Lucius introduced me to the phrase “on the nose” in criticizing a passage I wrote: “In this bit where the guy’s wife is asking him questions, it’s too on-the-nose. People don’t usually talk like this, pursuing a straight-line goal. They circle the issue. Once I listened to a couple ladies in a Laundromat discussing the characters in their favorite soap opera, and I realized they were talking about themselves.” By which Lucius meant that they were using the characters as their proxies and speaking in subtext.
(The story he was critiquing, by the way, was “Niche” over at Litropolis.com, in case you’re interested. To resolve the issue, I had the guy and his wife talk past each other, each pursuing a separate straight-line goal in the brief dialog, thereby shifting the emphasis from the exposition toward the characters, their relationship, and their different priorities. Lucius spent a few hours helping me with “Niche.” I remember his calling me up at Microsoft after I sent him the last draft in ’99: “There are a few good, strong Teutonic constructions in there; I think it’s ready.” I never did sell it, though.)
Being a slow student, I have taken pretty much all this time, fifteen years, to observe a more general lesson in “on the nose”: we all speak in subtext. Even when we’re pursuing an argument — or writing a blog post — we’re really, primarily being sneaky and pursuing another agenda, even if we’re not aware of it. Often that agenda is to gain status or reassurance.
Feeling anxious and ungrounded lately, I started an online talk with my friends Jonathan Tweet, Rob Furey, and Alex Lamb about the topic of happiness, especially from a neurological and evolutionary perspective, with the goal of being happier myself and having more satisfying connections with people. Since I’ve moved to central Oregon and started relating to new people, I’ve become more conscious of the ways I blunder toward my goals in conversation, and I’m trying to pay more attention to the subtext of what people are saying to me. Understanding where people are coming from takes time, though. In writing fiction, you get to decide (more or less) where your characters are coming from; you don’t have to observe them and gain their trust. You can project whatever personal issues you want on them — they’re nothing but you, after all. Other people aren’t, though, a fact that should be obvious but often isn’t. When we become outraged or infatuated with people, as I observed in my post about Jung and projection, we’re generally relating to our unconscious selves.
To parse the subtext of a person’s speech, we need to get to know them. The best way is to gain their trust, and the quickest way to do that is to do something fun and non-goal-oriented with them. I’ve joined a Dungeons & Dragons group here in town. It’s been about two decades since I was in a regular D&D group, and it’s taken me a while to get back into the spirit of this activity. At first I was very goal-oriented. I’ve hung out with experienced storytellers for a very long time, and I kept thinking of ways that the DM — I am a player, not the storyteller, in this group — might improve his story, but this group has been together a while, and they’ve developed their own culture with their own ways of relating to each other. I’ve been obliged to sit back and observe and try to figure out what’s fun about this activity for them and what each is individually getting out of it and to be slower than usual to put my oar in and try to “improve” the game.
I think this discipline will make me a better writer, but more importantly, I think it will make me a better person.
D&D (what Lucius referred to once as “Dumb & Dumber” — ah well) is an improvisational game, and as I’ve said, I think this kind of play can help us to get to know people and improve the ways we relate to them and maybe improve the efficiency of our work collaborations with them. The following lecture by the aforementioned Alex Lamb, my good friend and coincidentally also a student of Lucius’, has informed my thinking:
And so has this Ted talk on play, presented by Stuart Brown: