Flannery O’Connor wrote in The Regional Writer in 1963, “Unless the writer has gone utterly out of his mind, his aim is still communication and communication suggests talking within a community.” When I read this quote, it made me think about my own writing. My first novel takes place in the 1970s. The second takes place pre-World War II. I had never really defined my stories as “community,” but this quote made me reconsider what I am writing because I am definitely writing about two entirely different communities. The 1970’s story is about young people who are bonded not only by their age but by the events happening around them. The second one is about a family, living in an isolated region of Colorado where they could not survive without their ranching neighbors. It is essential for me to figure out how to distill the language and habits within each of the communities in my novels.
Communication in Writing
Of course, writing is about communication. But communication does not just rely on words. In fact, when I was working on my dissertation years ago, I read research on the topic. Albert Mehrabian’s work in the 1970s showed that 93% of what is communicated when we are talking to someone is in our nonverbal cues. Nonverbal cues refer to facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, the closeness or distance we allow between ourselves and another person, as well as to various aspects of voice—tone, rhythm, fluency, pitch, volume, or rate of speaking. Mehrabian noted the words alone accounted for only seven percent of the meaning in an oral exchange. Naturally, much linguistic research has been carried out since then. Various projects have delineated different kinds of gestures, for example, speech illustrators, symbolic gestures, or culturally specific gestures. Now, as I pursue my aspirations of being a novelist, I wonder what these data mean for writing.
Words versus Nonverbals
A writer only has words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages of print to recount a story. The reader cannot see the writer, nor does he or she usually even think of the writer. Rather the reader gets hooked on a character. An engaged reader follows the development of that character along to the end. So, what is it exactly that hooks a reader?
If the only content that is being communicated is through words, is a writer stuck with only being able to communicate seven percent or can the writer portray nonverbal behavior effectively using words? This question has led me to read a bit differently. I have always paid attention to how authors use dialog, now I read to see how different writers describe nonverbal behaviors. I just read a short story, “Night Riding” by Candace Simar, that used effective nonverbal communication beautifully: “She fingered the asaphidity bag around her neck and held it to her nose for a deep inhalation of camphor and garlic. Perhaps it would be enough to prevent pneumonia.” The nonverbals she is describing lead the reader to infer the character’s age and knowledge of herbal medicine—both essential elements of the plot. However, if you are not part of the character’s community, you might not know what an asaphidity bag is. Thus, this writer has to integrate more details into the text.
Drawing the Reader into an Unfamiliar Community
Readers carry stereotypes in their minds. They have certain expectations for what a New Yorker might say as opposed to a Coloradan. So perhaps part of the meaning is literally carried in the community the author chooses to bring into life. I recently read a British cozy. I was fascinated with how quickly the author drew me into the Welsh community she was describing. It may be that it resonated with my memories of the small community in which I grew up because I felt a familiarity with how the characters communicated or didn’t communicate with each other. For example, I recognized the “big guy” as opposed to “little guy” descriptions. But within several pages, I was enjoying a Welsh community that I had never heard of before.
What is it that forms a community? In this case, it was isolation. It took place in a village at the foot of a large mountain (which also mirrors where I grew up). It was familiarity, the families lived there, thus they were aware of the neighborhood gossip. The author also quickly established that there were outsiders involved. Some had recently joined the community, others were victims, others who were there only to solve the mystery. The story also included community activities, known hiking trails, and shared knowledge about the mountain and its weather conditions. Thus, much of her meaning was carried through her play on the familiar contrasted with the unfamiliar.
Communicating about Community
What is it the writer wants to communicate? How does she do it? These are questions I am delving into. In my first story, I want to communicate to the reader that it is possible to find one’s way in the world despite setbacks, death, and feeling that one was born into the wrong community. My heroine has to leave home, go somewhere she had never been before, and along her path, she finds a community that is foreign to her but that becomes her home. In my second story, I want my readers to understand how difficult life was during the depression and how poverty affected one’s ability to protect one’s family. I want readers to experience the helplessness the community feels in the face of illness, lack of money, or horrible accidents.
Conversation in Community
I belong to three book clubs. One is a longstanding feminist book club. We read only books written by women, mostly fiction, but once in a while an interesting biography or social treatise. Reading these books has been mind-expanding but also comforting. We have literally read books by women from around the world. We have found that we can identify with women from all the continents. Over the years, I have observed that talking about the books in our monthly community has literally changed the women in the group. We do have a rule that each woman must explain why she chose her book. Each member, no matter how shy and unwilling to share opinions she is when she joins, has eventually found her voice and her ability to explain what she took from the book.
My second book club is also made up entirely of women, but it is more eclectic. We read a variety of novels, biographies, or nonfiction by a variety of writers. The group has no rules for interaction, so the discussions vary considerably in format. Nevertheless, as the membership has stabilized over the last four or five years, we have developed into a mutually supportive network. Conversation builds community and communities create support.
My third reading community, which I have attended for this past year, is limited to writers of fiction, memoirs, or screenplays. We dissect a novel each month. We are expected to read, take notes, and pay attention to writerly concerns as we read. The group leader does a thorough analysis of the book on several levels to share with us. It fascinates me that members choose to discuss very different aspects of what the author is trying to communicate. Reading about community, talking in community, about reading, and now writing about community is my passion.
Writing Goals for 2019
This year my goals are to:
- Edit my first novel into a coherent manuscript by December 7, 2019:
During the month of June, I have continued to work on editing my first novel. At the moment, I am feeling more self-conscious about my own writing. Sometimes it feels like trying to fit my left foot into my right shoe. When I get impatient with myself, I focus on doing mechanical editing for a while then I go back to the hard content work.
- Complete a draft of my second novel by December 7, 2019:
I have been doing more research on the time period in which my second novel takes place. Fortunately for me, several websites have popped up that focus on the corner of Colorado that interests me. As folks post old photos, it helps me get a better feel for machinery, clothing, and activities that fit the time period.
- Document my progress through a blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2019:
Today is July 7, 2019. This is my seventh blog of 2019. This month I have been thinking about how to monetize my blog, or at least considering if it is worthwhile to attempt to do so. I have read several articles and looked at various statistics. But I think for now it will remain a work in progress. I will continue to write and publish it as is for the remainder of 2019.
- Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:
This month I joined another writing group, the Denver Woman’s Press Club. The President, Anne Randolph, the author of Stories Gathered at the Kitchen Table, whom I met through the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, invited me to apply for membership. My application was accepted. Joining an organization that dates from 1898 and which has supported women’s writers for 120 years is a thrilling opportunity. Minnie Reynolds, the Society Editor for the Rocky Mountain News at the time, founded the group. She also shepherded the suffrage movement in Colorado. The movement’s colors were purple, gold and white, representing the royal glory of womanhood, the crown of victory, and the purity of home and politics. Minnie Reynolds predicted that we would have a woman president in 2017! We would have had one if our current political system had chosen the purity of politics!