Writing: The Toolbox VI

Dialogue is an important ingredient to any good story. When characters begin to talk, they not only come to life for the reader, they become real for the writer as well. Writing good dialogue is essential to drawing a reader into the character world you’re creating, whether it is in fiction, nonfiction, or screenplays. Characters reveal themselves with their spoken words, but those words don’t always come easy. There are a few tricks, however, to make those words come alive.

I continue my series writing about the collected tools of the craft, based on my long-standing experience of writing screenplays and books.


Photo credit: Bettina Gilois


16. The Disconnect

Tension creates drama. In physics, tension is the pulling force exerted by each end of an object such as a string or cable, or a rod or truss. At an atomic level, tension arises when molecules are pulled apart from each other and gain electromagnetic energy. Every object under tension will pull on the object to which it is attached, to restore it to its relaxed state. This is the nature of drama, pulling and tugging to a restoration of the relaxed state.

One of the simple ways I’ve gotten my dialogue to come to life is by creating tension between the lines of dialogue of my speaking characters. If characters speak to each other in clear and direct sentences and responses, there is little tension and hence little energy to the exchange. Tension arises when people don’t talk directly to each other. It is often the disconnect, the lack of response, the side stepping, the avoidance, the omission, and the changing of subjects between characters that creates a natural sounding dialogue that is rife with tension and drama, and interesting for the reader.

Try writing your characters talking past each other. Have a character ask a question and have the other answer with an unrelated thought. Disconnect between characters reveals their differences, their yearnings, and a power play between them.

Instead of this:

Mother opens door. Daughter stands outside and says, “Hi, Mom.” Mom says, “Come in. Did you bring the fish?” Daughter answers, “Yes, I did. Had to get it from the store in this rain.” Mother says, “Let’s bring it to the kitchen.”

Try this:

Mother opens door. Daughter stands outside and says, “What took you so long?” Mom ignores the question, “Did you bring the fish?” Daughter insists, “I rang the bell three times.” Mother changes the subject, “Is it raining?” Daughter says, “Yes, it’s raining. You can see it’s raining. Did you hear me ringing?” Mother says, “I’m going back to the kitchen. Bring the fish.”

Of course, the tension created through dialogue has to relate to the intended content of the story. But as characters talk with some disconnect, evade answering, side step questions, and push and pull over control of the flow of the conversation, you enliven your dialogue and make your readers engage with interest and curiosity to figure out what is going on between your characters and who will gain the upper hand.

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Photo credit: Bettina Gilois


17. Unfinished Sentences

This is a simple one, and it’s a pet peeve for me. Unfinished sentences in dialogue are unnecessary and not engaging. I have seen, in some novice writers, there is a tendency to attempt to create drama by having characters interrupt each other and not finish their sentences (presumably because their characters are so overwhelmed by the drama of a situation they are left speechless). But there is no drama in the unfinished sentence. There are only questions left unanswered for the reader, and a lack of engagement with the reader since the crucial subject of the sentence has been left out. Most of the time when I read an unfinished line of dialogue, I sense the writer doesn’t even have the completion of the sentence in mind, only the desire to create drama through the use of this dialogue device. I find myself wanting to finish the sentence, and being falsely manipulated into feeling something I don’t feel, since I lack information.

“But I was just—“ has me asking, “You were just what?”

“I thought he was—“ leaves me wanting to know, “You thought he was what?!”

There are a few times, very few times, when an unfinished sentence is necessary or called for. And once in a rare while that’s alright. But most of the time, I recommend avoiding this somewhat cheap trick. Allowing your reader the satisfaction of a finished line of dialogue gives them insight into the inner workings of your characters.


Photo credit: Bettina Gilois


18. The Random Page Test

As an exercise in studying dialogue, I recommend taking any book, or perhaps screenplay, and opening it to a random page and looking at the dialogue. You will find in good writing that every page of dialogue is engaging, whether you know what’s going on or not. The dialogue is fresh, unique, natural, engaging, interesting, entertaining, and full of character quirks and personality.

Do the random page test on your own work often. Does your dialogue instantly engage? Is it written with unique and original wording, and with enough tension to make the reader instantly curious? Can you quickly understand what’s going in the scene by what is being said?

In Richard Ford’s short story Great Falls, a young man who was having an affair with a married woman stands outside on the porch with her young son, while the father confronts his wife inside the house. The scene is rife with tension by their disconnected dialogue, the avoidance and omission of the actual subject matter at hand, and the words and thoughts are fresh and unique.

Young man: “I like it out here. Nothing to bother you. I bet you’d see Chicago if the world was flat. The Great Plains commence here.”

Young boy: “I don’t know.”

Young man: “Do you play football?”

Young boy: “No.”

Young man: “I have been drinking. But I’m not drunk now.”

If I open to this page and see this dialogue, I immediately want to know what is going on in this scene. As a reader, I’m engaged and entertained by the artistry of the dialogue, and pulled in by the disconnect and the tension of the exchange.


Photo credit: Bettina Gilois


Dialogue is a key that can unlock a characters mind. Some writers use very little; as a screenwriter I am trained to use dialogue copiously, and I do so whether I write scripts or fiction or creative nonfiction. Dialogue can be some of the most engaging part of reading.

Pay attention to your dialogue. To make it feel natural, create tension by pulling people apart in their speaking with one another. Have characters talk past each other, avoid each other’s questions, and try to take control over the other through dialogue. Make the exchanges unique and fresh and surprising, and you will engage the reader from page one.


Previous posts in the series:


All images courtesy of Bettina Gilois

On Umwelt and Writing About Family in Nonfiction

When I was eight years old, my father brought home a rabbit. He and my uncle had been foraging for mushrooms when they found it cowering under a pine tree. Its leg was broken and it was unable to move quickly but it was otherwise a large, healthy rabbit. Its fur was thick and gray, and it wore a docile, passive expression on its rabbit face, as if the world was simply happening to it and that was just fine. I’m sure that, had my father not taken it, the rabbit would have made fine, fatty meal for a coyote.

The day he brought the rabbit home, I was sitting in the living room of our twenty-first floor apartment in Toronto playing with Legos. My legs were crossed and I was scrutinizing the pictorial instruction booklet that explained how to attach hoses and switches to the pneumatic pump. The door opened and I heard my father plop down his many foraging baskets; I scrambled to my feet and rushed to the foyer. Taking inventory of my father’s haul was a job to which I had assigned myself: an eight-year-old inspector of goods. “I have something special for you today,” said my father, wiping his hands on his jeans. I expected a bucket of belayi—King Bolets, the finest of the wild mushrooms, the ones with the clean white stalks and ruddy red caps—but instead my father produced a plastic bucket I had not seen before. I peeked inside. There, curled up like a fuzzy blanket, was the rabbit, its whiskers curled up against the side of the bucket.

*   *   *

Brett Sigurdson, the nonfiction editor of Mudseason Review, recently interviewed me as a follow-up to an essay I had published with them (“with light steam”). He asked, among other questions, about the difficulty of showing truth and openness when writing about family members, especially living ones. “How did you navigate talking frankly about your family [in the essay]?” Brett sent me this question just before Antioch’s June residency and, throughout the residency, I sat with it, reread old essays I’d written, and considered how my parents have reacted to my work. Generally, they seem to accept it. They are impressed by my retention of specific memories and my assignment of meaning to them. It’s true: my work deals with intensely personal questions of identity, death, and culture. I struggled, in my answer, to articulate how I manage to steer my writing on this admittedly fraught path. Had I, indeed, navigated it successfully? What is the measure of success? Eventually, I settled on the following:

Everyone remembers things differently; everyone brings to a memory their own lens, their own set of biases. I think in with light steam I sidestep some of these pitfalls by being willing to be open and vulnerable, by showing my hand and saying, here: there is no magic.

Really, this idea applies to all nonfiction; it is simply more amplified in the case of family because real relationships are at stake with people who would generally not hesitate to call me out if I misrepresented the truth. And indeed, there is no magic. So what is it, then? What does this proverbial hand consist of? What is it that I’m showing the reader? How do I build trust?

I decided early on, in nonfiction, that I would bring two things to my writing: specificity and a clear point of view. The former is a matter of credibility and immediacy. Including relevant, specific details in nonfiction writing gives the narrator a sense of authority, like he was actually there (in personal essay, he typically was). The relevant part here is important. Rarely will the reader care if my father’s cardigan was red or purple, but they will care about the furrowing of his brow when he scolded me for speaking out of turn.

While specificity adds texture and credibility to personal essay, perhaps my second criterion—a clear point of view—is more important. Because inherent bias exists—because we are reflecting on memory, an already imperfect concept—it is imperative that the reader knows from whose perspective we are writing. Yes, it is implied that the perspective is our own, that we are seeing the world through the lens of our self. But which self? The present day reflective self? The teenage-self? The child-self? This is what I mean by a clear point of view. The reader needs to know these things.

*   *   *

I named the rabbit Elvis because of the way his lip curled up asymmetrically like the singer, and also because the fur on his neck resembled the mullet of Canadian Olympic figure skater Elvis Stojko. My father built him a hutch on the balcony after we realized that he could not live inside the house—after he ate all our houseplants and left tiny wet droppings on the handmade rugs scattered throughout our apartment.

I convinced my father to bring Elvis to class for Show and Tell. My classmates squealed as Elvis hopped around in a circle, sniffing their outstretched fingers, while my teacher stood cross-armed and stiff-legged in the corner and admonished my chuckling father. This is highly unorthodox her scowl seemed to suggest.

*   *   *

I recently came across the concept of umwelt. The term was coined in 1909 by Estonian-born physiologist Jakob von Uexkull, one of the fathers of behavioral ecology. The discipline seeks to examine the behavior of an individual through a biological lens. In his book, A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men, Uexkull writes, “To do so, we must first blow, in fancy, a soap bubble around each creature to represent its own world, filled with the perceptions which it alone knows. When we ourselves step into one of these bubbles, the familiar…is transformed.” The term umwelt—a German word—refers specifically to this bubble of perception; it describes the animal’s (or human’s) self-centric world.

When I read this description of umwelt and the transforming of the world, I was immediately struck by how well this described what I was clumsily trying to explain to Brett about the importance of lens. When I write about the experiences of the child-self, I find it imperative to inhabit the child-mind, to show the reader what I saw and not necessarily all that was there. In this way, the objective world (Uexkull calls it Umgebung) falls away, and we are left with the child’s umwelt, his wide-eyed but terribly narrow worldview. For a writer, this process of inhabiting a different self while shedding objective reality is a peculiar form of self-empathy. I step into a bubble that no longer exists. Or perhaps I construct a bubble based on what latent emotions are accessible to me. Either way, I am drilling deep into my self; and this goes far beyond writing. I am traveling through time. I am exposing myself to the emotions I once carried: the fear, the anger, and the joy. I am choosing to relive an experience, without changing a thing, without the benefit—or sometimes detriment—of the wisdom I had gained since it first occurred. All of this in an effort to occupy the elusive umwelt—to write nonfiction with honesty and vulnerability. Not all writers choose to relive the past—and indeed not all writers should—but for those who do, the concept of umwelt is undoubtedly invaluable.

*   *   *

One afternoon, I returned home from school with a few baby carrots for Elvis. I’d traded half a salami sandwich for them. At this point, Elvis had been with us for several months, and I had grown accustomed to a daily routine of coming home and holding him.  When I stepped onto the balcony, the hutch was gone. I ran into the house, scouring the corners of the house for Elvis, yelling his name, knowing that he was gone. Snot dripped from my nose. I balled my fists into meager weapons and wailed with the impotence of a black and white movie starlet, while my father stood staunch, tall, unmoving. “We took him back to the forest,” he said. “Rabbits belong in forests. He wasn’t a pet.” I wanted to lock myself in my room that night but none of our rooms had locks, so I stood at the door holding the doorknob. This will show them how seriously upset I am, I thought.

Many years later, we celebrated a birthday party at home. It may have been my birthday, or my father’s, or my mother’s. All birthday parties looked the same: thirteen salads laid out on the table; cousins, aunts, and uncles all gathered round; two bottles of whisky, three bottles of wine, one vodka, passed from hand to hand; strong black tea served with one homemade pie and one store-bought cake; post-meal brandy; protracted goodbyes and cheek kisses. I was no longer living at home at this point. I know I was visiting because I was not asked to help clean. Instead, my mother stacked the presents in the corner and sat down at the table with my father and me. We quietly sipped a little more brandy.  My father broke the silence.

“Son, I have a confession to make,” he said. “Do you remember that rabbit you had many years ago? Elvis?” I nodded. To my right, I could see my mother shaking her head vigorously at my father, twisting her finger at her temple, and mouthing the word durak—idiot! My father dismissed her gestures. “Yes, so, Elvis. Me and our neighbor Telman, we ate him.”

I examined my glass of brandy. Memories of Elvis filled my head—fat, awkward Elvis, ambling around our old apartment. I pictured Telman, the gruff but kind Armenian neighbor, skinning Elvis over his kitchen sink, the blood circling down the drain. I masked my wince by finishing the glass.

“Did he taste good?”

*   *   *

The question remains: how do we show the reader that we are, in fact, inhabiting the child-mind, or the mind of our past self? Does it suffice to start a story with “when I was X years old”? Do we use small words to indicate our age? Do we reference popular culture from the era to which we are referring? Maybe. More importantly, we must notice the right parts of the world.

A child sorts through buckets of mushrooms. A child barters for carrots in the cafeteria. A child expresses his rage by manually holding closed a door that will not lock.

An adult makes a witty rejoinder that brings him deep pain.

Photo credit: Alex Simand 2013

Photo credit: Alex Simand 2013

Jessica Lund, ula, 2014. Foam, gravel, drywall tape, moss, flower, gravel, pins, paint, 4 x 4 x 4 in.


I construct intimate artworks that investigate the gross romance between person and location…

Note to Self

When I was pregnant with my first daughter, my social media photostream underwent the (irritating, irrepressible) transition from Normal Adult Feed to Prenatal and, then, Child-Rearing Feed. There was a lot going on. Life in my postpartum body treated me to some surprises and some alarming changes. I couldn’t do Zumba without peeing my pants a little, for example. I took up Zumba, as another example. Clumps of my hair fell out. Later, it came back. These things were described to me as normal. You had a baby. Bring extra panties.

There were other, more subtle, changes for which naturally occurring oxytocin, also named the “love drug,” was largely to blame. Oxytocin is a hormonal cocktail that causes normal people to stare at their child for hours, never bored, rarely blinking, scarcely believing. Before I had children, I was a sort of caustic non-hugger who only admitted to feeling emotions when persuaded by bourbon. Just hours before my daughter’s birth, when my husband crouched next to me in the warm birthing tub and said how much he loved me, with my eyes shut, I replied, “I have really mixed feelings about you right now.”


Photo Credit: Mary Birnbaum/Clever Instagram Filter Designers

But then my daughter popped out (not the exact verb, but I’ll spare you) and in the moments after her birth I found myself totally inarticulate. This remains the most unutterable sequence of my life. I was a swollen, snotty, tear-smeared fool with no hope for a witty rejoinder. There is a mercifully non-high-def video to prove it. When it came to the unprecedented explosion of love, my mind was full of light, not words. I was hormone drunk, gaping soundless as a fish.

*   *   *

Writers have lots of choices when they arrange a meaningful scene, but I’ve become fixated on the option of silence. During the MFA residency in June, author and Antioch faculty mentor Brad Kessler gave a lecture on the effective use of silence in literature. He gave examples of authors who write speech-less moments, sometimes to articulate the transcendent or the uncanny. A girl spots a ghost on the moor. A man looks up a flight of stairs and sees his wife anew. A woman prepares dough for bread. He said a lot that I can’t pretend to paraphrase, except to repeat this: Writers and readers meet on the page in moments of ineffable stillness.

There’s a lot of discussion in writing programs about showing versus telling. If we trust ourselves as writers and if we trust those who read us, we won’t fill pages with superfluous exposition and ready-made feeling. If we get it right on details and observation, a connection will be forged between the author and the reader. Among the phenomena that resist description is love, and yet we use words to triangulate a meaning. We can’t resist trying. I’m attempting to learn to write with precision and care in order to be truthful, sometimes about the unspeakable. I am here to confess that I’ve been slacking on the matter of trust.

*   *   *

Facebook was apprised within an hour of my child’s sacred arrival. I started snapping pictures right away because it was the only thing I could think to do. Soon I discovered Instagram. Now my pictures go to Facebook via Instagram. The last time this happened was earlier today. My daughter had, on impulse, penciled a short note about her love for me. Her hand at printing is still unsure. She pressed very hard into the paper, was unsatisfied with the writing and erased it vigorously. She wrote her note over again and then, satisfied with her straight lines, presented the gift to me. I read it back to her as she sat in the bathtub with a washcloth draped over her head. Her face was rosy and embarrassed. I thanked her and then I raised my phone and took a picture of the note and my girl.


Photo Credit: Mary Birnbaum/Clever Instagram Filter Designers

The compulsion to post pictures is not shared by all. My own husband is not on Facebook. But quite a few folks—there are 300 million active monthly users of Instagram—do feel compelled to share. Some parents post pictures of their kids in order to keep far-flung relatives apprised of baby progress. My own in-laws live in Kansas. They don’t get to see my kids as often as they’d like. The “good” news for them is that, in the three years since downloading Instagram, I have posted 1,020 pictures. Approximately 90% of these are pictures of my two daughters. I just checked. And yes, the numbers make me as uncomfortable as you think they should. I’m not here to comment about social media/narcissism/the selfie polemic in any general sense. What’s important is the problem of my artistic cop-out.

In a recent NPR interview, George Pelecanos talks about his ritual of riding his bike around, photographing people and locations so that he can use them in his stories. At home, he reviews the pictures to get the details right. This struck me as a useful tool. But I am not using pictures as useful means to an end. To be honest, I’m not even that concerned about updating relatives. Raising my phone has become a knee-jerk response to the sublime.

Susan Sontag expressed some very pointed, prescient notions about the photographic medium when she wrote “In Plato’s Cave,” the first essay in her collection On Photography. When she published the piece in 1977, Sontag lamented the advent of “sleek pocket cameras that invite anyone to take pictures.” I just read the essay on my smart phone, the one with 800 pictures still stored in memory. Earlier today I watched Michael Jackson dance to Billie Jean on it. I typed part of this blog post into my phone’s Google Docs app. Applying Sontag’s arguments to the 2015 social media scenario is not a task I can ably attack here, but I will venture that her ideas still apply: “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.” One-thousand-twenty pictures later, yes, I’d say addiction is something I might be dealing with. She also talks about photography producing a semblance of subject, not the truth of the subject itself. And: “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph and move on.” Unsure of other responses, indeed. Mind blown, in an oxytocin-induced stupor, for example.

I am not a trained photographer. I have a vague notion that a shutter is something like an eyelid that opens to admit light. But the Instagram application offers enough clever effects to make even the meanest Android fumbler occasionally feel like Stieglitz. Here is where the danger arises. Maternal love has got me in its hormonal tether and it’s the subject on which I manage the least writerly traction. When my heart starts to ache, I snap a picture. I crop it. I scroll through an array of available filters to cast sentiment on it. I use a canned trick of light. The moment has been described, so I send it into the Internet in a plea for connection.

I’ve been using the act of posting pictures to social media as a placeholder for something so far unspeakable. An Instagram filter is mood bought cheap, and I should be wary of the bad bargain, because often the truth of my love is on the line. We write to make some sense or connection or both. You deliver a baby at 2:30 p.m. on a hot August Friday and your whole world splits apart. What enters is blinding bright and unfiltered. A midwife sets your daughter’s curled, purplish body on your breast. Your face crumples up in an odd mirror of your baby’s. Five years later that daughter is moved to write you a note about love.

Unspeakable things are difficult to articulate, but not always impossible. In his lecture, Mr. Kessler gave examples of masters who succeeded–through sequences of silence, through moments of apt detail, close observation and care–in communicating the preternatural. What halts me in describing life’s fraught moments is mistrusting my ability to get it right, and not trusting the reader to come along if I try. I’m discounting the reader’s aptitude for filling the silence with their own important meaning. This is a mistake, because every time I slap a filter on something instead of plumbing the deep vocabulary of silence, I miss a chance for communion. Because, as it turns out, I am not the first mother to love her child.

Slowing Down #1: Taking the Bus

During a two-hour question-and-answer session at our June residency, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo told the Antioch MFA community, “Commerce is fast, art is slow.”

I took that to mean, if you want to make something that didn’t exist before—something layered and meaningful, something unexpected—you have to take it slow.

That’s a challenge for me. I came to the MFA program after several years’ full-time teaching in a university, during which time only deadlines compelled me to write. I wrote for performance, and I had a busy life. I would wait until the last few weeks before a gig and then go underground, working day and night to finish.

A couple of years ago, I left my position at the university and went to Rwanda for a big, fast job. When it was done and I was home, it occurred to me that if I wanted my work life to be different—which I did—I would have to change the rhythm of how I spent my days. I would have to make new habits. I had no idea—and still don’t fully know—how profound that transformation may have to be.

I had a car. That car was part of me, part of who I was. It was a tomato-red 2002 Volkswagen Golf and, oh, I loved that car. I was a savvy driver. I knew the fastest route to anywhere in LA, any time of day. Just ask me. Me and that car, we were zippy. Hands-free on my cell phone, I was back and forth between GPS and Waze on little streets no one else knew were there. Meanwhile, Siri was taking dictation, sending text messages, emails. I was in a hurry.

One weird globally-warmed ninety-eight degree day last April, I noticed the air conditioning in my Golf was not working. I called my mechanic, Mauricio at Jomag in Silverlake, who’d been taking care of her since the end of the VW warranty. He said to bring her in, leave her there for an hour or two. I took the bus downtown (home) to await his diagnosis. An hour later, he called. It was bad news, the worst possible scenario: the compressor had gone. A new one would cost a minimum of a thousand bucks.

I recalled my accountant Mark’s objections when he learned I’d spent fifteen hundred to replace a timing belt, the first and only major work I’d had done in the twelve years I’d had her. “It’s the beginning of the end,” he barked. “Get rid of that heap.”

It wouldn’t get hot for a few months, right? I could keep her until then. I told Mauricio I’d be there in an hour to pick her up.

Ten minutes later, another call. More bad news. When his guys were moving the car into the lot, they saw the brakes were shot. The rear pads were worn down to the metal; the front weren’t as far gone, but he wasn’t sure he could save them.

How much? Another six to eight hundred.

I Googled “Blue Book, 2002 VW Golf”—four-door, power windows, power brakes, moon roof, monster sound, well-loved, in good shape. She was worth less than twenty-seven hundred dollars. And all the bodywork I’d refused to have done—the scratches and dents that prove you’ve lived lively, taken some risks—meant she was worth even less.

I did the math. I could try not having a car. I live downtown, at the hub of LA’s transport network. Within a few blocks of my building, there are buses and trains. Add to that Zipcar, Enterprise, Uber, Lyft. Plus, if I didn’t have a car, I wouldn’t have to pay the Tribune (owners of the LA Times) a small fortune every month to park in their lot.

Choosing not to replace the car was the beginning of a conscious slowing down. It would no longer be possible to schedule appointments back-to-back, morning to night, with an optimistic half-hour in between to get from one place to the next.

But within a week or two, I was aware of a deeper shift. On the Culver City-bound train one afternoon they announced we had “come into contact with an automobile.” No one was hurt, but we had to wait for the police to proceed. I made a phone call to the person I was to meet and sat reading in the motionless train for forty-five minutes. If we were stuck, it was not my job to find another route. Time in transit became that kind of sweet stolen time I’ve always relished on planes and trains, where what needs to get done (moving from place to place) will eventually get done. Or won’t. But it’s not up to me to make it happen.

This is about writing. Clearing the way for writing.

Most of what needs writing—what is worth writing—takes some digging. It’s not easy and, for me, it doesn’t come in one fell swoop. It takes some dribbling—like Jackson Pollack. Then comes the investigation of patterns, then new brush strokes, based on what’s been evoked by the dribbling. Bit by bit. And a commitment to that process on a regular basis is a commitment to going where the writing wants to go.

Russo spoke about how Elsewhere, his recent memoir about his mother, seems to some of his readers—and perhaps to him—to be a skeleton key that unlocks the autobiographical source of meanings in his fictional work. In those funny, funny novels, he is digging deep into his own raw material which is, at base, so dark. He’s going, by virtue of who he is, where he has to go. He said he was afraid writing outright about his past in Elsewhere might destroy his ability to write another novel, but he chose to write it anyway. And it didn’t.

Slowing down.

Travel time has become reading and writing time. I started the first draft of this post Friday afternoon on the number 2 Sunset Boulevard bus, moving west towards Hollywood. I did the first edit early Sunday morning on the 733 Venice bus on my way to the beach.

Waiting for the bus and taking the bus has brought with it a gradual, visceral understanding that we are not in charge. We do the work. We plant the seeds. We exercise humility, and back away from the need to muscle things into existence. We invite things in. We give them room to enter.

Zelfportret, waiting for the 108 west at Broadway and Slauson.

On Writing Outside Our Lived Experiences and Acting As Trans Allies

I met Wryly last June, when they were known as Wendy. This would change within a couple months. One December night, we walked along Venice Beach during Antioch University’s MFA winter residency. As long as I’d known them, Wryly had gone by they/them pronouns, but it wasn’t until December, perhaps ushered by the name change, that I became deliberate in using them.

That night I told Wryly that there was a lot I didn’t understand about being trans, specifically its lexicon. I didn’t know sex and gender weren’t synonymous. I was, simply put, ignorant, but still receptive. I expressed fear that I didn’t have a voice in the conversation; this, as a cisgender woman, was not my conversation. Wryly put their arm around my shoulders. “Believe me, we need more people like you.”

During this June’s residency, Wryly and I attended a seminar, “Writing & Privilege” by Kyle Sawyer, a queer activist working for racial and social justice, and founder of the nonprofit organization, Building Allies Together. His seminar posed a question I’ve long wrestled with: how do I write a fictional character who identifies differently from me? My protagonists are all white, cisgender women, not because I wish to limit what readers are introduced to—in fact, I want the opposite: an expanded, diverse, even complicated scope—but because I don’t want to get it wrong. I don’t want to appropriate. I don’t want to offend.

During the seminar, a male student asked about writing from the female perspective, to which Sawyer offered this advice: do the research, go to events, talk to people. It is easy to rely on stereotypes when writing characters outside the author’s lived experience, but “it’s important to challenge the common tropes of many groups, to remember that certain language is heavy with symbolism and expectation,” Sawyer said.

In December, I taught a winter break writing camp for teenagers in Santa Monica. One day, a student—we’ll call her Jenny—came into class with pages and pages of character development. She’d explored her fictional characters deeply, knew what frustrated them, what they envied, what gestures they made when they were sad. And in the middle of these lush descriptions Jenny included something along the lines of “Carol was born with male genitalia, but identifies as a woman. She is seventeen. Her mom no longer speaks to her.” The description went on from there. It was as if, yes, Carol’s trans identity was significant—significant enough for her mother to reject her personhood—but Carol was also defined by always carrying no less than three novels in her backpack and how she couldn’t help but buy holiday presents for friends, even though she made little money working at an ice cream parlor. Which is to say, Carol, like all transgender people, was a whole person.

“Being trans is not a character trait,” Sawyer told me when I reached out to him for an interview. “It is important that we, as writers, remember that a character’s demographic cannot and does not define that character.”

Sawyer ended the seminar on this note: it is not up to the oppressed to defend themselves; rather, it is the privileged class that must stand beside the oppressed. I asked Sawyer about the responsibilities of allies. What can we do to help?

“Listen to what those of the marginalized classes are saying,” Sawyer said. “The responsibility of an ally, I think, is to speak out against oppression, to stand with those who are directly affected by the systems of oppression, and to do whatever possible to build a stage to raise the voices of those often silenced. The responsibility [of the ally] is not to speak for, but to stand with. It is a very important distinction.”

In a video titled “How to be a Trans Ally,” Emotions the Poet, spoken word artist and fellow Antioch University MFA student, says, “being a trans ally is a verb.” Emotions offers these suggestions: employ, house, and love a trans person. Affirm trans people as whole humans—let them know they are more than just their bodies—and respect their pronouns. (At Creating Change 2014, Laverne Cox, transgender actress and activist said, “When a trans woman is called a man, that is an act of violence.”)

Midway through Sawyer’s seminar, Wryly reached for my hand. I knew why. A week before, a mutual friend said he refused to refer to a trans person by his or her or their preferred pronouns. I’d first advocated on behalf of the LGBTQ community twelve years ago in my ninth grade history class. To me, being an ally is common sense. Isn’t it?

My argument then, and my argument today, is this: one single person will never be able to live every possible experience. Because we cannot continue to believe the world should exist without diversity—that’s the mentality that recently shot up a historically black church and flew planes into the World Trade Center—we must act empathetically. To deny someone their personhood or inalienable rights, to protest against a community in any capacity—whether it’s in a Facebook post, a rally, or simple defiance against pronouns—is violence. It’s bigotry. It’s ignorance.

In 2014, fifty-five percent of LGBTQ hate crime homicide victims were transgender women, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. This same report found that fifty percent of transgender homicide victims were women of color. Thirty-five percent of all victims were gay or bisexual men.

In 2011, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force conducted the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, the largest study of its kind, with 6,400 participants. The survey found that the sample was discriminated against in the workplace and was “nearly four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000/year compared to the general population,” and forty-one percent of respondents reported attempted suicide. Twenty-nine percent reported police harassment.

It should be noted that many statistics for the trans community remain opaque, including one gaping oversight: we haven’t any idea how many people identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. This is true for many reasons, not least of which is the fluidity of gender and the restrictions of the traditional gender binary. Facebook, for instance, offers more than fifty gender options, whereas the United States Census Bureau inquires only about a person’s biological sex.

We stand in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on marriage equality, yet marginalization and discrimination against the LGBTQ community persist. (In fact, after the SCOTUS decision, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott promised to take direct action to protect religious liberties by allowing state workers who believe marriage is the union of one man and one woman to refuse same-sex marriage licenses.)

Saturday night, I attended “Queer Voices, Queer Visions,” a Lambda Literary Emerging Writers Retreat reading, featuring what that organization considers the nation’s most promising LGBTQ writers. Yes, some writers wrote directly about being gay or lesbian or trans. But others wrote about the earthquake in Haiti or a brother’s colon cancer diagnosis. It was a reminder that our similarities are greater than our differences.

Consider your own otherness, whatever it is that marginalizes you. Where do you feel judged or discriminated against? Each of us has at least one aspect of our character that connects us to an oppressed class, not amongst the privileged. When—not if—you can, make another person feel comfortable and accepted because of (not in spite of) their otherness—wouldn’t you want people to do that for you?

In the case of trans people, it may be as simple as referring to someone by their preferred name and pronouns, or writing stories about a whole character who just so happens to be trans. In the case of all people, it’s as simple as understanding we are all whole, that what marginalizes us is but one aspect of a larger identity. Remember, an effort to make another’s life easier does not make yours any harder.