Category Archives: dialogue

3rd scene from my memoir

On a cold morning in late winter I’m driving home to the farm after a Friday breakfast date in town with Kathy. The Muslim students are returning to kill six lambs. This is Islam’s highest holy day, the Festival of Sacrifice, and will be a big feast night after a long day of fasting.

Eid-al-Adha commemorates the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son to Allah.  At the last moment, Allah allows the substitution of a ram. Traditionally, in a symbolic reenactment of Abraham’s obedience, a Muslim family slaughters a large animal. The family consumes a third of the meat, gives a third to friends, and shares a third with the poor.

I know that Muslims believe Allah has given them dominance over animals and allows them to eat animal flesh, but only if they say His name in gratitude at the solemn instant of taking life. I lack rituals for this and am aware of none in my culture. There’s the saying of grace at meals, of course, but nothing for the moment of fatal harvest. After Cream’s death [in January they’d killed a ewe with a genetic birthing defect] I read that Christians once observed a ritual when they killed animals, and the book of Leviticus prescribes killing unblemished, sacrificial sheep and goats on an altar “northward before the Lord.” The killing has since been outsourced. A loss, it seems to me, a lessening of our connection to other creatures, to our sustenance, and to our own mortality. Yet I’ve worried about this day, about the men killing six lambs at once. They’d wanted to kill many more, to bring vanloads of students from the university to slaughter twenty or more, but I feel I can’t handle such a bloodbath.

It’s February 2002. Returning from breakfast, I listen to the news on my truck’s radio about the murder of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter who’d been kidnapped in Pakistan. Warm and well fed, I imagine how cold and hungry and terrified he must have been. Sorrow stabs at me; the world seems unbearably full of tears. I hope he was able to prepare himself. How hard that must be, though, to surrender hope and make yourself ready somehow for death. How can someone be praying to live, to be spared like Abraham’s son, but ready to die? For Daniel Pearl, life’s hardest spiritual task must have been compressed into hours.

The radio announcer doesn’t say how he died but implies it was horrible, gruesome. So not a bullet. Then I realize. They cut his throat—that’s how Muslim extremists would kill a hostage. Such a death also would have maximum horror for Americans. I wish I couldn’t imagine it, but I can, after Cream’s death. Suddenly I’m nervous—soon I’ll be surrounded by young Muslim men wielding knives. This embarrasses me, this fear, but I’ve just pictured the journalist’s murder. And I’m reminded that, only five months ago, Muslim terrorists attacked America. I try to push my fear beneath the surface as I park at our house. They’ll be here soon. I go inside and make a pot of coffee, a comforting ritual, something against the cold. My knees are sore and my spine feels achy for its entire length—common enough, now—and I remind myself to be careful handling strong animals.

Two vehicles come up our driveway and stop at the barn. I recognize Jamal’s boxy blue van. Doors open, and Jamal and four other students spill into the farmyard. Are any extremists? I doubt it. I’d liked Jamal and the young men he’d brought in January. We gather and shake hands. Two of the men are from Qatar and three are from Saudi Arabia. I think about mentioning the troubles in the news, then decide not to—and then do. “Has there been any backlash?” I ask. Jamal shrugs and says, “Nothing serious.”

“Religious extremists in all countries bring pain,” I offer.

Jamal nods. “People are people,” he says. “Life is short. There is enough sadness in the world. Why bring more?”

They produce an assortment of cleavers and small knives they’ve gotten from the Odd Lots store in Athens. I help them sharpen their cutlery and again loan Jamal my sheath knife. They select lambs from the pen in the barn. For them it’s a festive occasion. Their ritual of fasting is nearing its end. They laugh and joke, a mix of Arabic and English. Again, I feel I’m betraying my sheep. I catch the first lamb and halter him, wrestle him outside across the frozen gravel. I yield as he jerks against the rope, then take up slack, like I’m playing a fish; he thinks he’s fighting the rope, not me.

The killing goes fast. Two men hold down the lamb, with his nose pointing northeast, at the curve in Marshfield Road just before Ernie’s house; one man cuts the lamb’s throat while speaking softly his prayers. I’m mute, offering no prayer of my own, and feel impoverished by comparison. I own no words to help me with my emotions. Yet the slaughter isn’t as hard for me as I’ve feared, not as traumatic as when Cream died. Is this because I’ve prepared myself or because the killing is becoming routine? Probably both, I decide, and catch the next lamb.

The men are a likable bunch and work hard in the cold, still morning. It’s quiet in the farmyard; the winter sky, milky blue, is streaked with clouds ripped in long mares’ tails. I have room for them to cut apart both lambs at once. They hoist the carcasses using ropes I’ve thrown over the front support beams of the dilapidated shed nearest the barn. They skin and disembowel the lambs, rinsing their knife blades in buckets of chilly water I haul from the barn’s hydrant. To warm them I start a fire in our burn pit, leftover bricks from house reconstruction arranged in a low-walled circle on the concrete slab where one of Fred’s grain silos had stood. After they kill two more lambs, I walk over to the fire and see they’ve made a grill from a scrap of tin and are roasting small pieces of the first lamb. In the coals they’re charring the heads of two lambs, which surprises me, but I guess some people eat the heads. A man who speaks poor English but who exudes kindness offers some meat to me, and we eat together in the weak sunlight. This lamb was alive moments before, but I try to suppress such thoughts for this communion.

The man, who has large, expressive brown eyes says, “Thank you so much. I am so grateful.” They’ve agreed to pay me eighty dollars for each lamb—$480 for the six—so this is a business transaction for which I’ll be fairly compensated. Still, his gratitude touches me. Then he insists on giving me a cut of my choice from his lamb. I try to refuse, but it seems important to him. Maybe he appreciates being able to buy and harvest lamb this way, or appreciates my helping with the killing and cleanup. Or, in the Festival of Sacrifice’s spirit of gratitude and friendship, he’s sharing with the farmer. Perhaps, in his country, all farmers are poor.

“Jamal is famous,” the man volunteers. I turn to Jamal, a serious man whose smile sometimes breaks like a cresting wave through his black beard.

“I can tell you are a leader in your community,” I tell him. “I admire that.”

I know nothing about Jamal, but he does embody leadership, in the confident way he moves and in how he deals with me on behalf of the men he brings to the farm. He’s the one who has engaged with the outside world—with me, the farmer, the stranger.

As they leave, I return to our quiet house, carrying a leg of lamb in a white plastic sack, thinking about their resolve. They’ve come into the unfamiliar countryside to conduct the sacred taking of life for their women and children, for their small community far from home. I know professors who’re afraid to venture outside Athens’s city limits. And I can’t imagine Americans driving into the country alone in an Arab nation for food—certainly not after September 11, 2001.

Anyway, in America meat arrives in grocery stores as the final step of unseen and increasingly mysterious processes.


Filed under dialogue, memoir, MY LIFE

The semicolon: love it; or hate it

Learn to use the semicolon. Master it. And then never use it again.—Verlyn Klinkenborg, in a lecture to MFA students at Goucher College

Kurt Vonnegut also hated the semicolon. Virginia Woolf was at the other end of the scale, of course, but when reading her I really want to replace some semicolons with colons or even dashes. (The Great Gatsby uses both semicolons and dashes beautifully; I’m not sure if it employs a colon.)

Years ago, after leaving newspapers, where semicolons are semiprecious, I went ape with their use, I suppose because semicolons seem fully literary. But I had one problem: I hated how the semicolon looked: to me, it was ugly as sin. I’ve mostly outgrown that aesthetic qualm, but I often go back and edit semicolons out of work where I threw them in in the heat of battle. I can see my logic—that this went with that—but in the end, overall flow and appearance might prevail.

I have one strong reservation remaining: the use of semicolons in quotes—especially in talk by tough guys. I first saw this in a story in The Washington Post, by a Pulitzer winner no less. I was sure how he felt: using it meant a lot to him, and he watched that semicolon like a hawk as it moved through the fumble-fingered copy desk.

But it made me ill. Tough guys don’t eat quiche and they don’t use semicolons!

Now here’s another, which appeared last week in my hometown paper, The Columbus Dispatch, in a story about a man gunned down during an argument outside a biker bar. The reporter went to interview some guys hanging out who saw the shooting:

“They need to bring Old Thunderbolt back,” an older man said, referring to the electric chair. “These people think they’re gangsters. Ain’t no gangsters; they’re all in the cemetery, rearing up daisies.”

To me, the semicolon ruins his punchy speech and violates his rights as a red-blooded American biker. But maybe that’s just me.


Filed under dialogue, punctuation, syntax

Almost Christmas at the coffee shop

Middle-aged men, two to four in the group, one talking loudly at a time:

“You need to read more books!”

“How are we going to solve the health care problem if . . .”

“What gets me is these Republicans who say—”

“This isn’t partisan—the Democrats . . . Obama . . . ”

“We go to Wal-Mart and we buy this crap, and we don’t care where the shit comes from, as long as it’s cheap.”

“No, I’m for a stronger military because I want to protect me.”

“You know your problem?”

“I’m reading Thomas Friedman—do you know who he is?”

“We’re destroyed the middle class in this country.”

“This country is becoming . . .”

“I’m just saying that . . .”

“For once, I’d like to see—”

“If you could admit . . .”


“I gotta go.”

“Next time I see you, I hope you’ve read something intelligent.”

About ten o’clock the men leave, leaning forward into the December gloom, gripping their refillable coffee mugs like clubs, taking with them their staccato bursts. The shop’s human sound burbles and murmurs. The corner table is taken by women, five or six of them. Sometimes they talk together and sometimes they split into sidebars, two with two or three:

“I think that was the start of my insomnia . . . My husband, I could set him on fire and he wouldn’t wake up. But the dogs, I thought . . .”

“But I said, ‘We don’t even know where we’re going.’ He wanted to use MapQuest. ‘Don’t we have to know who we’re going to visit first?’ ”

“They have a heavier down—they’re made for travel.”

“They were taxing on unrealized gains. When they sell it you pay, but . . .”

“And my maternal grandmother . . .”

“If I’d known that I would have—”



“She has such a Lab personality.”

“Oh, she is part Lab?”

“So she opens the door and pulls him in! I’d only been dating about a month. I went inside and they were all sitting at the table.”

“She’s so controlling. I’ve told her, ‘Either it changes or I’m done.’ I was telling someone my mother in law stories . . . She’s emasculated him horribly . . . And until that point, I always felt sorry for her . . . He drove for eight hours, and I said, ‘That’s it.’ The whole trip I drove for two and a half hours. She had the GPS in back, and it kept saying ‘You have arrived.’ She said . . . I just gave her a dirty look.”

“Last year he wouldn’t come because I wouldn’t let him bring the dog.”

“What kind of dog is it?”

“Last year the dog peed on our floor because it was so excited. I took the dog for a half-mile walk because the thing was crazy.”

“What kind of dog is it?”

“Spaniels? I don’t know any spaniels that . . .”

“There’s a nice side to her, I like her but . . .”

“The half brothers were raised by a different mother, and they’re normal.”

“He’s going to be a real man of God one day, but he’s only nineteen.”

Worker interrupting: “Ladies, you are having too much fun!”


“They’ll be working twice as hard for the same money.”

“This is depressing.”

“This is reality.”

“I’m leaving!”

“Have a nice trip!”

“I’ll probably talk to you later today.”

“I’m going to come back in a really nice mood, not mad at anyone.”

“Merry Christmas!”


Filed under creative nonfiction, dialogue, essay-narrative, evolutionary psychology, MY LIFE, politics, scene

Honesty and chronology, part two

William Zinsser addresses the issue of fidelity to chronology in his On Writing Well, and I was surprised by his answer. Perusing the thirtieth anniversary edition of this sober classic on nonfiction, I expected Zinsser to be very conservative in all matters regarding literal truth, but after a long career of successful freelance magazine and book writing he’s practical about quotes and timelines. He approves of legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell’s composite quotes and blended timelines in his profiles. Mitchell apparently spent years, in some cases, with his subjects, and would meld their conversations and encounters with him.

“Although Mitchell altered the truth about elapsed time,” Zinsser writes, “he used a dramatist’s prerogative to Zinssercompress and focus his story, thereby giving the reader a manageable framework. If he had told the story in real time, strung across all the days and months . . . he would have achieved the numbing truth of Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of a man having an eight-hour sleep. By careful manipulation he raised the craft of nonfiction to art. But he never manipulated . . . [the subject’s] truth; there has been no ‘inferring,’ no ‘fabricating.’ He has played fair.”

Conflating quotes and creating one jaunt around the neighborhood from several such rambles is, literally speaking, fiction. But to convey truth, and artfully, and even for fairness and representational accuracy, Zinsser supports these techniques in nonfiction. He likes the richness of composite events, and in the case of quotes points out that all writers who take notes must “juggle and elide.” His own standard is to draw the line at creating anything from whole cloth.

In writing a memoir I’ve discovered that memory should be questioned—I caught it adding to one incident, probably because of the way I had felt during it—and that insight reinforced a strict constructionist impulse. If you only imagine that your father was wearing his red London Fog windbreaker that day on the boat, you say that. You go there. Maybe you end up writing about how he was color blind, everything a shade of gray—like your relationship. In this way, nonfiction’s art flows into and out of the ragged holes in narrative. In this way, perhaps, reality art is different from fictional art in its portrayal of the collision of self and world.

John Updike addresses basic disconnects between memory and fact in his memoir Self-Consciousness, giving readers the dual effect of straightforward nonfiction and impressionistic fiction. Early in the book he has a nice scene where, as a high school student working on an art project after school, he realizes that his teacher and his stern principal appear to share some secret romantic life. He adds, “To this quiet but indelible memory attaches a sensation that one of these two teachers came over and ruffled my hair, as if we had become a tiny family; but it may be simply that one of them stood close, to see how far along I was, because when I was finished we could all go to our separate homes.”

Another answer is to go for deeper scenic power by simply putting your father in that red jacket if that’s the truth you feel in the scene you’re creating. Or if that’s how he typically would have been dressed. Write the emotional truth based on historical truth. I’m wary of that decision but understand it. I haven’t yet faced the issue of whether I think, for me, it’s okay to move that day on the boat, the one where you caught the big fish, into a different year. So far, I’ve found that honoring chronology, when and where it can be teased from memory, leads to a powerful narrative and to surprising insights. Maybe that’s because the labor involved imposes rigor and leads to more rewriting.

If I felt that moving that day served truth and preserved narrative, should I do it? Does such a move put a writer on the road to the disgrace of A Million Little Pieces?  Zinsser does not seem to think so. At the other end of the scale there’s Amy Krouse Rosenthal, author of the celebrated memoir Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, who administered a lie detector test to herself to ensure she hadn’t winged it anywhere.

But what does she consider winging it? How solid anyway is writing? Words aren’t life itself, but symbols. Readers simply want a story that works and which keeps its promise. That promise is the issue, but whatever answer a writer reaches as she tries to hit her sweet spot of Truth should be conscious and considered. As Zinsser’s rules imply—and he wrote the bestseller on practices in mainstream nonfiction—writing is also—inherently and inescapably—a performance.

As Robert Frost said:

“The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don’t critics talk about those things—what a feat it was to turn that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this? Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score.

How  to score while playing by the rules? What are the rules? More to come . . .

Comments Off on Honesty and chronology, part two

Filed under audience, creative nonfiction, dialogue, fiction, honesty, memoir, narrative

That old fly on the wall

“Dialogue for me is the most effective and most interesting way of defining character, making it unnecessary for the writer to intrude with any song-and-dance routine of his own,” explains literary journalist Lillian Ross in Reporting Back: Notes on Journalism. “Moreover, as in a play or movie, dialogue moves the action along. That is why so many readers write to me and say that they felt, while reading a piece, that they were right there, with me.”

“A tape recorder gets in the way, too,” she goes on. “I, not the machine, must do the listening. And you must be selective Ross-Reportingin listening to the characters. If I edit the dialogue a bit to make it more truly theirs, I do it in a way that is not noticeable to the talker or to anyone else.”

Ross explains that real, back-and-forth dialogue brought to life her famous New Yorker “Portrait of Hemingway,” later published as a book. The piece caused an uproar because many readers thought Hemingway came off as an egotistical monster, and they condemned him; and because others supposed Ross had maliciously made the writer, then a battered fifty, appear a crazed blowhard. Students, I’ve found, usually like the writer as oracular bon vivant that Ross apparently intended to present. She has explained that she adored Hemingway—they were friends and corresponded—and that he found her account accurate and funny.

What I’ve seen no comment on is the irony that Ross used Hemingway’s own favored point of view: severely limited, direct-observer, third person in which the narrator lacks access to thoughts or emotions and doesn’t interpret or judge, only depicts what can be seen and heard. This “fly on the wall” viewpoint has the effect of forcing readers to stand back and analyze rather than sympathize. Without characters’ inner life or the writer’s commentary, dialogue is crucial to revelation. By careful use of details and dialogue, Hemingway could make you feel awful and sense past, or coming, horror. As it happens, so did Ross in her portrait of the writer. Had she added her own, sympathetic point of view her piece might have read less like a short story and would have made the journalist a more obvious character in it. But it wouldn’t be the same classic profile, for good or ill.

In any case, Ross used limited third-person narration rigorously in her “Portrait.” She showed and did not tell, an aesthetic principle that dovetails nicely with journalism’s ostensible focus on the subject rather than the writer. In literary journalism the existence of the writer is usually at least acknowledged, however. The paragraph below consists of Hemingway discussing my favorite passage in all of literature, the opening of A Farewell to Arms—the novel’s entire first chapter is but two amazing pages—and subtly admits Ross’s presence:

“As we walked along, Hemingway said to me, ‘I can make a landscape like Mr. Paul Cezanne. I learned how to make a landscape like Mr. Paul Cezanne by walking through the Luxembourg Museum a thousand times with an empty gut, Hemingway-Farewelland I am pretty sure that if Mr. Paul was around, he would like the way I make them and be happy that I learned it from him.’ He had learned a lot from Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach, too. ‘In the first paragraph of Farewell, I used the word and consciously over and over the way Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach used a note in music when he was emitting counterpoint. I can almost write like Mr. Johann sometimes—or anyway, so he would like it. All such people are easy to deal with, because we all know you have to learn.’”

Joan Didion called Hemingway’s heartbreakingly beautiful first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms “thrilling and mysterious,” four sentences which in their arrangement achieve a “liturgical cadence.” Hemingway’s sentences are often said to be “simple” —but they aren’t. They’re  rhythmical, with artful repetition, and their construction is varied and complex. His sentences’ weirdly powerful effect resides in this and in their words, which in contrast to the syntax that carries them are simple indeed, as plain and elemental as earth. Here’s the famous paragraph, rendered in that old fly-on-the-wall point of view; emotion arises from the details the narrator emphasizes and from the rhythm of his telling, rather than from explanation:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

Comments Off on That old fly on the wall

Filed under dialogue, fiction, flow, journalism, NOTED, Persona, Voice, POV, syntax