Writers’ Bootcamp Day 13: Dialogue

Probably the most compelling reason for me to put off ever trying to write a novel. I’m not sure I know how to conduct “natural” dialogue in my real life, never mind on a page.

It also explains why I abandoned this project last year, when this particular topic came up. I’m of the opinion that dialogue should just be, without there having to be any prompts or further dialogue, dissecting the dialogue preceding it. Can people just say what they mean already and be done? Isn’t that the point?

Even when you’re writing a story, I reckon, the dialogue just happens. The voices in your head say what they have to say to one another and there it is. Isn’t that how writing happens? The words tumble out, almost as if you’re just the machine relaying them, the speaker system, spitting them out as relayed from the input source? For me, that’s how the best writing happens.

But it’s obviously not that simple and a pretty big deal, dialogue, given how much emphasis is placed on its importance and value in writing and in life. I’m a little stunted in that department, I think. I’m not very verbally expressive of the things I feel most acutely. The more intense the emotion, the more stunted my expression. And I’m not good at hearing the feely stuff from others, either. Dialogue. It’s like a swear word.

I can pour out my soul on a blank page but don’t ask me to utter the words, “I love you” to my beloved or to describe with words from my mouth the lengths I would go to for any one of my children. And watch me squirm when any one of them does it. Even as my heart explodes all over my insides with emotion.

Bring me the actions, the songs, the letters, the books, the gestures. Those, I know what to do with.

Dialogue? Pfffft.



Today, 23 years ago, my father died. I was 12 years old and still at Leeurikskool.

I had had lunch and was falling asleep during the mandatory hour of rest we always had before being marched into the school hall to do the day’s homework. One of the laundry ladies had come into my room to call me to the principal’s office. I remember being startled, disoriented and instantly anxious – what had I done now? I remember her crisp, white uniform, like a nurse’s. I remember the hushed, tense atmosphere but not which one of the tannies she’d been or what she’d said. I remember that she didn’t tell me what was going on. I remember thinking – bizarrely – that perhaps there was something wrong with the principal and that they needed me for some reason.

I stood in the pose referred to as “at ease” in the military, in the principal’s office and he took a few moments’ pause before saying, “I have some news.” Another pause. “Your daddy died this morning.” An expectant look from him. A rush of mixed emotions from me; Disbelief. Certainty. Fear. Relief? As if, from hundreds of kilometres away, my father had been a looming presence even in his absence from my life. A constant source of anxiety. And now the thread, always taut, always pulling me upright, confining my movement to the ┬ápre-approved set of acceptable actions, had snapped.

Recognition dawned as this realisation brought me back to where I was standing in the little prefabricated office of the principal, that he was looking for the appropriate reaction from me. And there was the approval clear on his face as the expected tears finally emerged. I thought it fortunate that tears were the only expression required of me and more so that tears look more or less the same whatever the emotion behind them.

Years would pass before I would feel loss over my father. And more than twice as many more years before I would begin to examine the dynamics of my relationship with him, such as it was, and recognise its many facets, the forces at play and catch the odd glimpse of love.

Falling, Inert

There is a certainty about state institutions that ingrains itself over time in the minds of everyone in any way connected to such a place. When you’re the new kid, trying to slot into a place with a bunch of strange, new people – most of them the kind of kid your parents have always fought vociferously for you to stay away from – you have no way of knowing what’s in store. But they do.

Ever watched a movie in which the protagonist gets sent to prison? The way the seasoned inmates circle like a pack of hungry hyenas? It’s really like that. They’re sizing you up, watching you to see how you’ll adapt to the setting you find yourself in, looking for any signs of weakness that can be exploited along the way. Trying to figure out where you’ll fall into the pecking order. Deciding whether you’re worth getting to know.

Because there is definitely a pecking order and no matter how unique you think you are, when you become a ward of the state, nothing about you belongs to you anymore.

Once the pleasantries were out f the way, my father suitably satisfied that I was in capable hands, the tone switched quickly from Summer Camp to No Nonsense. I was escorted with my belongings to “Die Wassery”, where everything I’d brought with me was unpacked for me. I was issued with a number – 59 – which was to become my “identification” number for the duration of my stay. Everything I owned or was issued was marked with this number, including bedsheets and blankets. My clothes were stored in a locker marked with my number and from this, one of the women we knew as “was tannies” would issue 3 sets of clothing along with a school tunic – a thick, scratchy, royal blue crimplene number, formless and beltless, as if someone in the system had picked up a few pointers from the Magdalene nuns. Can’t have a bunch of sexually charged pre-pubescent females running around drawing attention to their bodies! From this moment, the Transvaal Education Department would ordain my every activity, portion and ration everything I would eat or drink, decree my sleeping and waking hours and be my constant companion, day in and day out, with the exception of school holidays and family weekends.

Mostly, it was okay. It was okay to have a set and rigid routine because a) EVERYONE had the same routine b) knowing exactly what is expected of you all the time helps you to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble and c) as a child, you’re kind of used to having your life dictated to you anyway. At least, you did if you were a primary school kid in the 1980’s and early 90’s.

And yet, to think on it now I can’t help but wonder whether thinking that way is the effect of having undergone that institutionalisation…?

It seems to me that, once in the care of the state, there was only one direction to go and nothing I could have said or done would have changed the course of events to follow. Everything from that point on would be decided by someone else.

The school ostensibly being a place of rehabilitation, there were of course measures in place through which its charges’ behaviour was supposedly to be modified. I’ve mentioned the psych visits before. Those, combined with a weekly report based on teachers’ constant monitoring and evaluation of us, would see each of us placed in one of four groups each week, labelled from A to D.

Placement in group A meant that a child had behaved in model fashion, complying with any and all expectations and requests made of him, etc.

Group B was what you’d expect: 2nd place.

In group C, you were bordering on trouble and in group D your behaviour was utterly unacceptable.

Those who made group A would be given R2 on the Friday afternoon of that week and be permitted a 2 hour “pass” into town.

Those in group D would have all privileges revoked, such as they were, and the rest of the school were discouraged from associating with them.

I struggled a lot with myself, wanting to enjoy rewards and earn my way back into “normal” society while hating the powerlessness of being a child, forced to conform to someone else’s defiition of “acceptable”.

Luckily for me, I’d had plenty of practice, having lived under my father’s wife’s thumb for years before they’d decided to ship me off to reform school. But that’s a whole other part of the story.

So this was the general way of things, inside of which there were many smaller controls and systems. That’s the thing about how institutionalisation works – It’s such a slow and insidious process, you don’t even know it’s happening….

Writers Bootcamp Day 11: One food. One drink. For the rest of my life…

Okay, so are we talking one single item of food, no additives, sides, etc.? Or are we talking a complete dish, prepared with all the trimmings?

If we’re talking just one single item, mine would have to be salmon. It must be the single most nutrient rich food item one can get, and not only because of the essential fatty acids.

Drinks wise, it’s simple: Water. When I’m thirsty, nothing else works, and I’d rather be not thirsty for the rest of my life than drunk or full of sugar.

I thought about writing a whole scenario with this one, where we’re post whatever war has wiped out all the world’s major resources and living some distopian hell in the aftermath of it all. But I’m feeling pretty darn lazy tonight. And I have a chilled vodka & cranberry calling my name. And a randy husband….

So for now, that’s all, folks!

Writers Bootcamp Day 10: The best advice I’ve received/heard

If I’d been any good at heeding advice, I might be in a very different place today, so asking me what the best advice is that I’ve ever received or heard is perhaps a little bit daft.

Still, some useful nuggets of wisdom have stuck with me – or, rather, lay battered and bruised in the corners until my own stupidity has forced me into said corners to nurse my wounds. That’s where I’d usually find some blackened, dog-eared, scarred and bloodied lump which, when prodded, wouldn’t bite. Instead, it might growl at me intimidatingly and bark something like “I fuckin’ told you so, you dumb shit!” And then we’d suss each other out for a bit until recognition set in and I’d inevitably reach the conclusion that this previously discarded piece of good advice is actually my friend.

Here are the most oft consulted of them:

1. If you have to change who you are in order for them to love/like you, they will never really love/like you.

2. If he’s worth fighting over, you’ll never have to.

3. Don’t get involved in other people’s fights.

4. When speaking of others, say only that which you’d be willing to say to their face.

5. A gossip is likely to tell others the same kind of things about you as what he/she is currently telling you about someone else who’s not there to defend him/herself.

6. Wear sunscreen.

7. Don’t party on a school night; Drink at least one glass of water for every 2 alcoholic drinks; Hangovers get nastier and last longer the older you get.

I’m sure there are many more that I’ve forgotten. That’s okay – I’m bound to bump into them again along the way. And in all probability, they’ll be waiting with the kettle on.

Writers Bootcamp Day 9: Pinings

The other day, a song I hadn’t heard for probably close to 20 years was played on the radio, taking me back instantly to a time I haven’t visited in what seems like a lifetime.

I’ve actually been getting a lot of that lately. Probably because, when I’m not blogging these #writersbootcampZA posts, I’m writing about things in the past. My past.

Sometimes, a face from a certain time will flash in my mind and open up doors to chambers and boxes that have been sealed these many years. It’s happening more and more now, because I’ve chosen to open some of them up myself and look inside.

It’s funny how I find myself longing for someone else who was there, to remember it with me, even though they were not my friends. Not really, anyway. It’s another one of those things about growing up in a crappy situation; Your friends are chosen for you by the circumstances you find yourself in. Like the ugly girl in a small town who’s got the whole town’s boys chasing after her, because she’s pretty much the only eligible girl in town.

But then, the right combination of melody and lyrics has always been able to transport me to faraway times and places, and make me miss people I’ve never even met. And much of the music of my childhood is like that. There was a passion in music writing in the last three or four decades of the 1900’s that seems to have been lost in the Noughties…

So I long. I long for songs that make my mind tumble down the rabbit hole; I long for the people I imagine my fellow inmates at the Leeudoringstad reform school became; I long for the girl I used to be, for her drive and determination and spirit; I long for my father, who will never know his grandchildren; I long for the right words – the write words – with a longing more clear to me and more desperate in the seeking as I complete more and more of these bootcamp posts…

It may serve me well, this longing, in time. It may take me back to a place in myself where the words are free and I am unfiltered, unrestrained in my expression of things. Until then, here comes the next bootcamp post…