Pushing for Stupid

Aspiring authors come to a writing session with the goal of greatness. Some wish to pen eloquent strands of prose. Others wish to emulate bestselling writers they enjoy. Whether the aim is high- or low-brow, the dream shining in their mind is the same. If I write well enough, readers will love me.

After finishing a chapter, or a first draft, that writer may become distressed if the words written don’t ring true. A high-flown description of a beloved beach doesn’t seem to work with the dead body found in the dunes. Or, the narrative prose doesn’t seem to match with the more pedestrian dialogue passages. You decide that the tone needs to be made more consistent. You work harder during the revision so that everything sparkles. Yet the revised draft may feel like merely a gilded version of the same uneven enterprise.

The question to ask yourself is: where are these strenuous efforts taking place? Presumably in the silence of a lonely room. Even if you prefer showing off at Starbucks, you need to block out what others are saying. And that turn inward may be precisely the problem.

The inattention to the way real people stumble through their lives was brought home to me while reading George Saunders’ Pastoralia. The characters that fill these short stories are nearly incoherent. Their dialogue is inexpressive, and their thinking runs in ruts that show the most limited of horizons. That is the human race: Cro-Magnon at heart, and the smartest try to advance civilization. 

Don’t leave out the messy parts. Unless you’re creating a utopia, you’re better off listening to what is said in Starbucks. Actually, that’s highfalutin itself. Eavesdrop in the supermarket aisle or hardware store. Read the responses to online articles. People are not shy about spouting off their versions of the truth. You just are not capturing what they say. You’re holed up in your figurative cabin in the woods, trying to imitate what real life is like.

Oddly, common parlance has a cadence that can propel your writing. The characters that you want to fill out themes can be more varied when you consider real-life models. When you’re not melding toward unity, variety can be the spice that fills your novel.

Exercise: Because dialogue tends to be opaque, not saying what the person is feeling, trying to sketch a type can easily lead to a stereotype. To counteract that, try to flip the coin and find the person’s possible sorrows. They don’t have to be deep. Being ugly as a teenager can leave scars that affect someone’s behavior for the rest of their life. Put the type on that balancing point.

“People are much deeper than stereotypes. That's the first place our minds go. Then you get to know them and you hear their stories, and you say, ‘I'd have never guessed.’” —Carson Kressley

Copyright @ 2024, John Paine


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