When I read that ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’ was on Chuck Palahniuk’s suggested reading list (see last blog post: now throwing caution to the wind and following a tightly prescribed exercise and book plan by the absolutely mad author of Fight Club), I had a niggling feeling that I’d heard of David Sedaris before. Turns out, like millions of others, I’ve clicked past his Masterclass ad a million times (still saving up for an annual pass – if anyone’s got a spare one, slide into my DM’s) and heard the distinctive, “If you’re writing about people, you have to be interested in people…”
Sorry David, I’ll join you for a class at some point.
Now, the reason that David Sedaris’ collection of short stories, ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’, is recommended by Chuck (and by proxy, Tom Spanbauer, who informed and taught Chuck for much of his adult life) is that it’s a great example of the use of the ‘burnt tongue’ technique and more i.e. the idea that the personalities of the characters should be shown in their very language – whether that be the dialogue itself, or the way in which they describe their view of the world.
Bending language to your will, breaking the rules, showing the truth of an interaction even if it’s not perfect, is part of the fun of being a writer. In the simplest of ways, it means that you’ll never need to describe something the same way twice.
Tom Spanbauer, in his workshop, ‘Dangerous Writing, always advised other writers to “make language your bitch”, and in two very obvious ways:
- Making sure that the way the character describes the world also describes the characters’ experience.
In other words, no more generic descriptions for a scene. No more forty minutes, no more six feet tall, or nine years old – instead it should be something that tells you something about your character and the way they see the world.
A quick example given by Chuck is – instead of “he was almost six feet tall”: “he was a man too tall to kiss”. Without fail, Sedaris uses unusual and original ways to introduce new characters in his essays – two of my favorites are:
- “locked in a windowless room with a man who barely reached my chest”
- “whose brittle, prematurely white hair was permed in such a way that I couldn’t look at her without thinking of a late-season dandelion”
Some are more subtle than others, but always the new character is described through our narrator’s eyes and experience. It also lends to some hilarious one-liners which are, just generally, scattered throughout this novel and mean that my ebook version is pretty much entirely highlighted.
The other way in which you can show personality is through:
- Use dialogue to say more than words
By this, I mean finding the unique nature in the way that the character speaks, and bringing that out in their dialogue.
The first example that jumped to mind when I heard of this phrase was of course Irvine Welsh, whose truthful depiction of a strong Scottish accent can make parts of his novels pretty much unreadable. A mild example, but all the same: “The sweat was lashing oofay Sick Boy; he wis trembling” in ‘Trainspotting’. In one sentence, we understand the geography and class of the character – without them having to actually say it. His stuff is pretty extreme, but as far as a concept goes – there are benefits to this technique.
Right in the first short story of his collection ‘Go Carolina’, Sedaris shows subtle amends to the dialogue of his character – conscious ones, as younger David is shamed for his lisp and as a result, is loath to use any words with ‘s’ sounds. We actually see his language change over the course of the short story, as he replaces offending words with alternatives, even if they do sound like he’s swallowed the thesaurus: “battered marine life” a preferred stand-in for “battered fish”.
A second fantastic example is given in the titled short story ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’ and, by extension, ‘Jesus Shaves’ where, at the age of forty-one, David is deciding to learn French and we go through the whole process of understanding with him – from sections entirely unintelligible like “Even a fiuscrzsa ticiwelmun knows that a typewriter is feminine” to struggling to describe Christianity to a Moroccan student entirely in French, “it is a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus”.
All in all, loved this collection. One of my favorites, addressing family dynamics, obsession and addiction, inadequacies, insecurities and picking fun without judgement. Reminded me a lot of Augusten Burroughs who I also love (though this particular selection is less ‘sexy’ than the average Burroughs story). Would have given it the last star if the stories had flowed more naturally into each other – as at the moment, it feels more like picked stories just pulled together.
Next to putting this advice and these examples to the test!