This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
This summer, I’ve gotten a lot of drinks. Drinks that cost more than my meal. Drinks that are smoked under glass cloches with dried citrus peels or topped with foamed egg whites that blister and pop on the surface. Drinks that are meant to be sipped over hours of conversation with new friends, or old friends you’ve known since kindergarten.
I like the formality of them. Even though I’ve spent far too much money on them—opening up my bank app and saying, out loud to myself, But where did it all go?—it feels nice to have something that grounds a night out, a sort of beautiful jewel for you to enjoy in the evening.
Rochester has a massive craft cocktail scene, and is even home to a week-long cocktail event where the entire city erupts in creativity and spirits. Restaurants will develop one or two signature drinks, and put on additional events to draw people in. It’s a time of the year where the bartender is the star, and where people are willing to try anything new that might glitter on their tongue.
But the best part of getting drinks is sitting down and talking to someone over them. I think that’s the beautiful thing about the beverage scene: they’re creating conversation starters, but they’re not trying to take over the moment. That first sip can lead to joy which can lead to exclamations. Or maybe you need the soft slip of alcohol you get with each passing sip that lets you warm up and calm down, opening yourself to that new person. It’s sort of an additional party. One that the scene builds around.
This week in the community hour writing session I host, one of the regulars, Dan, spoke to us about dialogue. He has the most amazing, realistic dialogue I’ve read in a long time. He’s a retired psychotherapist who used to work in prisons and since he started attending, he’s been working on a memoir about his decision to become a therapist, spanning the moment he talked something off a literal ledge in college, to questioning the purpose of what he was doing as an adult. With each chapter he brings in, I’m amazed by the way his voice adapts to the scene. It’s never trying hard, just flowing naturally.
This week he tells us about Charlie Chaplin. How even though he was a silent film actor, we know what he’s thinking by “listening with our eyes.” Dan argues that the most important things about Charlie were his distinguishing features, how he was able to use visualization and not spoken language to express himself. That’s what our dialogue needs, Dan says. The exterior bits that influence how we, as readers and writers, understand a line or sentence.
Dan asks us to close our eyes and breathe in twice. Then, he has us imagine our character and where they are, what their gestures are, demeanor, ticks specific to them. We pick one or two words to describe them, then open our eyes and get writing.
Some writing was done this week, but that’s not the point of this column. This column is to celebrate all the things we do for our writing even when we aren’t writing. And so, I suggest that’s getting summer drinks out on the bar patio with your friends or partner or both. Drinks that require slowness and gentle sips, so you can sit under the shaded sun and watch the people you love exist in that space. So you can pick up how they lift their sweaty glass and wipe the water along their brow for a moment of relief. So you can watch how they laugh and memorize that scrunch of their nose for when you write about it later.
I want getting drinks to be an exercise in character building, in intimately intertwining yourself with dialogue that feels natural because it is natural. Because you’re existing in the moment, listening to certain inflections and tones in someone’s voice.
Sometimes I wonder if I struggle with dialogue so much because I exist too in my head. Even when people talk, I’m wondering what I might say next to sound effortless but cool, to keep them interested in who I am. To invite me back for drinks next week. And so this suggestion does not come without instructions. You have to sit and listen, you have to be present in the moment. Take a sip of your drink and go full pretentious mode: savor the flavors and notes, pull out the intricacies.
The bartenders are artists, creating something to be momentarily cherished and absorbed. The same way we pour hours into single sentences that a future reader will power through, unable to, if we’re lucky, put the book down. It is fleeting, but beautiful while it lasts. Just like a good conversation.