By Matthias Krug
The other day while conducting a routine ‘Creative Writing in English’ lecture in the remote jungle region of Bolivia where my favorite uncle (the one who used to play rowdy football with us and take us for adventurous walks in the forest and hold us squirming upside down over bristling thorns in the garden and laugh his limitless airy laugh as we pleaded for mercy) was so cruelly murdered, I was asked about the usefulness for the young writer of these type of workshops.
‘Hm. Bueno. Well. They are. Useful. Somewhat.’
‘Anda ya. You don’t seem too convinced, gringo,’ the questioner pressed me. Judging by his body language he had a good pair of journalistic cojones and therefore future in the gut-hitting world of writing. Perhaps I could take him on board to research my uncle’s still unexplained death. A local in such circumstances is always either an asset or a danger, or both. Perhaps the murderer was even infiltrated in this haphazard group.
I eyed them suspiciously. Then I decided to let loose with the truth.
‘Hombre. Here’s my real opinion. While endlessly well-meaning – and in my case not just out for your money, these workshops have a tendency to become a bacterial breeding ground for ballooning, infectious, generalized and therefore entirely empty advice,’ I talked myself into a frenzy. A hardly blinking audience of a good dozen self-declared ‘writers’ looked at me in admiring shock. Only a lunatic or a genius would mock his own work like this.
‘They are for a serious writer just about as useful as contracting a common cold in order to prepare for the vast immenseness of death,’ I continued, altogether too fiercely for the occasion. ‘Personally, I went to just the one. Then I decided to figure out the craft of writing for myself. Packed my bags and went to Spain, like my hero Hemingway, chasing love and writing wisdom.’
‘Which is why you speak such passable Spanish – you have a Spanish girl?’ a particularly perceptive, intrusive and slim young man with a thick notepad asked me shyly. Apparently my writing credits (two books and a third just out!, brilliant doctorate and a wealth of prestigious media publications at the ‘tender’ age of 28), trumpeted boldly onto the wall of the wooden hut behind me, had done the trick. The suspicious-looking group seemed intimidated.
One girl had what looked like shot scars on her left leg, which later turned out to be tattoos gone wrong. An elderly man wearing a sombrero was slobbering saliva fiercely, wrestling with the onset of untimely sleep. Outside, infectious pan-flute music bubbled, threatening to mislead my stiff German hips into an unseemly dance.
‘Not exactly,’ I said. ‘The girl – now indeed my wife – (at which cat whistles went shooting around) is from Colombia. But with Hemingway I always speak in English. We have had many heated discussions. We do not agree on one fundamental point; I find bull-fighting brutal and inhumane. Think it should be abolished. What we do agree upon is the incorporation of foreign phrases in English language novels.’
A suppressed murmur shot through the little hut. A lunatic, then. They should have known; who else but a crazy writer would come all the way to the Bolivian jungle to conduct a fiction workshop? Hemingway was long dead. The year was 2012.
The topic of my talk that humid, sweltering day in the jungle with my shirt sticking ominously to my back was dialogue. My advice, after inviting them to listen to essentially no advice and figure writing out for themselves, was this: in times of the rapid and often meaningless tweet, the virtually grammar-less Facebook wall message, the hyper-abbreviated SMS, you can never put demasiado (Spanish for ‘too much’, for those still wondering from the title) good dialogue into your writing.
‘Why?’ a particularly impertinent grandmother countered in her traditional Bolivian robes of checkered red, green and yellow designs.
To answer the Bolivian granny I pointed at the wall and referred to my doctoral thesis in the field of Cognitive Creation on two greats of American literature; Hemingway and Nabokov, both of whom employed dialogue with interspersions of foreign words and phrases to achieve an admirable sense of authenticity in their fiction.
For all his mastery of a revolutionary simple style of writing, much of Hemingway’s genius can be found in his spectacularly dramatic dialogues. The misery of unwanted abortion without that word actually being mouthed in ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, or the tense, Spanish-splintered exchanges within the mountain band in ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ showcase the extent to which a finely constructed dialogue mirrors not only the essence of human communication, but the entire human experience. According to Stockwell, this is because: “Human speakers (because of their activeness) are better attractors than a description of a hearer.”
The use of Spanish within an English text is a variation from the standard, an example of cross-cultural influences which indicate Hemingway’s heightened creativity. For Hogan, ‘radical innovation in the last three centuries – from Goethe through Picasso – has been bound up with cross-cultural influences.’
Hemingway at times provided a direct translation for these Spanish phrases, whilst at others leaving them open to the receptive capabilities of the reader. ‘Me cago en la leche que me han dado!’ thus remains a wonderfully elusive, lofty and mysterious sentence to the reader not familiar with Spanish and its inventive profanities, while on the other hand adding a cognitive activation of great strength for those who are actually familiar with living with Spanish people and accustomed to the subtleties with which they employ these types of phrases (‘I defecate in the milk which they have given me’).
This heightened creativity, this incredibly rich diversity of reading experiences depending on the input of the reader is equally evident in Humbert Humbert’s intermittent outbursts of sexually-orientated French in ‘Lolita’. These serve to activate in the prototype reader mental spaces of passion and love which that language triggers. Precisely these mental triggers are what the successful author is looking for to keep reader interest high.
Of course if it were all as easy as adding deadly dialogue and a few foreign words to give your writing an air of worldly Wissen, of real cojones, then all those annoying side jobs could be quickly discarded. We would all be given a carte blanche for writing greatness.
Perhaps the most encouraging finding of my research into creative writing, confirmed by countless writers of standing like Mario Vargas Llosa in his May 2011 appraisal of the craft of French writer Flaubert, is that writing mastery can and must be gradually acquired. For as Gardner found, mastery is a long-term acquisition of domain-specific mental schemas, and at least ten years are needed to progress from novice to master in any domain.
The same is true of dialogue.
Did that answer the gaping granny’s question? Not entirely. There was something I wanted to quickly add, while her mouth had not yet clipped shut:
‘I also believe that in our ever-rushing societies where meaningful face-to-face conversations are becoming an increasing rarity, dialogue in fiction offers a glimpse of the beautiful past, a sign of where future betterment must come from, a dash of morning melancholy reminding us of the essence of authentic, meaningful, deep human communication in times when even proclamations of love are often made across the internet. Y esto, amigos, es todo.’
Later, outside the hut, I talked to the man who I thought might help me to find some clues in the confused jungle of my mind.
‘Ok. You’re going to help me.’
‘Yes. Claro que si. I will help you.’
‘Anything suspicious in this area? Any activities which might give us a lead?’
‘Why the pause there. Something is up. I know it is. Is it land speculation? Out with it. What is it? I need to know everything and anything.’
‘Vale, pero es un secreto bien guardado…’
The authenticity factor in dialogue is the crucial one for me. Although I’d very much like to and my uncle was really murdered there, I have never been to Bolivia.
Matthias Krug (www.mkrug.com) is a novelist, linguist and journalist who was born in Qatar and currently lives in Madrid. He is the author of the novel ‘Selfishness’, the short story collection ‘Brave New Words’ and most recently the novel ‘L’. He has written for prestigious international media like the BBC, the Huffington Post, ESPN, El Pais English, Irish Examiner or Al Jazeera International. He has also published several academic articles and has a European PhD in English Linguistics and Literature from the UCM of Madrid.