Hearing things

Tuning in to how we talk, lots of resources & course reccos too!

I’m at work on a big project this fall, so will be sending out this newsletter once each month for the rest of the year.

Craft: Voices in my head

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we talk—to others, to ourselves. Part of it has been listening to recordings of some interviews I’ve been doing (holy sentence fragments and half-finished thoughts—mine, not my interviewee’s!) for a project where I’m trying to capture my interviewee’s voice on the page. And then as I read Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel (see “What I’m reading,” below, for more on this terrific book), I was struck by the significant advantage that novelists have over nonfiction writers, in their ability to tap into their characters’ inner monologues. Of course, memoirists can allow us into their minds, and nonfiction writers can certainly ask interviewees what they were thinking or feeling at a particular moment (and if we’re really really lucky, those interviewees have journals or notes or letters that captured some of those inner thoughts at the time), but fiction writers can go all in, diving deeply into the inner thoughts of multiple characters over time, something that Mandel does expertly and to terrific effect in her book.

I’ve also been dipping into Tom Chiarella’s book Writing Dialogue: How to create memorable voices and fictional conversations that crackle with wit, tension and nuance. While aimed at fiction writers, Chiarella offers many exercises geared to getting us simply to listen to how people really talk—as opposed to how we imagine people converse (for instance, we rarely say “converse”). First up: writing down everything you say over the course of one day, as accurately as possible, sentence fragments, half-finished thoughts, babble and all. The point of the exercise? To spot the tics and habits that make you sound like you—and to tune your ear to the cues that makes others sound like them too. As Chiarella points out, your end goal isn’t to include transcript-like dialogue in your fiction (or, I would argue, in your nonfiction). Anyone who has ever typed a transcript knows our daily conversations—even ones with a supposed point, like an interview—are filled with false starts, conversational dead-ends and alleys we end up backing out of. But tuning your ear to listen for distinctive speech patterns and word uses will help you get the voice of each character—real or imagined—onto the page.

Ok, so let’s back up a bit: I’ve mentioned interviews, and I’m also talking about dialogue…but are those two things the same? Nope.

When we interview, we’re typically engaged in an information-seeking exercise: we want our subject to tell us this, explain that, describe how they did something else. It’s a conversation between two people, yes, but often when we transfer it to the page, one half of that conversation disappears, as we render ourselves as interviewer invisible and the one-sided conversation becomes “quotes,” not dialogue or conversation. Often—but not always. Sometimes, we write ourselves into the scene, something that old-school journalists hate and everyone else can’t stop doing, and we end up with a kind of conversation on the page. It’s not really the kind of dialogue that normal people have in a normal day, though: it’s more interrogatory than your typical convo (depending on the tone and tenor of your interpersonal interactions), with one person doing most of the asking and the other doing most of the answering. And truth be told, in most cases, your reader is skipping over the “you” parts to get to the things the person they really want to read about has to say.

So, not dialogue: quotes. Still, quotes can be used to great effect and impact especially in capturing snippets of how your subject explains their work, their relationships, themselves, and interviewing is a key tool in the nonfiction writer’s kit.

Dialogue, on the other hand, typically shows how your subject interacts with other people (and by other I mean “others who are not interviewing them”): their coworkers, their employees, their kids, their students, the people they pass on the street, the waitress, their friends and so on. When we use dialogue in scenes (real ones in nonfiction, imagined ones in fiction), we should be selecting dialogue that reveals something: something about the relationship, something that furthers the story, something that tells us who this person is—their values, their biases, what drives them forward or trips them up. As fiction writer Dorothy Allison (her book Ellen Foster broke my heart when I read it two decades ago) puts it, dialogue is best used in showing “situations of extremity”—or as she also puts it, situations where “something is fuckin’ happening.” (Listen to her talk about dialogue in this podcast from Tin House.) That something may be big—an explosive moment at a boardroom table where the CEO manages to oust a troublesome board member—or it may be something small but equally important from the point of view of revealing character: the moment where that same CEO makes a show of thanking the waitress by name, but leaves her a paltry tip. In both cases, we don’t need to hear every word that is said—we need the dialogue to be edited and shaped by the writer, distilled to its most powerful snippets. And in nonfiction, I don’t mean rewritten or made up—I simply mean using direct quotes for your most powerful material and paraphrasing the rest. Not a transcript, but a scene with dialogue.

The challenge for nonfiction writers is that we’re often not on the scene when the good stuff is happening, and so we have to ask people to recall what happened, to remember what they said. And the fact is that the facts are slippery. We polish the past, often making ourselves a bit smarter, a bit funnier, a bit sharper when we retell the story. When we are describing an emotionally fraught scene from a place of more emotional distance, we may dial down the intensity, be more “rational” in how we present what we said or did or what we thought we communicated. As interviewers, it’s worth thinking about how to get at more genuine recollections, perhaps by asking things like:

  • When you’re upset or angry or overjoyed with someone, how do you think you come across to them?

  • What frustrates you about how you communicate when you’re under stress? What do you wish you did differently?

  • When you look back on that conversation, what do you wish you’d said? What do you wish you’d asked?

  • What did the other person say? What did you think they meant by that?

  • What did you say? What do you think the other person heard you say?

  • Was that a conversation you wish had gone on longer—or been cut shorter? Why?

  • Was there anything about the conversation that felt familiar? Was it a conversation you feel like you’ve had before, or was it a surprise to you?

  • If you had to sum up that conversation in one sentence, what would it be?

Of course, you also pull out the usual interviewer asks: Did you recap this conversation in a journal, email, memo, Tweet or social media post or other notes afterwards, and if so, can I see them? Did you record it? Ideally, you also interview others who took part, witnessed it or heard about it afterwards.

Then you try to get something onto the page that is as close an approximation to what actually happened as your research allows (as colleague David Hayes puts it, he’s aiming to capture a scene that others who were there would recognize if they read it—not videotape accuracy, but recognizable accuracy to those who were there).

And if you’ve been listening to your interviewees closely, you’ll also capture the rhythms of their voices so that the dialogue on the page “sounds” like them: clipped and no-nonsense, meandering and elliptical, formal or casual, and so on.

Quotes to explain or illuminate. Dialogue to demonstrate and reveal. What about inner monologue? Inner monologue, I think, is for reflection: what were you thinking, what were you hoping, what were you afraid of, what were you struggling with? And again, whether we’re interviewing others and asking them to recall these emotions and reflections or interrogating ourselves as we write memoir, the challenge is to try to step back into the past rather than projecting our current reflections and insights onto our past experiences (though there’s also value in doing the “me now reflects on me then” shift in perspective, as in: “I wouldn’t realize until later that at the root of my fear of x was y” or “it wasn’t until I’d experienced my own losses that I would realize how insensitive my reaction was”).

And this is where writers of fiction have the advantage, the opportunity to bring us as readers deeply inside what feels like an authentic representation of a character’s inner dialogues, the kind we have ourselves, in the moment, not knowing what will come after, groping our way forward from our present into our…present…and the next present…and the next…not knowing what our future holds until it holds us.

Share I Have Thoughts


1. Jot-a-lot: Adapting from both Tom Chiarella and Dorothy Allison. For a week, carry a notebook and jot snatches of dialogue: intriguing bits of other people’s conversations, but also the words that tumble out of our own mouths—even, especially the clunky boring bits, the catch-phrases we use as defaults, the habits we don’t notice we have until we see them 10 times in a day on the page. Chiarella notices his habit of greeting people by their full names rather than saying hello. Me? I notice that my fear of misremembering someone’s name (I have mortifying memories of it happening more than once) leads me to default to not saying people’s names, greeting them with “Hey there.” And then I recall a former colleague who used to greet everyone with “Hey you”—but whose tone in saying it could shift those two words from scolding (Hey. YOU!) to caressing (heeeyy yooooou). Three people. Three habitual greetings. Three recognizable voices on the page. Next step: Pull out a sentence, a snippet and use is as the jumping off point for 200 words of wherever it takes you.

2. Voices in your head: Spend a day jotting as much of your internal monologue as you can—and can stand. Again: capture the profound as well as the mundane, what tickles your intellect as well as the “my nose is itchy” moments. Next step: edit your day down to 100 words of droplets of consciousness, your own found poem.

What I’m reading: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

So here’s the weird thing: I have purchased and then avoided reading both of Mandel’s most recent books—Station 11 and The Glass Hotel. The former I avoided for months before finally diving in. The latter sat on my bedside table for weeks. In both cases, the blurbs about the books put me off—apocalyptic, depressing, anxiety-inducing. And in both cases, when I finally dove in, I didn’t want to emerge from the wonderfully complex worlds and compellingly drawn characters that Mandel had created. I’m not going to say much about the plotline of her latest book, because anything I can summarize is so…inadequate compared to what this book ultimately delivers. The writing is beautiful. The characters are complex and fully human. I loved it. You should read it.

Other good stuff

Read A delightful short piece in the New York Times: Authors Distill Their Writing Advice to Just a Few Words, by Amitava Kumar, who asked authors to sign copies of their books and include some writing advice with their autographs. Included are images of title pages of the signed works, author’s scrawls spreading across the page. My only complaint? I wanted more of them!

Bonus reads:

  • A great example of fine reporting—and writing—all done remotely

  • This poem will break your heart

  • A lovely read

Watch Our relationships with our parents is a common theme in memoir. Check out this exploration on film, as the son of legendary Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani attempts to capture his mother in Franca: Chaos and Creation. The film is available on Netflix. You can see a short item about it here.

Listen Also in the Tin House Live series of Craft Talks, from which I quoted Dorothy Allison in the Craft section above: Lidia Yuknavitch on “Writing from the Deep Cut.” Much to reflect on here.

Book industry stuff

  • Roxane Gay and so much more at AfterWords: We’re heading into the fall book festival season, and with more events than ever online, we have access than to so many terrific readings! Check out the Roxane Gay session at Halifax’s AfterWords (sponsored by University of King’s College), as well as the rest of their stellar line-up.

  • What do you call it? Here’s some fun: a taxonomy of nonfiction.

  • Ben McNally has a home (for now): The beloved Toronto indie bookstore moves to Adelaide.

  • Direct sales by indie publishers: Canadian indie publishers are garnering more direct sales, as buyers shift to online purchases . (Subscription required—but if you’re interested in the book biz in Canada, you really should subscribe!)

  • Audio book reviews and behind-the-scenes: Whether you’re looking for your next audio book pick, or wondering about the voices (and processes) behind those books, check out Audiofilemagazine.com. The site includes reviews and interviews—a great source of info. And if you’d like to support indie bookstores with your audio book buys, check out Libro.fm, where you can designate an indie bookseller to get a percentage of your audio book buys (I support the King’s Co-op Bookstore this way).

  • New nonfiction podcast: The Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction, a prestigious UK nonfiction prize, has launched a podcast of interviews with past winners, judges and others.

Courses, community & stuff

  • King’s online workshops: Interested in writing about pop culture? Looking to boost your bylines this year? Maybe you’ve got a romance novel in the works? Or a memoir? Or perhaps you’re looking for a way to recharge and reset your creative direction? This fall, King’s is offering five fantastic 8-week online workshops that tackle these topics. Join our amazing workshop leaders—Ryan McNutt, Beth Hitchcock, Paula Altenburg, Cooper Lee Bombardier, and Suzannah Showler—in sessions that are sure to give you the creative kickstart you’ve been looking for.

  • Diverse craft advice: An amazing resource of craft advice: Writers of Color Discussing Craft – An Invisible Archive. So much good stuff here. Also, from the same site, check out their list of POC-run presses and POC-edited literary journals.

  • More newsletters: Check out Freelancing with Tim, an e-newsletter about, yes, freelancing, including weekly Sunday afternoon Zoom panels. One recent edition: a round-up of 50+ pitching guides to various publications. Also, Sonia Weiser’s Opportunities of the Week Newsletter, a roundup of freelance opportunities—this one costs $3US/month.

  • Listen up: Check out the narrative nonfiction podcast of University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, cleverly titled Hear-Tell.

  • Guardian stuff: Events and Masterclasses from The Guardian.

  • Memoirs, first-person and more: Check out the course offerings from Sarah White, a recent graduate of the King’s MFA program and a seasoned writer.

  • A fake dean: I love what Omar Mouallem has created with Pandemic U. Here’s the inside story of how it came to be.

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Tweets & stuff

Make your own world

Who among us hasn’t wanted to do this?

Completely joyful

Obligatory photo of Buddy

Buddy says “I had an operation on my eye, and a tooth out, but I’m ok now!”

The stuff at the bottom

I’m a writer, editor and teacher. This is my personal e-newsletter on the craft of writing nonfiction, sprinkled with occasional feminism and social justice. You can find out more about me on my website at kimpittaway.com. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter. I’m the executive director of the MFA in Creative Nonfiction limited residency program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. If you’re interested in writing a nonfiction book, you should check our program out!

And finally

Share your online course and community recommendations, links to cool things writers and others are doing to get through all of this and whatever else strikes you in the comments section of the web version of this post.

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