’s oppositional. If we’re going to go back to that rock band, it’s [drum beats] the drum beats are echoing each other, we gotta echo each other to purpose, otherwise, you’ve got all these sons of bitches walking around talking on their cell phones, people talking on their cell phones. Do you not know that I am listening? [laughter] And I am writing everything down? So, the most common thing that you hear, maybe it’s just me, but the most common thing I hear is, “She said what? He said what? What?” I don’t believe that for a minute. I don’t believe that. Mostly, what you get on cell phones is the exclamations again but they’re talking to somebody and I can’t help myself, I automatically fill in the response. “She said what? Hell yes, she said damn.” No, no, that’s not sufficient. She said, “Motherfucker,” and you know she ain’t the kind of person that says motherfucker easily. Now, that’s a conversation, that’s an exchange, that’s more than “Hey.” “Hey.” “Where have you been?” “I don’t know. I’m just [0:11:51].” Oppositional, something is going on, something has to have a return, echoes, drum beats, and at its best, surprise, at its best. Now, I’m going to quickly give you some Dorothy’s rules for making it better. [laughter] First, rubber gloves. [laughter] One is walk around with a goddamn notebook, carry a tape recorder, listen, listen to how people actually talk. However, do not write the way people actually talk because three-quarters of what people say is meaningless; I’m sorry but it is. Three-quarters of what people say is filler, three-quarters of what people say is “mmm” and more importantly, people talk funny, that sounds really ridiculous coming from me but what we want on the page is a rendering of speech that is more believable than how people genuinely talk. The trick is to listen to how people talk, write it down, and then, in the way of the world, edit it. Make it actually more to the point, stronger. That ridiculous, “Hey.” “Hey.” “How you doing?” “I don’t know,” that conversation isn’t a conversation unless you actually take it down, edit it, and keep the two essential things that people say. So, yes, I am encouraging you to be an eavesdropper and a theft of other people’s speech. I am encouraging you to then write that speech down and later, much later in some cases, hear it again and see if it works on the page. Remarkably enough, “Well, shut that church door!” doesn’t actually work if I don’t know what was going on before she said that. This means I am asking you to start paying attention and I need you to pay attention to the fact that really good writing is life with the dull parts taken out. Really, good dialogue is dialogue brought down to the essentials with all the filler taken out. One of the things that you figure out really quickly when you start listening to how people talk and making notes is that we got a lot of filler. A lot of stuff that can go by the by. This is going to be terrible. I don’t know how to tell you this shit without being rude but some of it is just rude; we don’t know how to talk. When we sit down to write people talking, the greatest majority of what I begin with is paranoid monologue. Now, I know that you guys are probably much better at this than I am but when I am making up a character, when I’m making up a person out of nothing, I get them talking and I get them talking on the page versus talking. I don’t recommend beginning talking into tape recorders, it encourages you in bad directions. But I do know that to create a character, you got to try stuff out and that means you’ve got to get them talking so that if you’re imagining a person, we’re making up, oh, I don’t know, teenage girl from Kentucky whose brother has just—I want to give you some stereotypical predictable caricaturist stuff, get ready—whose brother has just rolled his daddy’s truck. She’s going to try to talk to you. She’s young and she probably doesn’t cuss much because teenage girls in Kentucky get slapped a lot if they cuss too much, so she won’t be my usual, but she’s going to start talking to you about who she is and she’s going to talk to you about your brother and she says, “He ain’t got a lick of sense,” you’ve heard that before, right? He ain’t got a lick of sense. “You know he rolled that truck because he was going too fast and mama has told him don’t go too fast. I’ve told him don’t go too fast but nobody listens to me. I’m 15 and ever since I cut my hair real short, nobody listens to a word I say.” Now, that’s how you build a character. Ever since I cut my hair real short, nobody listens to a word I say. Now she goes on talking, she goes on talking. In the creation of a character, I can do 10, 12 pages of this shit. Of that 10, 12 pages, when I come down to her actually talking on the page in the story, I’ll have one page that I keep, one selected series of her statements and they won’t work if somebody isn’t talking back at her. One of the most productive things I ever got to do was I was invited by a friend of mine, Cherríe Moraga, to come and sit in on a class she was taking as a playwright with Irene Fornés in New York about 25, maybe 30 years ago. God, I’m old. But the glory of that was that Miss Fornés taught a workshop in which she made the playwrights go down on the stage and all the actors sit in the bleachers and the playwright had to speed wrap the character and basically develop a deeper appreciation of the character through talking in the voice of the character. This is about monologue, big dense monologues; “Yeah, I wanted to kill him. I have wanted to kill him since the day he walked out of this room. I want to kill him. I want to kill him creatively. I don’t want to poison him. I don’t want to stab him. I want to bleed him slow;” that one has stayed with me. [laughter] That’s monologue. That is someone talking out of the glory of personality and that’s wonderful but that ain’t dialogue. Dialogue is when you get two ego-driven playwrights on the stage delivering alternating monologues but they have to, in some way, connect. That’s the tricky part. Now, you probably know this better than I do but it took me a long damn time to figure out that I couldn’t just have people walk into the story and deliver monologues, that, in fact, there had to be something going on between the people; they had to love each other, hate each other, or be afraid of each other, or be in lust with each other. It could be Stephen King and we’re fighting giant bugs but we’re fighting together. They had to be an exchange going on and that most of the time, for that exchange to be really powerful, it has to be oppositional and that one of the great oppositionals is, “I can’t trust you. You lie to me.” “I’m not lying to you.” “You’ve lied to me every time you said I love you, you were lying to me.” “All right. Maybe I don’t love you the way you want me to love you, but…” now, that’s oppositional, that’s an exchange, that’s dialogue. These two people have really strong points of view. In the story, one of them actually is a liar, a betrayer, and a mess around and the other is in deep love and heartbreak, oppositional, exchange of energy. But we’re writers, we’re small-minded sons of bitches, we’re just trying to make somebody believe these characters we made up out of nothing and if they’re going to believe them, we got to give them some help believing them, we got to give them some help in dialogue. Stuff that helps. Dialect, recognizable tics of language. I love dialect but that’s because I have a dialect. [laughter] Shocking to me all you poor baby Yankees, you ain’t got no dialect. Everybody has a dialect. It’s just that everybody, when they hear the news, hear that voice on the news sounding like them, don’t think they have dialect. They think they’re all Katie Couric and whoever that son of the bitches who replaced her. They think they’re American news anchor voices. If you grew up in Connecticut, you probably are an American news anchor voice. But even them sons of bitches got dialect. They got recognizable tics. They speak in full sentences. [laughter] That’s a dialect. I know it’s a class bias but it’s a dialect. You people that speak independent clauses, that’s a dialect. It’s interesting, it’s the ruling dialect, it’s the hegemony, the rest of us, we’re colorful. [laughter]  Our dialect is actually labeled dialect. By that, I mean we have recognizable tics that the culture holds to some degree of both contempt and admiration. We shortened words, ain’t that so? Ain’t. We drop words out of our sentences completely and we fuck with tense and then we have our own varieties of English. Do you  remember when everybody was talking about black English? Where I come from we were talking redneck English? But it’s just about dropping words out of sentences and being willing to sound stupid. This is a big piece of dialect. If you’re willing to sound stupid, you have a recognizable pattern of speech. If you can create at least three characters who have distinct dialect, you will have dialogue because they won’t entirely understand each other and they’ll be cross-cutting. Go, read Suttree. Go, read Cormac McCarthy because he does it. But the thing is this, most people think that dialect is that disney Br’er Rabbit shit, “Don’t throw me in the briar patch!” that bullshit, do you know that stuff? [laughter] That’s what people think is dialect and they think it’s abbreviation, it’s cussing, it’s making reference to your aunts, uncles, car wrecks, and things like that. But the other thing about dialect is pacing, timing, and messing with, in fact, how people talk. The rumor is that southerners talk more slowly and with the drawl, that we take our time with our sentences, and that that, in fact, is dialect.  I always want to get together a character from a William Kennedy’s story and have that character be speaking to one of Flannery O’Connor’s people and see if they crosscut in an interesting way. I tried giving that assignment to my writing classes but either they haven’t recently read William Kennedy or they haven’t recently read Flannery O’Connor and we’re in big trouble to begin with. But pacing is not just about commas, pauses, and slowing down, it is, in fact, quite frequently about reversal of construction, about beginning the sentence with the verb rather than the noun, it’s about repeating signature phrases. You will recognize some of them. It is always about willingness to sound foolish. You always have to be willing to write a character that sounds funny to you until you can make it sound more acceptable to a reader. One of the tricks, the thing that people say to me is so funny and I just love it, people are always saying to me this thing about southerners, “You, people, talk so funny.” Has anyone ever said that to you? You don’t have to be a southerner for somebody to have said that to you. You, French Canadians, you get it all the time, don’t you? You, Nebraska farmers, you, people, just talk so funny. Actually, we do, we talk funny in the sense that we actually do have a language of inflection, humor, and irony that you could recognize us, but also, we do reversals, we do abbreviations, and we have phrases that we repeat all the time. You don’t say, “Well damn,” I don’t think I’ve ever written a story that didn’t have somebody say, “Well damn,” although I have recently made a rule that I can’t use it again for four and a half years [laughter] just to improve my own use of dialogue. Pacing is about, in fact, varying how people speak and contrasting how people speak. Has anybody said to you that all your characters sound alike? Somebody’s not doing their job because when I was a baby writer, all my characters sounded alike. They all sounded not only like they came from South Carolina but they grew up on the same block and went to the same church. [laughter] The thing I had to learn to do was make one of them sound like a Yankee so that there would be some contrast. You have to, in fact, read the material out loud. You don’t have to read it with inflection or any talent, you simply have to read it out loud to hear how your people speak on the page and then to change it. Some of them have got to speak differently than other people. They’ve given you this rule already. I always think when I come here that everybody else got the rules. I thought that from the time I was five that everybody else had been given the rules and they just didn’t slip them to me and I was going to have to figure it all out from context. Every time I come to Portland, I think there was a handout that I didn’t get [laughter] and I’ll just have to get it from context. All right, two things, two really big things, “Don’t do that,” he said, “I’m going to do what I want,” she said, “But I know what I’m talking about, you do that and they’ll think you’re trash,” she said. “I am not trash,” he said. He said, she said, he said, she said, you get really tired of that shit, don’t you? The only thing more tiresome is, “Don’t talk like that,” she said. [laughter] “I’ll talk the way I want to talk,” he picked up the hammer and he smashed it into the table. That’s the only thing more tiresome than he said, she said. It’s bits of physical business that are just a little bit over the top. But dialogue, in the context of physical description in which you see actual genuine people doing something, is alive. “Hey.” “Hey.” “You’ve been here before?” “Yeah.” “Hey.” “Hey, what?” He leaned over, he looked to the side, he didn’t want to seem nervous but he was, his hands on his knees were sweaty and you could see how his jeans wrinkled as he pulled the fabric tight. “You’ve been here before, right?” “Yeah,” he said slowly. All right, context, physical description, physical action, best of all possible things, physical action that denies the emotional weight of the language expressed in the dialogue. Let’s see. My son is dating this girl. I’m trying to like her but she’s dating my boy. They have Warhammer meetings—didn’t know what Warhammer is. Oh, Lord God, I’m raising a fanboy—there in the dining room, every Friday afternoon, four or five teenagers, and they’re all Warhammer people so some of them are elves and some of them are trolls. [laughter] All of them are warriors and they’re playing this game and they’ve read all the Warhammer novels. I’m going to start writing Warhammer novels because those suckers are coming out like steady. It’s a game and my son is, in fact, the dungeon master. He is the one who says to the other little boy across the table, “You have fallen into a crevasse.” [laughter] “It will take you four tosses of the dice to crawl out of a crevasse,” and I’m over there making spaghetti because you can’t feed teenagers nothing but spaghetti that I could afford. Then there’s that girl he’s dating, little Rose. Rose, I believe, is a warrior elf. [laughter] I get confused about this every occasionally but what I do know is that Rose has a hammer. Each of them has a weapon. They’re sitting at my dining room table with weaponry. One of them actually brings in a Jim Bowie knife and Rose has her hammer and Wolf has his sword that his goddamn gay godfather gave him. [laughter] It’s taller than he is and he’s laid it across, I mean, can you see this? You got the vision? Well, then I should give you the detail. One day, Rose showed up and she forgot her big old black hammer, she had to borrow my hammer. [laughter] I’m [0:30:26] my hammer is a ceramic handle with roses all over it. [laughter] It subverted her whole character to be holding this hammer, so you have her at the table voicing her dialogue, “I will cleave your skull in two,” she said lifting the rose patterned handle of her. [laughter] You know, “I will cleave your skull in two” is a pretty strong statement of dialogue but delivered by a teenage girl with a hammer with roses all over the handle, it’s a holy subverted version, you know what I’m talking about. The story of them at the table is way better than the elf killing the troll in the garden. Subversion, bits of business, actual body in the place doing something that either matches the dialogue being delivered or counters it strengthens the dialogue. I give you this as a gift, the way I would give you all my little hammer except Rose took it home with her. Don’t overdo the “he said, she said,” but given a choice between elaborate descriptive full-on adverb intensive description, stick to “he said, she said.” [laughter] Keep it simple. That works so much better. Stereotypes, profanity, slang, cussing. Sometimes, I write stories just to use some of the language I get to use in public, just to say “motherfucker” like that, “goddamn” like that or “praise Jesus.” Profanity is the salt of dialogue. It is the pepper. It is the spice. Therefore, unless you’re writing one of them boys that says goddamn every other word and that’s a recognizable type, you need to have that in your quiver of characters, but really, you should pay attention to the use of profanity because we don’t want to debase it. [laughter] We want it to be the recognizable tag, the identifying factor of that particular grandmother. A grandmother that wears a flower print shirtwaist dress and says “goddamn,” I believe in those grandmothers, I am related to those grandmothers. But if they say it all the time, that’s not useful. Pay attention to how you use it. Stereotypes. This may be a bigger problem for me than you. Most of the people that I write, I don’t write many rich girls from Stanford. I’ve written one but I broke both her legs. [laughter] I actually tend to write more the kinds of people I might be related to. I tend to write waitresses and people doing pickup, work at the bed-and-breakfast. I tend to write working-class regionally specific, redneck trash, about whom the rest of the world has a set of assumptions that I don’t share, about whom most of the world has a degree of contempt and fear that I don’t share, and a lot of what I do in making story out of these people is that I try to make them real and I try to make them, oh, honey, I tried to drag you into their skin and make you hurt real bad, so that you will understand them in a way that I think I want them to be understood. What I am actually doing in my mind is both a political, spiritual, culturally revolutionary act. I’m going to make you love people you ain’t got no reason to love in the world. But to do that, I have to put them into your heads and your heads are occupied by everything you think you know about them, every fear, every stereotype. What’s tricky about this is that I try to write what I think of as lyrical realism so I try to make them people that I believe in who are living lives that I recognize, keeping in mind that you will most likely have some things in mind that I’ll find offensive and I’ve got to counter it. What am I going to tell you? That my niece did get a job working at the Holiday Inn, cleaning the rooms and yes, in fact, the thing she was most proud of was what she was able to steal that you lovely middle-class people live lying about? [laughs] That’s terrible. I don’t want to write a story about that. Could you think that people like my niece steal? Do you think that every maid is going to snatch up your iPod if you leave it on the side table? I don’t want to write that because that just confirms all of your prejudice and your assumption and it plays into the stereotyping, it’s just awful. But I gotta tell you the story I really, really want to write is that when my niece stole that iPod and she listened through the music, my niece has got terrible taste in rock and roll and she stole an iPod that was full of Bach. [laughter] She’s like, “What is this shit?” and I’m like, “Oh, that’s a violin concerto. I heard that at Squaw Valley three years ago,” and she’s like, “What?!” But you know it’s an iPod. She’s got the conservatism of the poor, she couldn’t listen to it. [laughter] Got to where she liked it. Got to where she’s going for long walks playing Bach. No, the trick of the iPod is you got to occasionally plug it into the computer from which the music was originally derived. She didn’t have the computer, she just had the stolen iPod. She bought a charger, cost her more than she had expected to spend but she kept it charged up until finally, it demanded to be reattached to its original host computer and she lost Bach. She called me up, “What was that I was listening to again?” [laughs] I made her some mixtapes. [laughter] I want to write the story in which she stole the iPod but I got to find a way to get her talking on the page that you will understand that, in fact, when she stole the iPod, she stole it not just because of a huge number of complicated emotional things that happen when you’re a maid, cleaning up behind people who have peed on the carpet, who have left disgusting things in the bed, who have left such a mess that you hate them with every ounce of your being as you are cleaning up behind them and have to do a really good job to keep the job, the level of her class resentment, her intensity and her desire to good tip was all at war. At the last minute in a moment of rage, she snatched up that iPod and then she was terrified. She’s going to lose her job if they find out she stole and she’s ashamed of herself because she stole so I’ve got to get her talking to you in a conversation with somebody who is going to understand all the reasons that she did the stereotypical predictable thing you’re expecting and still make you understand how complicated it is and still take you with me in the story when I sent her the mixtape. Oh, I really fucked her up, I sent her not only Bach, I sent her Mozart. [laughter] What I am saying about dialect, what I’m saying about the use of language, you will play with stereotype because it is often true, because some of the stories you’ll want to tell even if you are afraid of them and they’re complicated and you don’t like, you don’t like having your niece talk that way on the page, really that’s how she talks so you’re going to have to find a middle ground. This is my compromise. I tell you I had a brief stint in the Mormon Church, [laughter] that’s called the Charles Baxter cross cutting. I just took you sideway in this story. I did, I fell in love with my seventh grade history teacher and she was a Mormon and next thing you know, I’m in the church. One of the things that happens when your working class kids that joined the Mormon Church is that you get middle class with a vengeance, you get really, really, really careful and precise and they teach you moderation in all things. Drink no coffee, drink no tea but moderation in all things. Extremism only in the service of a pure body, an enlightened soul. Now, what that meant for me and how I take it is moderation in language. If I’m going to play with stereotypes and stereotypical expressions and stereotypical ways of custom and stereotypical actions, body stuff that the people are going to do in contrast to what they’re saying, I’m going to go for a middle ground that I can live with that doesn’t make me feel like I’m betraying my niece or my extended unwholesome family, but that also is true. You have to find your own middle ground. You got to find the language that works for you and there is only one way to acquire it, you got to read everything. Did no one tell you if you want to be a writer, your primary job is to read? Now, it is not simply that you need to read a hell of a lot of dialect before you will be capable of creating your own believable dialect, it is not simply that you need to read a lot of beautiful language in order to be able to actually access the beautiful language you have buried in your soul, it’s not that, it’s not even that you’ve got to read a lot of stories to figure out what everybody else has used as plot so that when you write that story about the car wreck, you don’t seem so trivial and predictable because that story was in The New Yorker last week and you didn’t know, well fuck, it’s been done. [laughter] These are the reasons you read widely, it is to know all that stuff, to know the plot points, to know the characters, but you know what else? Every time you make story, every time you make language, every time somebody you have invented speaks on the page, they are speaking to an audience, a reader who has been reading widely, whose mind is full of everything they have ever read, and you, some of your words, some of your expressions, some of your bits of business, your body actions are going to echo other stuff they’ve read. Echo or jar contradict, but in a context and really, what you have to have is a mind as full as your readers. Otherwise, you could just smoke [marihoochie] and make things up. But you have to remember your audience, your reading audience has, in their mind, every other southerner, every other woman, every other lesbian, every other working class, person, every other person who has ever told a story like the one you’re telling, spoken the way you’re speaking. If you say something that echoes other expressions, that echo will affect how they hear what you put on the page. Let me just say right now that Samuel L. Jackson has ruined the Bible for all of us. [laughter] Basically, there are whole sections of Ecclesiastes that are now off-base because you can’t use them because as soon as you say it, they’re going to hear him, “And I will,” I don’t even have to go there. You better have it in your mind or find a way to play against it. I want to end up with two things. Whenever you agree to do these things, stuff happens and you realize stuff. I was thinking about all the ways in which I develop patterns of speech in dialect and I actually have some shorthand for recognizing patterns of speech in dialect. Actually, what we were just doing is one of the patterns that I call fast pattern which is one person says something and everybody says something back and it’s usually about anger and it usually is about sexual politics and it’s usually funny for somebody, somebody in the middle of it ain’t going to be happy but that’s all right, that pattern I know really well. The other one is expressive which is about repetition, do you know about repetition? We should really know about repetition. Southerners innately know about repetition that’s why we’re so tedious, but also it’s about language patterns which is just to say give people things that they repeat and then whenever that person repeats that thing, you know who’s speaking, well hell, I don’t need the damn, I can just say well hell and you know that it’s my aunt and every time she starts something, it’s well hell, “Well hell, he said that,” “I know but well hell, I don’t know that.” It’s like people who used to say “uh-huh” and every other word is “uh-huh” but she says “well hell.” Patterns that repeat expressions recognizably attach to characters in speech. Gestures. I love gestures that subvert so that if they say something strong, declamatory, you will see that they’re actually huddled in and that’s how you describe a body that’s making a strong statement but that is hugging and protecting itself. So gesture, subverting what is being said, that’s part of dialogue. I always like the undertone thing but then I learned something this week. I’m trying to figure out, I started putting it on the page, I’m going to have to do some more work, a friend of mine is dying and we’re all trying to work our way around to be supportive of her in the process of dying. She discovered that she was dying fast five weeks ago and it’s coming fast. Some of my responsibility as her friend and as part of the group of people who are trying to support her in this process is just to talk to her but it ain’t a whole lot we can do. So I wind up on the phone with her on Thursday night, I wound up on the phone with her for a couple of hours and it just laid me out. I missed the reading. I didn’t sleep. I wound up in a corner of that dorm room with my back in the angle just bruising my own knees with my fists because I can’t stand this and I don’t want her to die and I’m still hanging on to the idea of remission, we’re all hanging on to the idea of remission, something could happen, Jesus could step in. He said that most of me knows that she’s dying and my purpose is to be her friend of 35 years and let her talk to me about any damn thing she wants to. I have shorthand for dialogue and how people talk. Actually, it relates to the fact that my partner is a musician so sometimes, when I’m tracing how people talk, I know that it’s in 4/4 or I know that it’s in 2/1 and I know the pacing of how people talk. This week, I learned a whole new pacing because she’s hit a point because she needs the space of three sentences between every sentence so they ain’t no pacing that I can recognize except that conversation with her, it’s like listening to the book of Job. I want to find out how to put that on the page. But like I said, dialogue is an exchange so what I have to give back in between these long slow silences and these sentences that are coming from her is my response. Sometimes, my response is another line of dialogue, it’s a “yeah” or it’s a “I can see why you’d say that.” This is like listening to the cell phone monologues, what I’m telling you now. But a lot of what I’m doing is that my response actually is going to be more silence and a lot of my response is going to be the sound of my breathing into the phone listening and that is a dialogue which I didn’t know about until this week. Now I have to figure out how to write that on the page. It’s going to take a lot of white space and it’s going to take a lot of the descriptions of what happens to my body when this woman that I have loved for 35 years says things that I cannot stand to hear but have to be willing to hear. I’m figuring that out but I haven’t got a code for it yet. Finally, the thing I brought up with me that I am in fact carrying with me everywhere I go right now is a chapter of the novel I’m working on called Psalms. It’s a trick. This is the thing that as writers that we need and do that it’s tricky to tell non-writers about which is that some things you write are just as satisfying as masturbation. [laughter] Let me be clear, there are some things you write that are so wonderful. It’s not that it’s great writing, it’s just that the writing of it gives you such joy and such pleasure. I have been writing this scene in this book, it’s an account of a woman who was in prison. She’s in a prison in El Salvador, she’s been raped, she’s been hurt, and she’s trying not to go crazy. The way in which she is not going crazy is she is remembering poetry and she is remembering stray lines of poetry and she is remembering lines from the Psalms, which is why the title of the chapter is called Psalms but she’s got it all, but she hadn’t eaten well and she’s been in a bad place for a long time so it’s all jumbled up. So it’s that gift of writing drunk, writing crazy, writing magical, or writing God himself on the page and it gets to be so satisfying and you get to put together things that I, the writer, genuinely love, stray pieces of Elizabeth Bishop and stray pieces of Job. [laughs] All of it is in the voice of a nun who is pissed off at God and is arguing with God and the essential dialect happening the dialogue is between her and God and she’s got all this poetry. But like I said, she’s in a bad place so she’s mixing up Bob Dylan and Adrienne Rich. [laughter] Would you know, for a writer, honey, this is a lot of fun. This is glorious but it’s also a little dangerous, it’s over the top, and it’s excessive. My job, because the book has got to be finished, is I’ve got to take what is essentially 40 pages and cut it to 22 or thereabouts, tighten it like motherfucker, and make it seamless. I’ve been working on this for years now. This week, I suddenly realized it’s a dialogue and it’s between her and the poetry. It’s between her and Sylvia Plath. It’s between her and Walt Whitman and “The highwayman came riding,” do you know that one? There’s some bad poetry in here too, let’s get it clear and straight bits of rock and roll and conversations with her mother when she was 14 and that’s lovely and I can play the different things that she says off with the lines of poetry, but it took me until this week to figure out that actually, every time she quotes the Bible, every time she quotes Psalms or Job, it’s God and the conversation is taking place between her and her madness and God. Let me just make one further suggestion. At some point in your writing life, give yourself permission to go too far, write like God. Thank you. [applause]