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The Transformative Power of Writing Dialect

There are plenty of reasons against mimicking dialect when writing ... but are there any in favor? Author Ed Davis discusses.
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“The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.” —Playwright Arthur Miller as qutd. in Ralph Keyes’ The Courage to Write

I’d forgotten Arthur Miller’s wise words above until recently, as I experienced some concern over a writing issue all Appalachian (and other) writers must eventually face: to write or not to write dialect. After four decades of writing and publishing fiction and poetry, it had returned to haunt me.

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Here’s how it happened. Upon publication of my poetry chapbook Haskell in 1987, I thought I was through writing monologues in the voice of a 93-year-old West Virginian who spent his life driving trolley cars and busses and raising thirteen children. (At the time, I didn’t feel I was writing so much as channeling the man.) However, this year, with very little urging on my part, Haskell began speaking again and I’m listening, shaping his thoughts—and voice—into what feel to me like poems. So what’s the problem? Well, in the intervening 27 or so years, I’ve learned to be as wary of dialect as one would be of clichés, sentimentality, and stereotypes—and that using a technique fraught with both power and weakness can induce the type of not-quite-embarrassment Miller speaks of (verging on, he said—not quite). Should a writer follow his heart and use regional language with impunity ... or drop it from his repertoire entirely? Is there a middle ground? (And what will his harshest critics say?)

The case against dialect can be easily summarized:

  1. Dialect can demean: It’s hard for authors not to appear superior, looking down their noses at nontraditional speakers in their work who appear uneducated or foreign.
  2. Dialect distorts: It too often results in odd spellings and lexical gimmicks, making it necessary for readers to decode rather than enjoy and appreciate the writing (like the slave Jim’s speech in Huckleberry Finn).
  3. Dialect can disguise (not very well) a questionable motive such as glorifying the noble primitive at the expense of truth and realism.

Many “experts”—writers who’ve written how-to books on writing—agree about #2: distortion. Writer John DuFresne as well as editors Renni Browne and Dave King believe using gimmicks is the easy way out. Most writers, however, can avoid the worst of these problems through restraint—using dialect sparingly and achieving a realistic, regional feel through careful use of syntax, rhythm, diction, idioms, and figures of speech rather than the above oddities and gimmicks. And yet, while I’ve taken such good advice and reduced nonstandard spellings mostly to the occasional dropping of g’s, I still feel not embarrassed exactly but a bit ... uncomfortable. Concerned enough to question my motives and seek a definitive answer if there is one.

The Transformative Power of Writing Dialect

I’ll bet almost all Appalachians, without much thinking about it, avoid nontraditional linguistic habits, consciously or unconsciously, as they become more educated writers. But those who become creative writers—as opposed to academic or technical writers—will have to face this issue head-on, it seems to me, if they want to write realistically and well about Appalachian characters. Returning to the language one grew up hearing as a child—especially when mainstream society labels it uneducated and incorrect, or peers say it’s stereotyping—and deciding to use it anyway—requires a degree of risk if not courage.

If one risks discomfort, even censure by critics, there should be ample reward for writing in dialect, right? For me, the informal language of dialect is a type of music—plus, it’s one of the best ways to preserve the voices of people who’re absent through death or distance. True dialect, not mere personal speech idiosyncrasies, reflects an entire community, especially elders. It’s the glue cementing the insiders as a tribe but also depicting them in a way that outsiders can, if open-minded, understand and appreciate them as well. For example, I love delightful British-isms in the BBC shows I watch, such as fry-up and clean-out. “I hate to piss in your chips,” Detective Sgt. Joe Ashworth said on a recent episode of Vera, set in Northumberland (“Rain on your parade,” an American might say less colorfully). I wonder if local watchers of those shows might find themselves angry or blushing, hearing themselves rendered thus by writers for the entire world to hear. (Personally, I hope they’d be delighted, assuming that the writer had a good enough ear to get it right.)

So back to Haskell and my recent discomfort. The more my character spoke—and I transcribed—the more I squirmed. I needed to make my mind up: avoid using dialect altogether or give myself full permission to let characters speak in their natural voices, walking the thin line between stereotype and verisimilitude, pride and shame. Finally, the problem sent me back to some of my most beloved models of fine Appalachian fiction, such as my fellow West Virginian Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven. In my flawed memory, I recalled the entire novel being composed in dialect, but re-reading, I found that the author reserves the thickest dialect for her characters’ dialogue; for example, “The creek was clear as glass, and we used to git trout outen it, and bullfrogs,” Daddy said. “You ain’t et till you had frog legs. Now the creek wont run clear till kingdom come, I reckon.” (13).

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The result is the realistic rendering of uneducated country folk whose isolation made their language closer to middle English of the British Isles than early-twentieth-century America. However, Giardina’s first-person inner monologues, as opposed to dialogue, are much closer to recognizable standard speech of the working classes of the time period. Here’s the novel’s co-protagonist Rondal Lloyd speaking: “It was fearsome going down in the mines again. I spent the first month in terror of a roof fall, and talked little so I could listen to the grinding and moaning of the coal seam. But time brought disregard for danger and even a mocking sort of courage. I would look up after the powder had blown and dare the son of a bitch roof to come down” (76). Fearsome is about the only non-standard usage in the linguistically vivid passage that fully captures the consciousness of a budding union organizer. Thus, I was pleased to realize that the combination of Giardina’s thick oral and more nuanced inner dialect produces the memorable music I associate with the best Appalachian writers.

I’ve decided that if using dialect is good enough for Denise Giardina—and many other fine Appalachian writers—then it’s good enough for me, and I won’t deny myself and my readers the use of my linguistic heritage. Cognizant though I am of the risks, I’ll take them, knowing some literary critics and peers whose judgment I value might disagree, since dialect—a very particular (some would say incorrect) use of language—strikes too near the heart of the human family with whom I came of age, for me to abandon it now. Denying myself the chance to record and help preserve the unique music I inherited due to birth seems not only wrong but perhaps even a crime against language itself, the language I love most: the language of home.

Finally, to return to the quote with which I began, Arthur Miller may have been thinking more about content than style—it’s not hard to imagine him mortified at the countless humiliations he heaped upon the Lomans’ heads while writing Death of a Salesman (especially if the roots of those woes lay at all in his own past)—but the truth remains that writers who probe most deeply into the human psyche will always flirt with embarrassment as they expose the most essential truths their lives have taught them. I’ve always found the best cure for shame is to look it in the face and stare it down, not with anger but with humility, patience, and calm repose. Thus, rendering character through dialect says, “This is the way we are (and speak). We’re worth knowing, just like you.” With that attitude, potential sources of embarrassment and shame are transformed by the power of art into revelation, insight, even joy.

Works Cited

Browne, Renni and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. New York: A HarperResource Book, 2001.

Davis, Ed. Haskell. Big Timber, MT: Seven Buffaloes Press, 1987.

Dufresne, John. The Lie That Tells a Truth. New York: Norton, 2004.

Giardina, Denise. Storming Heaven. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988.

Keyes, Ralph. The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.

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