Let Writers Be Unashamed of Having Homemade Imaginations

In my last article, I gave a broad overview of interest-based living .  This follows with a specific instance of an unfolding interest that has actually resulted deeper immersion in my communities and greater liberty as an artist.

Writing strong short stories is a recent interest of mine, but it is I was unintentionally prepared for. I come from a small hometown and a tight-knit family. I picked up on lots of the details about the culture of my immediate and local surroundings.  Happily, I discovered that short story fiction reads best when they simmer with an indigenous flavor. Why is that so? Well, there’s this instinctual, three-part code that raises the short-story writer from infancy. Its persistent purpose is one thing; keeping the story poignant and sincere by grounding it local culture.

Dialogue is sifted through filters called ‘dialects’ 

It makes for irretrievably bland reading when characters time their words, pursue ideas, and cuss with undifferentiated style. It’s suspicious. Maybe the characters are just surrogates for the author’s pet thought projects. After all, experience shows us that conversations are not under the control of one mind and we wouldn’t enjoy them if they were. The author can defer to that by giving each character its own dialect; its own distinct pattern of funneling thoughts into words and words into sentences. These patterns are the foundation of dialect.

Dialects are languages within languages. Think of the genteel verbal graces of a Southerner or the contrasting caterwaul of a bog-dwelling hick. Whereas an actor relies on the sound of the accent for embellishment, a writer configures his words precisely so that a sounding accent is irrelevant. It’s simply felt in the word choices. The process is to mull between, say, what characters repeat and what they would never say, whether they always speak in complete sentences and why they say “gender” not “sex.” All these sorts of differentiating decisions intensify each character with a habitual, ingrained dialect.

Characters are in behavior, not postures.

Sometimes you read a story where you can’t stop visualizing everyone in some sort of pose. They aren’t moving anywhere or handling anything. Unless the majority of us grew up in photo shoots and fashion shows, that isn’t what we are accustomed to expect from humans, especially in the current age where we even greet each other with salutations to our busyness.

“How are you?”

“Doing this, this and this thanks.”

“I see. I as well. That’s actually why I have to go…”

Plausibility emerges when characters are doing things: washing the dishes, defacing public monuments, putting on wedding veils, etc. Characters are attempts to represent people; they deserve a psyche outfitted with the ordinary, common stuff of birthplaces, families, and favorite foods.

Once you give them an activity, you put them in context. Are they washing the dishes by hand? Is a dishwasher doing most of the work? How many other times has this person pasted art on public monuments? In the few words which answer these questions, you add a time and a place to the character’s psyche. The more they become believably native to some place and time, the more likely it is that they truthfully portray an actual human.

Perspective has consistent bias

Perspective is the frame of the story; it is the deciding line between what is included and what is excluded.  Short stories resonate with peculiar integrity when they are told from the viewpoint of a single narrator. None of those omniscient intrusions from the author to invoke a muse or explain the meaning of the parable. Anytime in a real conversation when a person attempts an all-seeing, all-knowing statement, we usually treat as their perspective and consider it from our own perspective.

The implication is that short story perspective is biased. The viewpoint doesn’t move from character to character but stays faithful to the perception, assumptions and empathies of one person. The character gives us a taste of his own experience without pretending to have the omniscience of God. At its most meaningful moments, the character’s perspective will not be universally meaningful. Instead, it’s tremendously meaningful to a certain person, his surroundings and his people. Biased perspective allows local flavor to emerge at its strongest.

These three boundary lines push me to find inspiration in the local culture of my hometown and of my townspeople.  This directly assists a valid danger I encounter in trying to live an interest-based life. Sometimes, new interests make us feel naïve because our curiosity is directed right at what we don’t know. And in a culture which prizes experts, it’s embarrassing when you only have half the puzzle; you’d really like to have more. The short story code helps me beyond the fear of not knowing because it redirects me from a vague, bleak unknown. I have intimate knowledge of my home. I and only I may claim mastery of my experiences. The question of expertise dismissed, I am free to nurture my interest without the fear of speaking ignorantly.

And as a beautiful result, this artistic freedom encourages me to go deeper into my community. It leads me into nursing homes, opens my eyes to the homeless and less fortunate and keeps me loyal to even the most difficult family relationships.