Dispatches From Writer’s Camp: Reading What’s Not On The Page



I arrived at Mt. Holyoke College last night right in the middle of dinner after a long day of traveling. I woke up at 3:30 in the morning in order to get to the Portland airport by 5 to catch a plan by 6 to arrive in Chicago to hang out for a couple of hours and have lunch with my friend Annie, then to get on a plane to Hartford and from there to share a shuttle with Annie to Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass, to arrive just in time for dinner and to enjoy the first readings of the conference and afterwards a drink with Wally buddies. We call ourselves Wallies. I’m not sure why we do that. My guess has always been that Wally must be short or a nickname for the fellow our writing college was named after: Warren Wilson. I cannot, however, at this time, verify the truth or accuracy of my guess. I’ll look into this and get back to you.

Today’s schedule is light. Workshops are the only thing happening during the day. Nothing else formally scheduled until this evening’s readings. So if attendees are not workshopping, they are freee with an extra e. I have been choosing not to workshop so that I can spend my energies writing writing writing. Today, I have not been writing, but rather, I’ve been reading my writing, which is all part of the same thing, ultimately. As I am working on a longer piece, time spent reading my writing is necessary in order for me to immerse myself, to get back into that other world, that world that I left behind many, many months ago now. There’s always a fear that when I come back to something I haven’t worked on for awhile that I will be unhappy with it, that I won’t like it, that I will no longer be interested. That rarely happens to me, happily, but that doesn’t prevent me from worrying about it, nevertheless. I read to myself and I rediscover usually what it was that hooked me to begin with.

I read to myself out loud—so I have to be alone in a room, not in a library or a bookshop or a coffee house–people would think I was nuts—I can’t write in public places because I can’t read out loud. So I’m here in this conference room all alone in the science building reading out loud to myself and I’ve stumbled upon a problem or a dilemma. An opportunity.

I am writing a first person narrative that is set in Oregon—Portland to be exact, my hometown, and on the coast of Oregon—Newport precisely.

For some reason I cannot explain, my narrator has a southern accent. Ultimately, I know I have to understand why that is. Right now, I can’t do it. I only know that this is how he speaks or how I hear him speaking. I have not written in dialect. In fact, I think that if I were to give pages of this thing to someone to read out loud or to themselves, there is no reason to suspect that this reader could discern or would interpret this speaker as being a southerner. And the narrator does not identify himself that way, at least not explicitly, not yet anyway. So when I read it, I am reading something that is not on the page. This interests me.

And so I have this burning question. Must it be on the page? My gut tells me that it should. If I understand the voice of my narrator correctly, his southern-ness is an important trait, something that I cannot leave up to the fates to help my reader understand. My gut tells me that I have to know how he came to be in the Northwest, and that somehow in his narration he must reveal his origins to the reader. But there is a counter-gut feeling telling me that maybe after all the fates should decide. I hear his southern drawl. Someone else may not. Is the story he tells dependent upon his regional identity? Could it be that he just doesn’t identify himself that way, at least consciously or overtly? Unless the character believes his southern-ness is central to his identity or to the story he is trying to tell, why should he mention it? If I read the piece in a particular voice, and somebody reads the piece in a distinctly different voice, is the second voice less valid because it is different from the one I hear? And does the piece suffer with this kind of ambiguity or openness to interpretation? Here’s the question—or the real problem. The problem of how the piece is read out loud, by the writer or anyone else, is moot. It matters little or not at all. What matters is this: Does the thing work on the page? Is it engaging? Is it good? Is the character in question believable, interesting, sufficiently complex? This other stuff is a question of ORAL interpretation, which is a different animal altogether from the writing of effective, meaningful, artful fiction—and that’s what I am hoping to do.

But I still wonder. I’m waffling. I want to understand, still, why I’m reading what’s not on the page and what it says about this character and this book, and what it says about the writer.

Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

4 thoughts on “Dispatches From Writer’s Camp: Reading What’s Not On The Page

  1. I know nothing about what you are writing, but I think having your guy be from the south is interesting. I’ve met a number of transplants from the south here in Portland. Many of them are creative people, liberal people … who came here probably seeking a place to fit in, to express themselves and to escape the conservatism and racism, etc.

    One of the long-time waiters at Genie’s breakfast joint has a lovely southern accent. Look for a blond guy, late 30s. Nice biceps.

    I love the idea of a hipster from the south. Or just a cool creative person who has some of that formality about them. On the surface, it’s easy to think of tatoo’d hipsters as being a bit pretentious or overly ironic or self-absorbed. This person might look the part but actually have this deep southern hospitality about them. Or be an unusually socially conscious/sensitive person because of the things he had witnessed growing up in the south.

    Just some thoughts in response to what you’re saying here. I think the southern accent gives him some interesting depth.

      Michelle D. Williams | Paper and Pixel LLC | 503-762-2524

    >________________________________ > From: michael jarmer >To: michelledelaine@yahoo.com >Sent: Sunday, June 29, 2014 11:01 AM >Subject: [New post] Dispatches From Writer’s Camp: Reading What’s Not On The Page > > > > WordPress.com >michaeljarmer posted: ”  I arrived at Mt. Holyoke College last night right in the middle of dinner after a long day of traveling. I woke up at 3:30 in the morning in order to get to the Portland airport by 5 to catch a plan by 6 to arrive in Chicago to hang out for ” >

  2. Thanks for this, Michelle. I would love to meet some transplants. Might have to find my way to Genie’s for breakfast! My character is not a hipster–but he is definitely not that other stereotype either–somewhere in between. A working class guy, handicapped by a manufacturing accident, experiencing a transformation. This is that project that I hope I can collaborate with Curtis on. You two are so amazing. I feel so lucky to have you both for friends.

  3. Kind of depends where in the “south” he is from. North Carolina? Georgia? Louisiana? Yoknapatawpha County? If you were writing in dialect, locals would sniff out posture/imposture. But if you’re the only one that knows, and the prose is pure, and the accent in your science conference room is consistent and makes you happy, have at it. Is there dialect in Ulysses? I think some Dubliners might detect it, from the sentence structure and diction, certainly not from any alternate spellings or apostrophes scattered like shitten comets. Listen to the voice, screw the Critic. You know McCourt’s anecdote about the voice that dictated _Angela’s Ashes_ I assume. To whit:

    Don’t write. Listen.

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