How to Put a Mind into Conversation with Itself

24 Nov
Megan Kruse's novel Call Me Home left the writer Dan Chaon "astonished by her talent."

Megan Kruse’s debut novel Call Me Home left the writer Dan Chaon “astonished by her talent.”

Dialogue involving only one person might seem, on its face, impossible. In plays, a character can talk to no one, and there are terms for this: monologue, soliloquy, or (if the character is talking to the audience) aside. This can be accomplished in prose through narration. After all, first-person narration is really just a series of scenes with bits of soliloquy in between. But that kind of narration still suggests a single speaker, and this isn’t always the case. We have many voices in our heads. Some belong to other people, but others are different versions of ourselves, and these versions can, at times, talk to one another.

A great example of this kind of interior dialogue happens in Megan Kruse’s novel Call Me Home. Kruse was recently named one of the National Book Award’s 5 Under 35, and her book includes an introduction by Eat, Pray, Love‘s Elizabeth Gilbert. You can read an excerpt of the book at The Nervous Breakdown.

How the Novel Works

The novel is organized into three different points of view: a woman who leaves her abusive husband, her daughter who she takes with her, and her son who she leaves. Only the daughter, Lydia’s, sections are told in first-person. There rest of the novel is in third person, except for a short chapter that takes place in a women’s shelter in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The chapter belongs to Lydia, but it’s told in alternating styles: second-person passages in italics and first-person passages in regular font. The passages speak to other each other in different ways.

At times, the italicized passages suggest a plan of action:

First, gather everything. The credit cards and your birth certificate. The bank statements. The social security cards. If they are gone, it’s because he has taken them. This will make things harder, but not impossible.

The passage ends like this: The world is big. It’s best if you keep going.

Here is part of the first-person passage that follows:

We drove for four days to get to New Mexico, through the mountains, the red Utah canyons, the flat sand. I watched the lava fields and they were ghostly as the moon. At the shelter there was a room with a sink and a tall window I couldn’t see out of. We sat for hours in a little room talking to the caseworkers.

The passage ends with the caseworkers talking about the place where the mother and Lydia have come from:

It was a small town, they told us. He knew the car. He might have had surveillance equipment. They told us that it’s different, now.

When the next italicized sections begins, we realize that it’s the voice of the caseworkers as filtered through Lydia’s consciousness. What gets said in the passage is a version of what the caseworkers actually said, but there’s more there, too, as you can see here:

Try not to think of the times when things were not what they seemed: when your mother carried in a bowl of yellow pears that had been eaten to lace by insects, and how you watched her from the kitchen window as she cried, wondering at her despair.

The first-person passage that follows begins like this:

It was as if I went to sleep and woke up in a dry and brittle country, and I was older, with a different name, and I had no brother.

Kruse has created a narrative structure that allows her character to think about what has happened to her, to hold the past and present side by side in her head, and to allow her feelings about one to inform the other. In short, these different parts of her experience (what Lydia has been told by the caseworkers, her mother’s flight from home, and Lydia’s reflection on both) are put into conversation with her. It’s a kind of dialogue of a character’s selves.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a dialogue of a character’s selves, using Call Me Home by Megan Kruse as a model:

  1. Choose an experience for a character to reflect upon. In Kruse’s novel, Lydia is remembering leaving her hometown and escaping to a women’s shelter on the other end of the country. That’s the wide-lens version. She’s also remembering specific moments: the counselors at the shelter talking to her and her mother and moments from her childhood in her hometown. That’s the narrow-lens, intimate version of the “experience.”
  2. Identify the different voices in the passage. In Call Me Home, there is Lydia’s voice and her mother’s voice (through traditional dialogue), and the voice of the counselors. So, decide who is talking and who is doing the reflecting (for instance, the passage would read differently if Lydia’s mother was doing the reflecting rather than Lydia).
  3. Identify the different selves in the conversation. In Call Me Home, there is Lydia’s self as she sits and reflects in Alamogordo, her self as she listens to the counselors, her self on the road away from home, and her self as a young child when her mother carried the bowl of pears. These are not the same selves because the circumstances, ages, emotions, and stakes are so different. We feel this intuitively about ourselves. We compare ourselves now to our selves as kids and think, “I’m a completely different person now.” But we also sometimes think back to our childhood selves and think that we’re basically the same person that we were then. That sense of continuity is what allows us to tell stories that run intelligibly from childhood to adulthood. But that sense that we’ve changed, perhaps often, is what informs much of our reflection. So, consider what moments in your character’s life have caused her to feel that she’s changed a great deal, even completely.
  4. Separate those selves into different sections. Kruse uses italicized, second-person sections and non-italicized, first-person sections. These don’t align neatly with all of the different selves at play in the chapter. The point isn’t to create a neat replica of the character’s consciousness. Instead, the point is to create a structure that puts the character’s selves into conversation, or dialogue, with one another. This may require combining selves or grouping them. Try this: Divide the passage into two parts. In one, a voice in the character’s head (which may be someone else’s voice, like the counselors in the novel) are talking to the character. In the other section, the character is responding to or thinking about what is said.

You may end up using italicized and non-italicized sections. You may switch between types of POV. Or, these different voices may get mixed up into a single paragraph, with no stylistic distinctions between them. Don’t get hung up on trying to faithfully imitate Kruse’s structure. Instead, try to pull together all of your character’s selves, voices, and experiences into a single passage, as Kruse has done.

Good luck.

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One Response to “How to Put a Mind into Conversation with Itself”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Megan Kruse | Read to Write Stories - November 28, 2015

    […] To read an exercise about creating internal dialogue, click here. […]

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