A Brief Personal History of Dialogue

By Kelly Luce

Featured Image: The Great Statue of Amida Buddha at Kamakura, Known as the Daibutsu, from the Priest’s Garden by John La Farge, 1887

Not everyone says what they mean. But they do
always say something designed to get what they
want.
—David Mamet

1987: Ms. Voyeur, my first-grade teacher, tells my mom I’m too quiet and should be seen by a psychiatrist. But I prefer listening! Other people are interesting. They tell you more secrets when you’re quiet.

1992: My Language Arts teacher accuses me of plagiarizing a short story  I wrote about volleyball tryouts. Why? “The dialogue is too realistic.” When I tell her that’s because I just tried out for volleyball myself and remembered how the girls sounded, she says, “No one learns to write dialogue by listening to real people talk.”

1997: I read Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” for the first time. Remember the conversation between returned soldier Seymour Glass and the young girl, Sybil, on the beach? Sybil is being perfectly herself, still possesses her childlike ability to say just what she means. Seymour is a couple hours away from—. Their chatter is innocent. Or is it terrifying? Take this exchange about a rubber raft:

“Are you going in the water?” Sybil said.

“I’m seriously considering it. I’m giving it plenty of thought, Sybil, you’ll be glad to know.”

Sybil prodded the rubber float that the young man sometimes used as a headrest. “It needs air,” she said.

“You’re right. It needs more air than I’m willing to admit.”

I envy anyone who gets to read this story for the first time.

2002, Thanksgiving: I am in a women’s prison in Japan, a country whose language I barely speak. A man from the American embassy brings me a book to pass the time. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The town mute, Mr. Singer, is every character’s favorite confidant. Because he cannot speak, he hears all of their secrets.

2003: In a new city in Japan, I begin dating an Australian guy. We are not a good couple. We have nothing in common. We fight a lot. One day, after trying to explain an argument we were having to a Japanese-speaking friend, we stumble on a solution. From there on out, we decide, we’ll only fight in Japanese. English, our native language, offers too many possibilities. In our world of elementary language, words are stripped of connotation and possible double meanings because we don’t know these connotations or double meanings. And there’s a filter. We have to slow down, decide what we want to say, and figure out how to say it. No room for duplicity. By speaking a language we barely know, we remove the ability to misunderstand each other. Not to mention we both sound like idiots, which helps establish mutual empathy.

2003, April: The Aussie and I break up. In English. We never speak again.

2006: At my first writer’s conference, I write in a notebook, “Writing = great because you can take time to figure out exactly what you want to say. But writing dialogue is SO HARD. Because people don’t talk in a figured-out way. We struggle and edit and revise our prose, scalpel in hand, honing in on the truth, but in dialogue it’s the opposite. We have to let characters hack at truth with a machete. (Bananafish!)”

2009: My partner and I are playing a civilization-building board game called Agricola and watching a romantic comedy. We laugh at the cheesy movie dialogue and he says, “The way people talk is more like a strategy game. Your move, my move, your move.”

2014: I re-read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Find a margin note from 2005: “Does a one-sided conversation count as dialogue?” I pick up my pencil and answer myself.


Kelly Luce is the author of the story collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail and the novel Pull Me Under, a Book of the Month Club selection and one of Elle’s Best Books of 2016. Her work has appeared in New York Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Salon, O, the Oprah Magazine, The Sun, and other publications. She was a 2016-17 fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and edits The Commuter at Electric Literature.

Originally appeared in NOR 17

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