Don’t Just Use Your Words, Part 2

In Part 1 of the craft essay “Don’t Just Use Your Words,” we first took a look at the stripped-back dialogue of Raymond Carver, where little or no thoughts are allowed to compete with the words the characters are speaking. From there, we moved on to a single sentence by Henry Green, a sentence that shows how a writer can effortlessly move from speech to thought to speech again, illustrating how easily one character can lie to another. From there, we impossibly eavesdropped on a short scene in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, where the main character, Nazneem, tries to imagine a successful way to confess to her best friend that she is enmeshed in a passionate extra-marital affair.

In those last two examples, a character’s thoughts shape a fictional dialogue at least as much, if not more, than the actual words spoken aloud.

Here, in Part 2, we will move even farther away from conversations ruled by the merely spoken, to explore the varied and unexpected ways that fictional characters can communicate (or not communicate) with each other. Techniques that are not so different from those employed by flesh-and-blood readers every single day, if we’re really honest with ourselves.

In this scene from the novel The Shape Shifter, by Tony Hillerman, the main character, Officer Joe Leaphorn of the Navaho tribal police, is speaking with Jason Delos, a rich belegaana (white) man he suspects is somehow involved with a crime of arson and insurance fraud and, possibly, murder. They begin their conversation with small talk around one of Delos’ favorite pastimes, hunting. Mentioning his intention to snag himself a “record-breaking” set of antlers, Delos says,

“Well, I can’t climb up the cliffs, and down into the canyons like I used to, but Roper has some blinds set up in the trees on a hillside up there. One of them lets you look right down on the Brazos. Elk come in, morning and evening, to get themselves a drink out of the stream. I’ve got that one reserved for next week.”

Leaphorn nodded, without comment. Ranchers who allowed deer, elk, and antelope herds to share grazing with their cattle were granted hunting permits as a recompense. They could either harvest their winter meat supply themselves or sell the permits to others. It was not a practice Leaphorn endorsed. Not much sportsmanship in it, he thought, but perfectly pragmatic and legal. Traditional Navahos hunted only for food, not for sport. He remembered his maternal uncle explaining to him that to make hunting deer a sport, you would have to give the deer rifles and teach them how to shoot back. His first deer hunt, and all that followed, had been preceded by the prescribed ceremony with his uncles and nephews, with the prayer calling to the deer to join in the venture, to assure the animal that cosmic eternal law would return him to his next existence in the infinite circle of life. A lot of time and work was involved in the Navaho way—the treatment of the deer hide, the pains taken to waste nothing, and, finally, the prayers that led to that first delicious meal of venison. Leaphorn had known many belegaana hunters who shared the “waste no venison” attitude, but none who bought into the ceremonial partnership between man and animal. And this was not the place nor the time to discuss it. Instead, he said he’d heard hunting was expected to be especially good in the Brazos country this season.

In this scene, Officer Leaphorn first responds to Delos with a nod, then continues the conversation in his mind, critiquing Delos’ form of hunting, before finally deciding to keep this to himself. The tension, the energy in this scene resides in Leaphorn’s withheld thoughts. And notice how, when Leaphorn does speak, Tony Hillerman doesn’t even grace that response with quotation marks.

How many times have we ourselves kept worlds within us, swallowed our truths or deeply held opinions for the sake of a smoothly proceeding conversation? And yet, what is not heard is indeed a part of any conversation, and is, dramatically, often the most essential part.

What I love about this next example, from the short story, “A Kitchen in the Corner of the House,” by the feminist Tamil writer Ambai, is how the author undermines from the beginning the reader’s sense that this conversation is even taking place, that perhaps this truth-telling is imagined and swallowed, not given voice.

Ambai’s short story has centered on the fraught relationship Minakshi has with Dubaribai, her mother-in-law, their battles in a male-dominated household often centering on various iron-clad rules of the kitchen. In the story’s final, and deeply moving scene, Minakshi attends to Dubaribai (“Jiji”) at what might very well be her deathbed, where a reconciliation might be possible.

Minakshi bent low to those withered earlobes wearing flower-shaped earstuds covered in pearls and brightly colored gemstones. They were alone, Jiji and she; alone as Maha Vishnu on his serpent bed floating upon the widespread sea. In that darkened room, there was a feeling like that of the cutting of an umbilical cord. We cannot be certain whether this conversation was actually started by her, or whether it happened on its own, or whether it only seemed to have occurred because she had imagined it so often. It is not even certain whether the conversation was between the two of them alone:

Jiji, no strength comes to you from that kitchen; nor from that necklace nor bangle nor headband nor forehead jewel.

Authority cannot come to you from these things.

That authority is Papaji’s.

From all that

be free

be free

be free.

But if I free myself . . . then . . . what is left?

You alone, having renounced your jewelry, your children and Papaji. Yourself, cut free. Just Dubaribai. Dubaribai alone. And from that, strength. Authority.

And when I have renounced all that, then who am I?

Find out. Dip in and see.

Dip into what?

Into your own inner well.

But there is nothing to hold on to . . . I’m frigh . . .

Dip in deeper, deeper. Find out the relationship between Dubaribai and the world.

Had there not been those three hundred chapatis to cook every day, nor those fourteen children who once kicked in your womb

If your thoughts had not been confined to mutton pulao, masala, puri-alu, dhania powder, salt, sugar, milk, oil, ghee

If you had not had these constant cares: once every four days the wick to the stove has to be pulled up; whenever kerosene is available it has to be bought and stored; in the rainy season the rice has to be watched and the dal might be full of insects; pickles must be made in the mango season; when the fruit is ripe it will be time for sherbet, juice, and jam; old clothes can be bartered for new pots and pans; once a fortnight the drainage areas in the kitchen must be spread with lime; if one’s periods come it will be a worry; if they don’t come it will be a worry.

If all this clutter had not filed up the drawers of your mind.

Perhaps you too might have seen the apple fall; the steam gathering at the kettle’s spout; might have discovered new continents; written a poem while sitting uipon Mount Kailasam. Might have painted upon the walls of caves. Might have flown. Might have made a world without wars, prisons, gallows, chemical warfare.

Where did you go away, Jiji?

How could you think that

your strength came

from food that was given in the appropriate measure

and jewelry that weighs down ears and neck and forehead?

Sink deeper still

when you touch bottom you will reach the universal waters. You will connect yourself with the world that surrounds you.

Your womb and your breasts will fall away from you. The smell of cooking will vanish away. The sparkle of jewelry will disappear. And there will be you. Not trapped nor diminished by gender, but freed.

So touch the waters, Jiji

And rise



Jiji turned, searched for, and held fast to Minakshi’s hand.


And now we move from these first two examples, of a conversation where hidden thoughts overwhelmed, statistically, the words actually spoken, and a deathbed conversation that may have been imagined but never spoken, to a conversation that never could have occurred, between two people distant in time, place and circumstance, a conversation that, though it never occurred, probably should have,

The narrator of the novel Glyph, by Percival Everett, is a baby. But the book isn’t filled with goo-goo’s and gaa-gaa’s, because this narrator is a baby genius, a truly pint-sized wunderkind, able to out-equation the best adult mathematician. But math isn’t his only strength. He also likes to imagine conversations between people who have never spoken with each other, but probably should have. My favorite is the baby narrator’s canny imagined conversation between the French literary critic Roland Barthes, and the writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston:

Barthes: Do you remember when those felt-tipped pens first showed up on the shelves? I couldn’t wait to get home and try it out. They were made by the Japanese as well and if they’ll use them to write…

Hurston: I was dead by then. But also, who cares?

Barthes: But don’t you see? I’m talking about the action of writing. The gesture itself defines so much of the meaning, don’t you think? I mean, even where I sit while I’m engaged in writing shapes my import.

Hurston: What have you been smoking?

Barthes: I have even observed what I call a “Bic style” of writing. You’ve seen it, those people who just churn out words endlessly.

Hurston (nodding): I do believe I have seen it.

Barthes: I finally discarded the felt tip because the tip flattened out so soon. I’m back now to, and I think I’ll stay with, truly fine fountain pens. They’re essential for the kind of smooth writing I require. What do you use?

Hurston: A sharpened bone and blood.

Who hasn’t imagined a conversation between two people besides ourselves (our parents, perhaps, or two estranged friends), and assigned them the words that they could and should speak to each other but probably never would? Even impossible exchanges can be spoken, if only in our minds.

Perhaps writers are sometimes unconsciously influenced by the out-loudness of characters in plays, television programs and movies. Thought is rarely “heard” in these narrative genres, but that is a reflection of the limitations of visual narrative. In books, we can indeed hear the thoughts of the fictional people who move on the page. How those deep wells of words interact with the words that are allowed to escape willing or reluctant lips is a nearly limitless territory, worthy of a lifetime of exploration.


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    1. David Jauss says:

      Bravo, Philip! The essay’s a bona fide beaut. And congratulations to Hannah and Andrew!

    2. admin says:

      Thank you, Dave!
      Yes, Hannah has found her true love, and we’re so happy for them both.

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