Dia Logs Mono Logs and Other Logs Dialogs CapturEd CoNvErsatioNs

Both fiction and nonfiction writers have a basic choice to make when faced with establishing character: They can do it directly through a written summary of traits (telling) or indirectly through dialog and action (showing). Teachers of fiction writing usually tell new students that they can "characterize" best by showing a character in different situations and letting us note how he or she behaves—and what he or she says. One fundamental reason for this is that readers begin to suspect a writer who keeps tugging at our elbow and telling us, in effect, how to think about a character. This is bad enough in fiction writing; it's even more questionable in nonfiction. Fiction writers have a certain responsibility to tell readers how they should think about a character so they can draw some moral point; nonfiction writers are not in business to instruct readers in moral behavior. Nonfiction writers have a responsibility to limit themselves to showing readers how things look to them in the world, leaving the reader to interpret what it all means. Therefore, for the nonfiction writer, reporting as accurately as possible what people say is one of the best ways to establish character; we tend to reveal ourselves through our speech, even when we don't want to.

The creative nonfiction writer must stay close to the action to take down by tape recorder, handwritten notes, or memory what everyone is saying. At first, this may sound no different than the traditional reporter who is "going after quotes." But the difference is great. The traditional, hard-news reporter on deadline seeks answers to questions he or she poses to get good quotes. He or she doesn't record everything said by everyone present. The reporter looks not for quotes that characterize but for quotes that explain. The creative nonfiction writer also listens for quotes that may explain, but he or she listens to everything else as well, knowing that some unsolicited comments by "unimportant" people may explain even more than those received from the "notables." Reporters tend to quote the notables—the lawyers, the officers, the preachers, the drug pushers. The creative nonfiction writer knows that these people can give only parts of the story—in some cases, they deliberately give only certain parts of the story. Sometimes the enlisted men provide more useful quotes and better insights than the officers. They see the event through a different point of view; they may see it from a foxhole, while the general sees it from an aerial photograph.

Snatches of conversation can also reveal something of a character. Short phrases, outbursts, curses captured on the fly make interesting and possibly revelatory reading. But these pieces should be used only if the writer believes them typical for the character. (Examples of snatches of conversation are given in Chapter 6.)

We learn about characters not only through what they say, but from how they say it. The ancient Greeks said, "Speak so I may see you." Well put. Until a character (real or fictional) speaks, he or she is but an abstraction for us. From the moment the character begins speaking, we believe we're beginning to know the person. We also know through experience that we can be deceived by what a person says and how he or she says it, but we also know there's little hope of understanding someone fully until we listen to what he or she says.

The creative nonfiction writer should capture the speaker's accent, dialect, colloquialisms, jargon, specialist language, rhythm, color, tone, emphases, and mood. These attributes of human speech do not give us a full understanding of a person's character, but they do help us "see" the speaker. Be careful not to stereotype or even ridicule by emphasizing too many idiosyncrasies of a person's speech; use just enough of these attributes to give the flavor of the person. Too much emphasis, for example, on someone's poor grammar may make the person seem unintelligent when he or she is merely ignorant. If the person is unquestionably intelligent but unschooled, the writer must get this distinction across, probably not by direct statement but by showing us through a scene this raw, uncultivated intelligence at work. If the quoted person used foul language in practically every sentence of captured conversation, the writer should not report every swear word, but should use some to convey the flavor of the conversation. It would be a distortion to clean up every sentence to make it acceptable to every reader.

In Do You Sleep in the Nude?, Rex Reed reported a conversation with Ava Gardner. She didn't speak in four-letter words, but she did speak colorfully—and Reed captured the color:

Don't look at me. I was up until four a.m. at that goddam premiere of The Bible. Premieres! I will personally kill that John Huston if he ever drags me into another mess like that. There must have been ten thousand people clawing at me. I get claustrophobia in crowds and I couldn't breathe. Christ, they started shoving a TV camera at me and yelling, "Talk, Ava!"

In The Pine Barrens, John McPhee reported the following captured conversation with Bill and Fred. Here, the writer captured the essence of conversation with these men, revealing the level of discussion.

Eventually, I made the request I had intended to make when I walked in the door. "Could I have some water?" I said to Fred. "I have a jerry can and I'd like to fill it at the pump."

"Hell, yes," he said. "That isn't my water. That's God's water. That right, Bill?"

"I guess so," Bill said, without looking up. "It's good water, I can tell you that."

"That's God's Water," Fred said again. "Take all you want."

The main purpose of using captured conversation is to discover and report by indirect means what a person is thinking. The only more direct means would be to tune in on the person's brain and mind— to write an internal monolog.

INTERNAL MONOLOg

Fiction writers have long used internal (interior) monolog as a technique to reveal a character's mental state. Nonfiction writers, by contrast, have had to stay out of cranial territory. After all, nonfiction deals with facts, truth, and objectivity, so how could it use something so subjective, so speculative, as reporting what a person thought? Besides, it's impossible. You can't know what another person thinks without asking.

Tom Wolfe said that you could indeed know what a person thought. All you had to do, he said, was to ask them what they were thinking, and to ask them in depth, not in the superficial way of the hard-news reporter. Wolfe, Gay Talese, and a handful of others involved in the New Journalism of the 1960s, decided that the inner life was accessible to serious, professional writers with high ethical standards. The interior of the mind became a new beat for journalists.

Of all the techniques borrowed from fiction writers by nonfiction writers, this one of entering the mind of another met the most objection. Wolfe's early, persistent, and wonderfully innovative use of the technique almost led to the early demise of the parajournalism movement. It was simply too great a leap for most people, even those sympathetic to this new approach to journalistic writing.

In clever hands like those of Wolfe and Talese, the internal monolog can be the most effective technique for revealing a person's character. We hear his or her innermost thoughts, something we're not normally privy to. Wolfe claims that he doesn't "create" what he puts down as the person's thoughts. He says that the thoughts are expressed to him during a long (sometimes weeks—or months— long) series of conversations, and through letters or diaries. During that extended period of time he also learns how the person expresses him or herself under various conditions of relaxation and stress. This knowledge enables him to make the internal monolog sound "right."

Most of the devices fiction writers use to make internal monologs credible serve nonfiction writers as well. Nonfiction writers, in one sense, have an easier time of it. They don't have to invent the thoughts. All they have to invent are the words, rhythms, diction, emphases, repetitive patterns, unusual punctuation, or lack of punctuation, and other devices traditionally used more by the fiction writer. Well-written internal monolog sounds like unedited, uncen-sored human thought—or at least what we think it might sound like if we could tap the brain.

Joseph Wambaugh, after considerable interviewing and research, wrote from inside Jimmy Smith's mind as he ran away from The Onion Field, where the murder occurred.

En route he thought that maybe Powell will get himself killed. Sure, why not? The cop'll make his call and in fifteen minutes there'll be squad cars crawlin' over every inch of that miserable farmland. Powell is nuts. He might try to shoot his way out. Sure.

Or maybe Powell will try to give himself up and the cops might shoot him anyway. Sure. Yeah. The fuckin' cops'll be ready to kill anybody over this. Yeah. And maybe they'll just go ahead and dust him anyway. And then I made it for sure. The other cop won't know nothin' about me. How could he? He knows I'm called Jimmy, that's all. And I kept my hat on and my mouth shut most of the time so he won't even know what race I am. "I got a chance, baby, a hell of a chance!"

An interesting variation on the use of internal monolog is the writing about what goes on (or might go on) within the brain of a nonhuman being. In the first example, Loren Eiseley, the anthropologist who wrote so creatively about scientific matters, wrote in his book The Unexpected Universe about his relationship with his big shepherd dog, Wolfe. Eiseley had laid on the floor a ten-thousand-year-old bison bone that normally sat on his desk. The dog grabbed the bone and mouthed it with sharp fangs. When the master asked Wolfe to put it down, he was met by such low and steady rumbling he couldn't believe it was the same dog. Eiseley decided that we'd understand better what was happening if he wrote for the dog an internal monolog:

As I advanced, his teeth showed and his mouth wrinkled to strike. The rumbling rose to a direct snarl. His flat head swayed low and wickedly as a reptile's above the floor. I was the most loved object in his universe, but the past was fully alive in him now. Its shadows were whispering in his mind. I knew he was not bluffing. If I made another step he would strike.

Yet his eyes were strained and desperate. "Do not," something pleaded in the back of them, some affectionate thing that had followed at my heel all the days of his mortal life, "do not force me. I am what I am and cannot be otherwise because of the shadows. Do not reach out. You are a man, and my very god. I love you, but do not put out your hand. It is midnight. We are in another time, in the snow."

"The other time," the steady rumbling continued while I paused, "the other time in the snow, the big, the final, the terrible snow, when the shape of this thing I hold spelled life. I will not give it up. I cannot. The shadows will not permit me. Do not put out your hand."

Another world-renowned scientist, Dr. Lewis Thomas, wrote in Lives of a Cell about how animals (including humans) emit odors that communicate. Pheromones, the molecules that create these odors that communicate very specific messages, work under very low concentration—eight or ten molecules in a chain are enough to do the job. He wrote about the thoughts a male moth might have as he got a whiff of bombykol, a pheromone released by the female moth when it would like to be visited by a male. Dr. Thomas is not sure whether the male knows why he's being summoned; all the male moth knows for sure is that he's going!

The messages are urgent, but they may arrive, for all we know, in a fragrance of ambiguity. "At home, 4 p.m. today," says the female moth, and releases a brief explosion of bom-bykol, a single molecule of which will tremble the hairs of any male within miles and send him driving upwind in a confusion of ardor. But it is doubtful if he has an awareness of being caught in an aerosol of chemical attractant. On the contrary, he probably finds suddenly that it has become an excellent day, the weather remarkably bracing, the time appropriate for a bit of exercise of the old wings, a brisk turn upwind. En route, traveling the gradient of bombykol, he notes the presence of other males, heading in the same direction, all in a good mood, inclined to race for the sheer sport of it. Then, when he reaches his destination, it may seem to him the most extraordinary of coincidences, the greatest piece of luck: "Bless my soul, what have we here!"

This may not have been the perfect example of internal monolog, but I included it because it's a perfect example of how writing about science can be done in a creative way—the writing of these two men entertaining as it informs. Some scientists would never write an internal monolog for a dog or a moth because, after all, how would anyone know how (or even whether) a moth thinks.

Occasionally, a person's character can be partly developed for readers by letting them hear the character deliver either a formal speech or a shorter but still longish, uninterrupted mini-speech (monolog) in the midst of a conversation. Character comes out through the content of the speech, its level of diction, its method of delivery, and audience reactions.

Other sources besides captured conversation and internal monolog based on close observation can offer dimension to a character. Historic or everyday letters (even love letters from the attic), quoted in part or in total, can add some dimension to character. In an article about an arrest, quoting from official records can shed light on character. Memoirs that offer revealing comments and personal journals or diaries, if available to the writer, can be quoted to give further insights into the character.

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  • Mimosa
    Do you sleep in the nude rex reed ava gardner?
    7 years ago

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