I’ve been working on a new book lately, and the first few chapters have been sort of slow going. They make sense, they’re smart, they’re setting up later work, but they feel weary. I attributed my malaise to a broader and more general malaise all around us.
But then last week, I wrote a scene with five friends in a bar on a Friday night. And it levitated, it wrote itself. It was just people talking. And I love that.
The last couple of stories I’ve shared with my writing group have been about people who have found themselves isolated, cast adrift from a community that they thought they’d once been a part of. And those are harder for me to write, and less fun to write, because there’s no dialogue. I mean, that’s kind of the existential state of exile, right? It’s not merely the identity fact that you’re not a member of the club any more, it’s also the social fact that you’ve got nobody to talk to who understands your native language. When you’re cut adrift, you lose the possibility of dialogue. You start talking to your cat, or your volleyball, just to convince yourself that you matter.
I thought back on the fiction I started to write once I first left higher ed. And the first six novels were all told mostly in scene, filled with dialogue and social connection. The one I wrote just before Christmas was all in scene, filled with dialogue. Those books just poured out of me, I couldn’t wait to get back to the desk the next morning and see what those people would do next. The stories of individuals adrift, though… I have to pull myself back to those. I have to figure out how they’ll dig themselves out of their isolation, which was a project I spent far too long on in my own life. It doesn’t appeal to me to go back there.
I grew up with television. And television is, paradoxically, an innately auditory medium. Whether it’s Hogan’s Heroes or Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The West Wing or Home Improvement, television lives and dies on the quality of its dialogue. The scenes and clothing and actions and music exist only to lend visual context to the conversations. Watch a TV show sometime—I don’t care what show, your choice—and count the longest time spent between anyone speaking. If it’s even ten seconds, I’d be amazed. Whether drama or comedy, whether medical or detective or family or Western, the fundamental unit of analysis is the ensemble, building itself every week through words.
I’ve made my writing career in essays, in the sound of my own isolated voice. The dialogue with other thinkers is implied, not present. And I’ve got a pretty good voice for essays, because I try to write the way I’d say it. But I don’t have to write novels that are actually just essays in drag, as so many are. I can write ensembles. If I’m going to write for pleasure, I should include my own pleasure as a worthy goal.