‘The Art of Conversation’ by Patrick Kavanagh
Some come to writing because they ‘simply adore the written word’, they’ve always been avid readers, and come from families full of bibliophiles, crossword puzzlers, Scrabblers; families whose pets are named everything from Homer to Holden and whose youngest members carry themselves off to bed early, eager to be read another instalment of Paradise Lost…
I, on the other hand, can’t remember reading a single book as a child.
Alright, that’s a ridiculous claim. Obviously, there were school books, but they certainly didn’t engender a passion for literature. Okay, I did read Robin Hood (but only because I loved the television series first); and, now that I think of it, I read and re-read the page on Elvis Presley in our encyclopaedia set; a set which practically made up the entirety of our household book stock.
The only other book in our house, the illustrated bible, I avoided because a kid at school told me there was a picture of the devil in there so patently demonic that one glace into his livid red eyes might lead to permanent derangement.
And I did once borrow a book from the school library — Freckle Juice, by Judy Blume — in the hope it would help rid me of my own freckles; a kid at school (possibly the kid with the occult knowledge referred to above) having genuinely enquired if my freckles had resulted from cycling through a muddy puddle.
Either my cousins sent me the James Bond Annual or I picked it up at a jumble sale; it mostly consisted of movie stills of Sean Connery pulling suave-looking Judo moves whilst simultaneously preparing finger food — hardly reading.
And, of course, any time we went near the shops, I nagged my mother for the Beano, or the Dandy, or Roy of the Rovers (the latter because I was convinced one could actually cultivate physical talent by staring at the pictures of Roy and co. booting a ball about) — oh, and I read my sister’s Judy and, much later, her Just Seventeen; she didn’t keep a diary, or if she did I never found it.
But that’s about it.
Reading was largely a time-filling exercise until the A-Team, or MacGyver came on the telly, or the rain stopped and we could go outside and collect frogspawn, or practice ‘the sleeper hold’ and ‘the claw’, or set fire to stuff…
I hated words!
Words were those clunky, flavourless gobstoppers you reluctantly pushed around your mouth during the weekly spelling test.
I only started writing at all because I had to. By which I don’t mean that I felt some deep artistic yearning. Rather, I wanted to be a comedian, and took up writing because there was no call for comedic cover artists: no one wanted the ‘John Cleese Experience’, say, where some gangly hack goose stepped about the place hollering ‘I will not buy this tobacconist, it is scratched’. No, if you wanted to be an actual comedian, I reasoned at the tender age of 16, you had to produce original material.
And so it was that I spent those interminable double-biology lessons scribbling variations on the classic ‘doctor’s waiting room’ scenario; or underscoring the illustrations in my text books with wry slogans; or responding to the most quotidian conversational gambits with Groucho-esque non-sequiturs… painful to recall; it’s a wonder I wasn’t punched in the face more often.
I tell you all this because it gets to the heart of what ability, if any, I developed during that nascent period and why I’m drawn in particular to the short story form. In a word, dialog.
I’ve always loved conversation.
I love how two people can meet, unthinkingly swap a few mundane phrases about cardigans or hair dos, and then, if they’re so blessed, begin to improvise a totally unique confabulation, one whose destination neither party may know in advance.
When I write dialog I pretty much cheat. I just listen to the characters and take down, verbatim, what they say; writing, in this way, is a sort of glorified stenography. Later I might tweak the transcript for economy or comedic/pathetic effect, but for me the characters will — if they’re worthy of being characters at all — usually do the bulk of the monkey work. In fact, the worst thing you can do to a character is to try to make them actually say something. It’s almost as painful a task as trying to write a protest poem (yick!).
The cardinal sin of dialog writing, of course, is any attempt to crowbar plot or backstory into the mouths of your characters. A hallmark of bad television, say, is an opening scene of this type:
What’s wrong Kalhooney? You haven’t touched your waffles.
O, I don’t know, Chad. Ever since I was fired for stealing that beaded chair-cover; well, that and moving back in with my adoptive parents, my pending divorce and the recent finger amputation. I’m just not sure my dreams of being a mud wrestler will ever bear fruit…
Or those Sci-Fi stories where one character casually explains to another how the time machine they’re trundling along in happens to work; which I always think is the equivalent of a present-day taxi driver explaining to each new passenger how the V8 engine under the bonnet helps propel the vehicle forward.
So, if you can’t have them talk about plot, or backstory, why have them talk at all?
The real advantage of conversation is that it’s an ingeniously subtle means of providing character description. We’ve all read at least one of those awful books that insists on providing a physical description for each newly minted character:
Kalhooney, whose chin was like a well-polished doorknob and whose eyes reminded one of float balls bobbing in a cistern, leaned against the marble fireplace and fed honey-glazed broccoli sticks into his beaklike mouth…
Dialog, as an alternative, is a wonderfully leaky substance.
How one person addresses another, their vocabulary, the content of their conversation and, more importantly, those subjects they avoid, all carry latent material with which the reader can actively construct their own understanding. Besides, how much does a person’s hair colour or nose shape really tell you about their character?
Someone once warned Stephen Hawking that every equation he included in his book would halve sales. I’ve often felt the same should be true of similes in fiction. They’re usually showy — a kind of writerly muscle flex — and tend to wake me from the dream of suspended disbelief instead of serving to deepen my involvement in the fiction; as though the writer can’t resist saying, ‘I wrote this. Aren’t I clever?’
For that reason I attempted to do without similes in particular and needless description more generally. The story Someday the Moon May Fall was originally an experiment in telling a story through dialog alone. While the original drafts felt much too spare, I liked the overall effect such minimalism allowed. Eventually, I relaxed those self-imposed limitations and introduced some basic description. But something about that purposeful lack of ornamentation felt honest, as though the characters themselves might approve.
A story like this can, on re-reading, feel slight. It isn’t the sort of story I’d parcel off to a writing competition; writing competitions usually reward the kind of simile-glutted ornament that superficially sparkles but ultimately reads like a series of authorial cooees (not that I’m bitter). With a story like Someday The Moon May Fall I can well imagine a reader complaining that ‘nothing happens’. I can also, on occasion, imagine agreeing with that reader.
In the end, all artistic expression is a gamble, and, as with actual gambling, winning isn’t always the most instructive outcome.
Patrick Christopher Kavanagh has worked with artist, Shani Rhys James MBE, producing poems in response to her recent exhibition, The Rivalry of Flowers; that work was subsequently published in the Seren Books anthology, Florilingua; his poem, ‘Alcyone’ was selected by Daljit Nagra to appear in the PBS Student Poetry Competition Anthology 2013, ‘Have a Nice Time, You Are Nearly There’; his short story, ‘Colour & Noise’ was selected by Aesthetica to appear in their 2014 Creative Writing Anthology; as a freelance Editor he has worked with author, Francesca Rhydderch on her début novel, The Rice Paper Diaries (Seren, May 2013); Patrick is currently a PhD Candidate at Aberystwyth University.