Am I Blogging Now?

A blog about writing, reading, art, and history

Writing Talking

I tend to recall creative writing courses being less helpful than I’d have liked them to be. I took two of them as an undergraduate: an intro-level and an advanced. I liked the teacher for the advanced course well enough, but the prof for the intro class had kind of an east-coast liberal mentality that irked my Idaho farm-kid upbringing. The classes focused on ‘literary’ fiction. Within the first few weeks I determined ‘literary’ means ‘dry and depressing.’ I also found it to be kind of a hypocritical genre of writing in that writers who think of themselves as ‘literary’ tend to look down their noses at other genres of writing as being conventional and formulaic, when literary fiction has its own set of conventions and formulas.

I felt out of my element in both classes for various reasons, and the dry subject matter did nothing to help my mood. Very little of what was written in either class was uplifting by any measure. A couple stories featured murders. A couple more featured suicides. And one featured a murder/suicide. And that’s just the students’ stories, don’t get me started about the assigned readings. I learned also that creative writing students tend to view each other as potential competition, and thus get very defensive about their writing and offensive toward others’. (Writers can be an insecure lot. Me included.) This isn’t to say that I learned nothing from my classmates. There were several very talented writers in those classes, but I learned far more from their example than from their advice.

I think the best example of things that wrecked my respect for modern literary conventions was their opposition to using dialect in narration and character dialogue. Dialect is awesome. I love both reading and writing it. It gives a regional feel to the story, whether it’s being used by the narrator to establish scene or by characters to establish background. I did a simple experiment with dialect in a pseudo-medieval story for the intro class, trying to give a rural family of characters a rustic feel by replacing my with me and you and your with ye. The story included lines like ‘May I check ye bandages?’ and ‘Me father wishes to speak with ye.’ Apparently, that’s where I went wrong. My classmates trashed on it, indicating that it was distracting and made the family inconsistent with the other characters. One smug literature major dismissed it as cliche and infantile. The teacher said it was ‘over the top’–that it was different enough from the rest of the writing to distract readers from the story.

I was wise enough not to use dialect in the advanced class, but one of my classmates did, to a similar response. His story featured a Chinese immigrant who was still trying to master the conglomerative mess that is the English language. He went all-out with the dialect, using wery for very and swapping pronunciation of the ls and rs in the words. It was freaking awesome–some of the best use of dialect I’ve seen since Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” I loved it, and said so in my response. I got some strange looks from the other critiquers when I said that it was great and that I enjoy reading stories written in dialect. They trashed on it, much like my classmates from the intro course did with my dialectical experiment. What they dismissed as ‘distracting,’ ‘stereotypical,’ and ‘bordering on ethnocentric’ really brought the character to life for me. It made him relatable, so that I sympathized not only with his struggles in the story, but his struggles with the English language as well.

I’m still scratching my head as to why use of dialect is considered ‘nonliterary.’ As a genre that prides itself on realism and descriptivism, wouldn’t literary fiction writers want their characters to sound like they’re from particular parts of the world? Sure, I’ve read bad dialect on occasion–Clarence Mulford is the first that comes to mind, and his isn’t badly written so much as painfully cliche. But there’ve been many famous writers of the literary canon who write beautiful and believable dialect, but for whatever reason, many modern literary writers who try to employ it get criticized for it’s use. I have to wonder if it’s one of those things where one famous writer or self-proclaimed expert said it should be avoided, and suddenly all writers who can’t think for themselves eliminate their use of it altogether. Kind of like when Strunk and White said to avoid using passive voice, or when Stephen King said ‘adverbs are not your friend’ and their mindless followers start going out of their way not use passive voice and adverbs.

Writers can be such conformists sometimes. Emerson would be ashamed.

Anyway, all this reminds me of a joke. How to talk like a hillbilly:
Hillbilly 1: M R ducks.
Hillbilly 2: M R not ducks.
Hillbilly 1: M R 2 ducks.
Hillbilly 2: naw, M R not ducks.
Hillbilly 1: S A R 2 ducks. C M wangs?
Hillbilly 2: L I B, M R ducks.

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