On small talk
Sam and Anna meet on the sidewalk in front of their apartment building. Sam is coming home. Anna is on the way out. It's strange because over breakfast Sam told Anna that he would be home all day, while Anna told Sam that she would be at work all day. What are they keeping from one another?
I read this scenario out loud to the writing workshop I teach on Thursday afternoons. The fifteen or so students sat in their places around several medium-sized tables, which were made up of smaller pentagon-shaped tables pushed together. The first week of class I struggled to re-arrange the tables into one large circle. Three students helped me, one of whom was an engineering student. "Stop one minute," she said, and stood back from the tables, assessing their geometry, and then piecing the tables together like a puzzle according to some principle I couldn't fathom. She had since dropped out of the class and I had given up re-arranging the tables, which had coalesced into a kind of patchwork, meaning that some students now sat with their backs to me, craning their necks to listen to the scenario I was inventing about Sam and Anna.
I asked the students if they understood the scenario. They silently nodded or stared blankly into space. I reminded myself that these people wanted something from me—to learn how to write stories, but also to be recognized. I told the students that they would each write a conversation between Sam and Anna made up entirely of dialogue. No scene setting. No narration. No description. No speech tags. Just line after line of speech. The point of the scenario, I said, is that it contains the potential for conflict. And that dialogue should contain conflict, or at least tension, because that is how we get to know a character. "That's why small talk is fine in life but useless in a story," I said.
One young woman, who wore an orange face mask and who usually only spoke when pointing out grammatical errors in other peoples' stories, put up her hand. I nodded in her direction. "I disagree," she said. I asked about what. She said that in her opinion we all secretly wish that we were born with everything we would ever need to know already in our heads, entirely self-reliant and with no need for language. But instead we have to speak to others to learn things and get what we want. This, she said, is deeply humiliating and over a lifetime this endless humiliation builds into resentment and misanthropy. Few people are able to admit how much they actually hate speaking, and other people, though, and they become masters at covering this depressing reality up through conversational flourish and interpersonal style. "That's what small talk is," she said. "And whether people do it, or how people do it, probably reveals the most about who they really are."
Against Joie de Vivre, an essay by Phillip Lopate
My Father Addresses Me On the Facts of Old Age, a story by Grace Paley
The Double Standard of Aging, an essay by Susan Sontag