Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Head I'm In

I have had a toothache for a month and a half. It is amazing the amount of time, thought, and care that my brain has directed straight to my highly innervated mouth. (Would that my mouth would consequently say smarter things, but alas -- no such luck.)

As a kid, I had ten years of orothodonia. (My parents got a deal because the ortho specialized in military families who moved every three years and offered a flat rate. Surprise! He got stuck with me.)

When I was eight, I got headgear. Shortly before this, my mom had allowed me to watch a frightening vampire saga on TV. I bet I was the only child in America relieved to have an ugly apparatus wrapped around my neck because it allowed me to sleep without fear of being bitten.

In one of those sleepless pre-headgear nights, I remember becoming unusually conscious of the voice inside my head. And then I had that haunting existential thought -- where did this voice come from? How did I get trapped inside of ME?

Reading April's amazing 9/11 poem and Writing Workout, I was reminded of my childhood napping habit. I would put a pillow on the floor beneath my head, recline against the couch, and sleep with my feet straight up in the air. Increased blood flow to the brain = good. Of course, doing this now would surely give me vertigo.

My children seem to spend a lot of time upside-down, as well. I have to think that maybe we are born with a natural inclination to try to look at the world for a different persepective. And then I have to wonder -- how do so many of us lose that instinct somewhere along the way?

"Dialogue" is the word we use in the politics of life to indicate diplomacy, mediation, tense negotiation. In my day job, dialogue is everything. Nearly all soap opera scenes that don't involve disasters, cat fights, or kissing are chiefly comprised of informational recap (blah, but useful if you missed yesterday's episode) and/or verbal conflict. You may have noticed that two characters in a scene together nearly always take opposing viewpoints. "Strong POVs," as they say, are always more interesting. (Of course, nuance helps, too.)
Writing Workout

When I was teaching English 101, I adapted a playwriting exercise from college on writing dialogue. I asked my students to leave the classroom, to eavesdrop on a conversation, and to take good, quick, verbatim notes, then come back and share.

My intent was to show them how much conversation consists of "mms" and "uhs," is redundant and boring. I wanted to show them the importance of winnowing down a conversation or an event to only the most important details.

My students fanned out across campus. The class was held at time when few other activities were scheduled, so several students wound up eavesdropping on the same conversations.

Three different groups came back. There was the group that had listened to a boring conversation about allergies (i.e., informational recap). Then there was the second group, which had overheard a fight betwen a couple about whether one had given the other HIV. The third conversation described a menage a trois with identical twins. I write for a soap opera, and I thought I had heard it all. I had not.

And so the idea that an average conversation is boring was not conveyed so well by this particular exercise. But the idea of listening -- with an open mind -- of trying to put oneself in someone else's shoes, to imagine the circumstances preceding and following the slice of life you've observed -- DIALOGUE in life is everything.


Sarah Campbell said...

Very interesting exercise. I am always eavesdropping at restaurants, on bus rides, and in waiting rooms. Occasionally, I'll write a re-cap in my notebook. I find capturing the actual words of dialogue I've heard is almost like trying to tell someone a dream ... it's very slippery. I end up trying to convey the tenor, emotion of the conversation. Does this count?

Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford said...

Sarah, I think you've intuited the point of the exercise completely --that conveying the effect of real conversation requires skill, judicious editing, and even some sleight-of-hand. Thanks for the very insightful comment.

Abigail said...

And then we go back to yoga and one of the first things they do is flip us upside down again. Imagine my surprise that comfortable childhood positions were "more advanced" yoga techniques