Inauthentic Authenticiy

“Hey Antonio, what’s the problem?” I asked.

“Oh, not that much I suppose,” I replied.

“OK, then why the long face…?”

“Honestly, I’m not that keen on writing dialogue.”

“Well, it seems like you’ve gotten pretty good at dictating things on a microphone into Microsoft Word so that you can publish them as blog articles. What’s the issue?”

“Even when I use the keyboard though, I was never really good at writing out dialogue. Part of me says it’s because of all the punctuation marks that have to go when you’re writing a conversation between two people.”

“You mean like you’re doing right now?”

“Yes, precisely. And yet I’m putting in the punctuation marks right now. For whatever stupid reason the first draft, Microsoft Word is making the beginning of every phrase lowercase, so I have to go back and manually edit it after the fact Notwithstanding that, I’m perfectly capable of putting in quotation marks.”

“So, it’s not that, then?”

“Evidently not. I think it’s something more fundamental about writing dialogue that’s never quite worked for me.”

“I find that impossible to believe, Antonio.”

“And why exactly is that, Antonio?”

“Because you’re somebody who’s an absolute motor mouth, and most people can’t seem to shut you the fuck up to save their life. You would think that someone who bloviates as much as you do would be an expert at writing dialogue.”

“That’s not a very nice way to talk about yourself.”

“Touché.”

“Generally, I’m very hard on myself. I’m definitely very hard on myself when it comes to writing. But there’s something especially pernicious about dialogue. More specifically, writing ‘convincing dialogue.’”

“And why is that?”

“Even when I borrow little snippets of conversations that I’ve actually had in real life, I remember feedback from English teachers and friend proofreaders telling me that my dialogue didn’t sound very convincing. What the hell? This was a conversation that I actually had! Sometimes copied verbatim. It’s this tricky, evasive thing about ‘convincing’ dialogue. I feel like true to life is really besides the point. Trailer Park Boys probably has the most convincing, true to life dialogue of any TV show that I’ve ever watched. Maybe that just speaks to the kind of people I hang around with in real life (or who more importantly lurk around my office). But what I think we really mean when we say ‘convincing dialogue’ is a form of simulacrum that doesn’t look too fake, but it’s still more polished and refined than any conversation that we would have in real life.’”

“So, like being authentic, but in a really phony and insincere way?”

“Yeah, you got it.”

“Perfectly clear as mud. No contradiction in there at all.”

“Cognitive dissonance aside, I guess one of the good things about being a lawyer is that I practice being inauthentic and phony on a daily basis. The joys of being in a service industry. But it hasn’t translated into writing dialogue.”

“It seems to me that it’s going to be a skill like anything else that you might right. You’re good at writing essays, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’d like to think so.”

“And you’ve written pretty decent wills as well, right?”

“Well, wills are sort of boilerplate. There’s really not a lot of original skill and thought that comes into most of them.”

“OK, but you’re missing the point. My point is, you’ve had years to hone and refine those crafts, that’s how you develop a skill. It’s not going to crystallize in a vacuum. So, you really have to do something if you want to achieve something.”

“So maybe I should just write reams of dialogue without any of the narrative portions of a paragraph and see if the things that I churn out start to sound more authentic.”

“Exactly! But you know, in a very polished and insincere sort of authenticity.”

“Alright. I’m gonna start editing all the blatantly obvious, garbage errors in this Microsoft Word document, and see how this is for a first start.”

“Do you feel any better?”

“Maybe a little bit.”

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The Time Papa got Angry

“You can’t do stuff like that in this country!” these were the words of advice from an old man with a sub-Saharan accent that I’m not going to try and proffer a guess as to, because it’s been over thirty years. He was lecturing my grandfather, following one of the most traumatic incidents of my childhood.

My grandfather was born in what is now part of Slovakia, but was then part of Hungary, in 1942. To say that he was a stoic man for all of my life is perhaps an understatement. Sure, he would laugh and smile whenever we watched cartoons or played together, but beside that he was not one to show large bursts of warm, cuddly emotion. Even now, as I sit and write this, I can picture him sitting alone in the evening at his kitchen table, a dim light shining above him, doing his nightly sudokus while his Maine Coon watches him patiently. Suffice to say, I have also never known him to be an angry or violent person.

Except for this one time.

I was about five or six years old, and he decided to take me to Mooney’s Bay, which was a beach not too far from our home. We drove in his blue Dodge Caravan, an ugly but reliable family vehicle that grandpa fawned over. it wasn’t that it was particularly nice, or that he had any emotional bond to it I think. It was simply that it cost him a lot of money a year or two prior, and that he traded in a much nicer car in his 1979 Buick LeSabre in order to get this damn thing. And so simply by virtue of the amount of bother it provided him, he felt very protective of it.

We were driving into the ramped parkade to the beach, when a pair of kids, maybe 10 and 13 years old, riding on their bicycles glided in front of him. He missed them, but was quite perturbed by the fact that they came so close to hitting his car, and all the potential liability that would have ensued. Now, you or I, Dear Reader, might have just went, parked our car, and gone on our merry way. My grandfather decided that it would be funny in this instance to try and chase them a little bit in his van, and give them the fear that he might actually hit them, so as to teach them a lesson. He followed in pursuit for a few meters, and then grew tired of his plan, and found a spot to park. The kids muttered and complained in some variation of Arabic, and then went off in the distance.

We walked up the hill, and I believe the flimsy premise of our outing was for him to teach me how to fly a kite. I don’t remember much about the kite flying. In fact, I don’t have any particularly warm memories of ever having flown a kite, and so I think it’s highly unlikely that I ever had fun doing so. At worst it was a nuisance, and a best it was very mildly entertaining. But as we stood at the top of the hill at Mooney’s Bay, we could see those same too teenagers hovering over grandpa’s van. As we walked down the hill, grandpa went to inspect his vehicle, only to find that one of the boys had hocked a loogie on the driver side window.

It was then that I saw a side of my grandfather that I won’t soon forget, even some thirty-odd years later. He found the kids sitting around not too far away in the grass, probably quite proud of what they had done to the man who had provoked them. Grandpa decided to take the younger of the two, and grab him in a headlock. This immediately provoked this standoff with the older one, which with the benefit of hindsight is hilarious and possibly a little white trash, but at that time as a five year old was as terrifying as a full blown Mexican standoff.

The older Lebanese lad had picked up a boulder that he’d found and cocked it, as though he was ready to fire at my Papa’s head. Papa continued his Python like grip with his arm around the younger boy’s neck, who appeared to be turning beet red from being choked out.

“Fucking let go of my cousin!” The boy cried.

“You go and clean my fock-on car you punk!” my grandfather replied.

At this point I, maybe five or six years old and worried for my grandfather’s safety, pleaded with him to stop because I was scared. Finally, I think a sense of self-awareness came over him, and he let the younger boy go. At that point the older one—who was maybe 13 or 14 years old but seemed older to me at the time, and who probably was scared as I—grabbed his cousin and scuttled off into the distance for home.

I began to calm down as this situation deescalated. It was at this point that the sagely old black man approached my grandfather. “Hey!” he exclaimed, as Papa tried to explain his position. “I know what they did, I saw it. But you can’t do stuff like that in this country.” Eventually my grandfather wiped down the spit with some Kleenex from the van, and we turned around to start for home.

Thirty years later, I can’t remember the precise events, accents, or dialogue. But I do remember the emotion. I remember how terrified I was in that moment, and how that was the biggest, angriest conflict that I’d really ever seen. You have to remember, dear reader, that this was probably five or six years before I saw my first episode of COPS, and growing up in a first world country with a real lack of internal strife or conflict like Canada, there was really no other frame of reference for my young impressionable mind.

Looking back on it, I really wonder what that old man meant to say to my grandfather. Was he admonishing him for his terrible behavior in front of those youth? “You can’t do stuff like that in this country!” Canada. This wonderful, shining beacon of liberalism and individual rights and pacifism. That’s not my instinct. I have a feeling it came from a dark point of understanding and camaraderie between the two older gents who weren’t from around here. “You can’t do stuff like that in this country.” Canada. Land of the wimps, where everyone sues everyone when their feelings get hurt, and ruffians go undisciplined. Maybe it was a tacit understanding that wherever home was for these two men who spoke with a heavy accent—and every “old country,” had these same nostalgic characteristics, regardless of race, religion, or creed—retributive justice would have been OK, and more to the point, no one would have dared to have spat on their car in the first place.

In any event, it’s hard to say what sort of lasting event this had on me as a child. To this day, I am extremely conflict averse and afraid of any kind of confrontation. I also don’t much care for kites.

OK, Maybe I am Doing it for the Money.

I’ve thought about this quite a bit over the past…I don’t know, decade? Probably even more than that. Why is it that I want to create art? I’ve touched on this in past podcasts, and maybe even a few blog essays on this website. I don’t entirely understand what that creative drive is, and I’m sure it varies from person to person. For me personally, the answer is not apparent. I think part of it is a sense of recognition. I desire to seem as though I’m clever. When I spoke with my friend Arthur’s mom, Michelle Desbarats, she talked about it in the context of her own poetry. Essentially, the goal in her poetry was to be radically honest, and not try and appear as though you’re clever.

I think that’s my problem at its essence. I have this overarching desire to seem very clever by the creative things that I do. And that’s what drives me. And it kind of leads you down this path of self-flagellation where you really shame yourself because you’re not doing what you personally think is clever or smart or good enough. What is that it? Am I just trying to show people I’m smart and clever? I can do sudoku or chess problems and probably achieve the same thing in a lot cheaper easier fashion.

But specifically when it comes to my drive to try and write something, I wonder how much of it is simply the financial incentive. Put it another way, if money was no object and I had an infinite supply of currency, would I even bother trying to do any writing? The idea of a novel certainly has its allure, but I think moreover the idea of writing for a living–setting my own schedule, whittling away in complete solitude with a pot of coffee and maybe a laptop–sounds a lot more alluring than reporting to a boss, having a fixed schedule, and interacting with people I may not necessarily like.

But of course, if you ever say that you want to do something because of the money, there’s something unseemly or disgusting about it. And even now, I’m doing a job that is not the most remunerative one that’s even been offered to me recently. But I’m doing it because I have a certain sense of freedom and comfort and ease with the schedule, and how things work out for me. And I think being a professional writer is sort of the logical conclusion to all of that. That is the ultimate tradeoff of “complete freedom of schedule,” compared to a nine to five job. So maybe it’s not about the money in the sense of greedy financial avarice, like a day trader. But it’s more in the sense of the money like “I need to do something in order to earn a living week to week, so the thing that I want to do to get money is something where my schedule is very free, and I can pick the schedule that I want, and I don’t necessarily have to deal with unpleasant people.”

In describing a freelance writing career as something like that, I do hearken back to my times a sole practitioner. In theory, at least, I had complete autonomy when it came to my schedule. In reality, there were court deadlines and anxious clients would bother you on the phone all the time, and so it never quite worked out that way. And I don’t know enough about being a writer to say with any certainty that what I imagine in my head is actually the reality. If I end up doing potboilers and copywriting, then perhaps it’s a situation where I’m not necessarily anymore the master of my domain than I am presently where I am right now.

So when I say I’ve come to an epiphany that I think I want to do this “for money,” I don’t mean it in any crass or ulterior way. I guess what I’m saying is I wanna do something that is actually going to reward me financially in some way shape or form. That is to say, I would not be satisfied working a nine to five job, putting my kids to sleep around 8:00 or 9:00 o’clock in the evening, and then dragging my ass downstairs so that I can draft a whole bunch of sonnets that no one is ever going to read during my lifetime.

I signed up for a short story writing class on Domestika, with a South African writer who seems to have a bent for literary fiction. Very autobiographical stuff. In a mean, sort of fucked-up way (and mean and fucked-up is kind of my bailiwick), reading the posts by the other collaborators that are signed up for the course, and seeing how terrible their writing is, gives me a bit of confidence that I could actually do this for a living. I’m at least better than the general population when it comes to conveying my ideas, and doing so in an eloquent fashion.

But then why haven’t I written that story? Why don’t I have a finished novel? Where is my groundbreaking polemical essay, my memoir, my anything? And thus motivation rears its ugly head again.

I’m going to start reading some more books on motivation. I feel like motivation is more important than time management. I used to stress so much about time management, and it would never get me anywhere. Of course, the trap with all these self-help texts is that you constantly feel like you’re an incomplete person who needs to work on themselves. At what point are you complete? At what point are you, for lack of a better word, good enough?