Journal Your Way to Authentic Detail

My mom gave me my first diary when I was nine years old, a birthday present that promised immortality for my brilliant observations of the world. It had a bubble gum pink vinyl cover with a picture of a teenager sitting on the floor, her body folded into a V, legs scissoring in the air, toes pointed like a ballerina’s. She held a black telephone handset in one hand (yes, we’re talking very old school here) and wrapped the serpentine cord around the other. Her pony tail flipped out in a curl. I could never figure out who she was talking to, but it was certainly someone more popular than I.

There I was, an awkward little kid with widely spaced teeth too big for my face, ears jutting like trowels from my head, jealous of a cartoon character of a girl as realistically drawn as Wonder Woman. Besides the beauty queen on the cover of my diary, one of the other things I loved was the silver lock at the edge of the pages and the two keys that would keep my words private, my inner world a secret from my prying public. As if.

The problem I had with my new diary was the same problem that faced the whole class. I had a dearth of words to write, an anemic bunch of experiences to record. My first entry reflected my life. I got up, got dressed, walked to school, sat in class and studied, stopped off at Perry’s store where my dime bought a package of chocolate Tastykakes, walked home, and went to bed after dinner and some TV time. At nine, my middle class life was predictably boring. The most interesting parts were also those I could not record because no lock would keep mom’s nosy eyes out of the pages of my diary, and no teenage cartoon coquette could heft a shield strong enough to protect my thoughts. My intuition kept me silent.

I suspect many little girls would have sensed our deepest thoughts should be kept to ourselves and never written, even in a lockable diary. The conflicts we had with our families and the worries we had about ourselves were not for public sharing. Mom might have given me a diary but she didn’t really want me to write what I thought about my world. Eventually the boring sameness that I could safely record each day even bored me. It wasn’t interesting to write or read, so I quit.

Decades later I wish I had that pink diary. I’m certain there were a few descriptions I’d love to have at hand, maybe the way the wax paper wrapper had to be gently pried from my Tastykakes to preserve the frosting, or the sound of cracking ice as I stepped onto a frozen puddle and skidded a few inches. Perhaps I recorded the yellow sky that arched over our house because wherever I looked, the blue of artists’ paintings never showed up over Trenton. Maybe I wrote about the parades that marched down Parkway Avenue, passing our corner on their way to glory. The itch of my wool skirts, the way my baby sister cooed at me, that my little brother learned jujitsu moves. I don’t know. All I do know is that I gave up trying to write in my diary. Someplace between my surrendered pencil and our family’s move first to Hawaii and then to California, the pink diary didn’t make it. Probably got tossed in a bin, another worthless token too expensive to cart from place to place.

My current journal is likely similar to one you might keep. I write on my computer, the pages protected by a password locked in a virtual file marked “Journal.” Not an original undertaking but an easy one for me to access. I can keyboard write even when the aches in my hands won’t put up with marking an inky scrawl. A close friend writes in leather bound journals using a code she created years ago. She’s diligent in recording her thoughts and vigilant in maintaining her privacy. Another friend writes in well crafted Moleskin books that will keep for decades, filling a dozen or so every year.

As a writer, the value of keeping a diary or journal is the rich description of experiences I might be wise enough to record. Journaling can be a window into authentic details I might otherwise have forgotten but can now include in my current story. The black landline telephone drawn on the cover of my pink diary is no longer a common device. Readers might have no idea what I’m writing about from personal encounter in the 1950s, but hopefully my words, culled from remembering the cover of a diary long gone, convey an image they can envision. Journals can provide detailed passages about the incidents and items that make stories ring true. They are sometimes an incentive to write. If I have trouble kick starting my writing muse, I can look to my journal as an opportunity to write every day. I get to write about anything that inspires or incites me, and about every common thing I want to record.

I might call it a diary; you might prefer the word journal. It’s writing it that’s most important. It may prove to be the source of an authentic voice, a description of an article that makes my story ring true. Readers will crow about how I, brilliant writer, drop them into the middle of my story and keep them in suspense as they read the genuine details that assure them I really know what I’m talking about. And that’s just where I want them to be, no locks or keys keeping them at bay. Just a reader and my book, tight as a teenage girl and her phone.

 

 

 

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You Don’t Talk So Good

talking“You don’t talk so good.” My toddler grandson inadvertently complimented me although I’d accidentally insulted him. My face blushed, I checked my grin. I’d caught his speech pattern accurately and pitched it back to him so well that he heard the clumsy language structure I’d heard in him. He didn’t recognize himself in my speech but he heard it. An authentic voice, caught on the fly, lodged in real time. A bit like glancing in a mirror and wondering who the hell is that stranger then realizing it’s the real me, without makeup.

That’s what we want when we write dialogue, a voice so accurate that we recognize the speaker, whether it’s ourselves or the transplanted Southerner who works down the hall, spoken with a drawl, “The new gal’s showing too much of her religion.” (Her skirt is way too short.) The VISA employee in India who answers the customer service line, in sing-song style with clipped consonants, “I would be veddy pleased to assist you, may I have your credit card number, please, as well your name and address?” (I’m going to pretend to help you but your question is above my pay grade, please do not ask for the supervisor.) The teenager who only speaks rap, sort of sung while sort of dancing with hand movements that mimic catching leaping toads, “I’m comin’ on extreme strong cuz my shadow is crazy long, you ain’t got no common sense to be gone, I know you is damn bogus wrong.” (Your guess is as good as mine.) The old lady who gestures when my dog poops on her grass, wheezed with the anger of self-righteousness, “I’m calling the dogcatcher on that filthy cur.” (Needs no translation.) What we don’t want to capture is the perfect locution of the English professor, as formal diction played out in actual conversation is phony – unless an English professor is talking in our book. My goal: making myself blush with recognition at the language I write.

Who knew that cleaning up could mean messing things up, scrambling perfectly good sentences into something I’d never say? I’m pretty good at dialogue but sometimes it’s too perfect. My English lit/creative writing background gets in the way of my stories by being too essay-correct. You’d never catch me saying, “Her and I went shopping,” so I never write in this colloquial context. Yet I hear that kind of error all the time and have consciously returned to a scene to write it in street speech, the way that real People speak, even if that People isn’t me.

I often speak in perfect past tense: “I would have gone shopping had it not been for a car accident.” Is that accident in a parking lot or in my brain? Real world, more publishable: “I would’ve went shopping but Ralph busted up the car.” Two grammar screw ups in one sentence, a verbal feast common to real speech, though the sentence wouldn’t earn high marks on a high school essay. Still, it’s the one to come out of a character’s mouth. Here’s another I’ve been heard to speak: “Behave yourself appropriately.” (Not only the English major here, but also the mommy/teacher – sheesh! My kids never had a chance!) Likely a better choice in a book: “Don’t do nothing bad.” Not only does this have more street cred, but it has the muscle of a real mother with its double negative threat.

Slang is a whole other exotic pet, one that’s as difficult to potty train as a Siamese fighting fish. You have to get yourself not only down on the street to listen to people speak what is often a local dialect but also one that’s transient and fickle – it ain’t gonna be ‘round long, bro, and by the time you get the hang of it, it be long outta use. Klutzy? Probably. I haven’t been hanging out at the local hotspots where young people congregate. Use slang craftily, minimally, to house your story in a specific place, at a particular moment in time. Avoid it otherwise or it will sound like ragtime at the opera.

Diction is our choice of words to express how our characters speak, both the style of language and the words themselves. Great dialogue shows off how close we are to our characters’ true personae and how tight we are with the culture that “produced” them. Of course we writers create the cast of our story. They are our virtual babies, but we have to write ourselves out of the scenes. Like sending our babies off to kindergarten, we don’t get to climb aboard the bus. Whether it’s the use of slang, dialect, garbled speech, accent, or idiom, our characters have to be true to the ducklings we’ve hatched.

Perhaps the most difficult part of conveying honest speech in a book is to say less, implant a red herring, or mean more. This is where the most highly skilled and insightful writers win top awards and earn loyal audiences. Clever dialogue reveals the worries, understanding, or ambitions of one character, and the evasion of the other who is listening but perhaps feigning sympathy or leading the first speaker astray. For examples, read Shakespeare, especially Hamlet. (Really, for examples, read Shakespeare. He was a playwright and a poet, but his use of dialogue to convey the whole world – I don’t care who the guy really was, he was brilliant, and a more dynamic and talented teacher you’d be hard pressed to find.)

For my own writing, I make progress when I slash the formal speech typed into my manuscript and replace it with something a reader can believe. I keep hoping that even if readers think I “talk funny,” they still believe in the characters who say those words. To be successful, I have to know the character in my book. I built him from the keys on my keyboard and the drifting nimbus in my head, and I have to know his history, quandary, and motivation. I have to know more about him than I write in order to make him authentic. Maybe just getting a single line of his dialogue absolutely right is worth a whole day’s effort fiddling with my manuscript.