Motherhood & Words

This week, one of my students wanted to talk more about dialogue because she was having trouble writing realistic, moving dialogue in her nonfiction. It’s a common problem, I think, for beginning writers because their instinct is to write dialogue in a vacuum: he said, she said, he said, etc. I want my students to notice everything else that is a part of dialogue and a part of building realistic characters: gestures, thoughts, description, our presence in space and time.

I think the best way to learn how to write effective dialogue is to look at writers who do it well, so I chose the first page of a couple of essays from the Best American Essay series and handed them out to my class.

From Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Blue Machinery of Summer”:

“I feel like I’m part of this damn thing,” Frank said. He carried himself like a large man even though he was short. A dead cigarette dangled from his half-grin. “I’ve worked on this machine for twenty-odd year, and now it’s almost me.”

Even in that first, short paragraph, we know how Frank talks and we know a little about who is–the kind of man who lets a dead cigarette dangle from his lips.

From Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life”:

The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week. I was in a cafe in Minneapolis watching a man. He watched me back. He was slightly pudgy, with jet black hair and skin so white it looked as if he’d powdered it. He stood and walked to my table and sat down without asking. He wanted to know if I had a cat. I folded my hands on the table, steadying myself; I was shaking, nervous at what I would do. I was raw, fragile, vicious with grief. I would do anything.

“Yes,” I said.

“I thought so,” he said slowly. He didn’t take his eyes off me. I rolled the rings around my fingers. I was wearing two wedding bands, my own and my mother’s. I’d taken hers off her hand after she died. It was nothing fancy: sterling silver, thick and braided.

“You look like the kind of girl who has a cat.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

He didn’t answer. He just kept looking at me steadily, as if he knew everything about me, as if he owned me. I felt distinctly that he might be a murderer.

Strayed is a talented writer, and she knows how to create real, raw dialogue and believable characters.

One thing I suggested to my students was this: think of a conversation that they’ve wanted to write. Where would this conversation take place? With whom?

Before writing any of the dialogue, describe the room: the light, the furniture, the place—what was the look, the feel? Was it hot in there? Etc.

Next, describe the person. What are his/her mannerisms? Does he run his hands through his hair? Does she twist hers in a knot or fiddle with it? Does he scratch at his eye, pick at eyelashes? One thing that would be helpful is to go home and really look at the people you live with—we don’t remember these things about people close to us because we’re so used to them that we don’t notice them anymore.

After they have the place and person details down on paper, they should write the conversation, including everything around the conversation—the physical space, their thoughts, body language, etc.

So, a question for all of you: who do you think does dialogue really, really well? (These can be fiction writers, too, but it would be great to have some first-person narrators.)

On a blog maintenance note: I’m sorry people are having to log in with a google-blogger account to leave a comment. I haven’t changed my settings, and I’m not sure why this is happening. I’ll try to get to the bottom of it.

On a sickness note: still sick. It feels as if I actually might be sick for the REST OF MY LIFE.

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I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. Cheryl on December 8, 2007 at 11:09 am


    Because I told the truth about a painful and complicated time in my life?

    I guess so…

  2. Ines on December 10, 2007 at 11:49 am

    Thank you for making me think. I like how Grace Paley describes her characters and their time together. Also, she has a way of concluding the story that is sort of misterious. She doesn’t end end a story is more like the story ends itself, at least for the time being. I got her book at the advise of Time magazine when they announce her death recently (one with several stories not a novel but I cannot think about the title now) and at your prompting read two or three of her stories. Amazing.

  3. ~Denise~ on December 11, 2007 at 10:36 am

    Thank you for this post, it prompts me to keep endeavoring to become a better writer.