We Want Tone

This is me making use of an overheard conversation. I made up names (I didn’t know the names of the women anyway) and kept my notebook open as I wrote the following scene. I pulled a few direct quotes, but allowed the characters their own syntax too. This is the challenging part of fictionalizing overheard dialogue. You’re tempted to stick to the original, but straying allows better practice at writing dialogue. Combine characters, switch genders, cut chunks, add new lines, give verbal tics.

This exercise (scene? vignette? flash fiction?) prompted an idea. I want to see what happens when I remove the “___ says” and leave it largely to the reader to sort who says what. Can I write a piece that is only unattributed dialogue? I just want to see what it looks like. That said, the following is riddled with “___ says.”


Kelly leaves the gym she works at still dressed in the dark spandex tights and moisture-wicking shirt she put on that morning. She’s late to meet two prospective clients. They’re already at the coffee shop, sitting in the back. Jill nudges an iced latte across the table. “Skim, because I didn’t know what you preferred,” Jill says. Kelly shrugs, takes a drink. “Thank you.” She pulls her tablet from her tote bag and swipes the screen, opens a new note.

Jill and Abi

“I really need this,” says Jill, “I feel like a box after two kids. No waist. Look at this.” She half stands and runs her palms rib cage to hips. She sits and laughs. “Forty-eight kilos, but I want a waist again. I do crunches and I can see a little cut, but…”

“We want tone,” Abi says.

Kelly types Tone under their names. “Aside from your waist, any particular part of the body you want to tone?”

“I want a butt,” Jill says, “I used to dance. Watch me, when we start doing squats and lunges, my thighs will be like, so big. But I want a butt too. Like yours.”

Kelly has glutes. “Squats will give you a butt.”

“I have a butt,” Abi says, “And a belly.” She takes handfuls of her stomach rolls and laughs. “I’m mostly in this for health. Change, you know. She suggested it.”

“I really need a routine. I need to workout,” Jill says.


Kelly types. She looks up and smiles at each woman in turn. “I think I can help. We can meet two or three times a week. We will work with bodyweight movements and exercise first and progress to small weights.”

“How long is a session?” Abi asks.

“One hour.”

“I’m gonna die after ten minutes. Watch me, I’ll be like, begging to stop,” says Jill.

“You’ll be fine,” Kelly says.

“Do you do any nutritional consultation?” Abi asks.

“We can talk about food. Protein is important when you are exercising.”

“We saw your grilled chicken on Instagram,” Jill says.

“Yeah, we were looking you up. You eat really healthy,” says Abi.

Kelly isn’t surprised they looked her up. “I can give you a few recipes.”

“I love veg. Love love love veg,” Jill says, “Just so expensive here. I buy a lot of frozen. Steam it so the nutrients don’t leech.”

“I prefer raw,” Kelly says, “But, yeah, expensive. Especially organic.”

“Oh my God,” Jill says, “I bought a little tray of organic blueberries at Sultan and paid like twenty-three dollars. Not really, but at least eight or nine. Kids ate them like candy.”

“I can’t afford everything organic. Some things. I buy organic granola,” says Abi.

“I heard co-ops are good for produce,” Kelly says.

“Yes, totally. Go to co-ops,” Jill says.

“I started making green smoothies,” says Abi, “With kale.”

“Mmm,” says Kelly, “Good start to the day.”

“Great start. I eat a couple eggs too.”

“That’s good.”

“I thought egg was bad,” Jill says.

“No. Good,” says Kelly.

Jill laughs. “They’ll be bad again. I read that leeks can cause cancer. Everything is bad.”

“Except booze,” Abi says and the two friends laugh. “You should see her drink,” Abi says. Jill holds up her hands and says, “Guilty. Which is why we need you. I so need this.”

“Right,” says Kelly, “So let’s figure out what works for us. You need mats. I’ll set up a routine you can do with or without shoes.”

“Stinky feet!” Jill pokes Abi.

“It helps if we have room big enough to stretch your arms out side to side and not touch. I work with some clients who move their furniture for sessions. Is that okay?”

“Sure. Yeah. We need this. Look, I have no waist!” Jill half stands again. “I mean, I weigh forty-eight kilos and that means nothing if I’m not healthy.”

“Having a waist doesn’t mean you’re healthy,” Kelly says.

“So I get healthy and get a waist.”

“Sure, that can happen.”

“And a butt.”

“And a butt.”

“I just want to get in shape,” Abi says. She pulls her phone from her bag and opens the calendar. “I can do Saturdays.”

“Saturdays work,” Jill says, “And Mondays, I think.”

“What time?”

“Evening. Sevenish?”

Kelly types Nutrition. She checks her calendar. “Seven or seven-thirty works. You’ll go to bed tired.”

“I need more sleep. Maybe this will help,” Abi says.

“Probably will. Do you want a third session or just two?”

Jill and Abi look at one another. “I really need this,” Jill says. Abi shrugs. Jill looks at Kelly. “Can you squeeze a third in?”

“Wednesdays are open.”

“Okay. I’m so excited. You’ll see, my body just – muscle memory. I’m gonna die but I’ll look good.” Jill finishes her iced latte.

Kelly types Gonna Die. She closes her tablet, stands. Her shirt says Strong Is The New Sexy and Jill loves this. “I hadn’t even noticed,” Jill says, “I was looking at your arms and thinking how big your biceps are. Didn’t even read the shirt.”

“Hope for me,” Abi says.

Kelly smiles, holds up her empty coffee. “Thanks for this. I’ll see you ladies Saturday at seven.”

“Awesome. I’ll text directions,” Jill says.

“Awesome,” says Kelly.

Make Use

I went for coffee this afternoon, scanned the paper, and took out my notebook. One hour. That’s my usual writing rule when I’m at a coffee shop. Anything, but write it for one hour. I had a couple starts in the notebook but couldn’t think past the conversation three women were having at the next table.

This happens sometimes. Often, I can bury in my own head. But sometimes the next table over is worth transcribing. I write verbatim. I can’t catch everything, but I get enough. I write in list form, a new line for a new speaker. If you glanced at my notebook you might think I was drafting a poem.

I wanted to quit listening. I could have moved tables. But I sat there, hating the compulsion I felt to write this inane conversation about fitness and eating. They sucked down iced lattes and said organic every third word and wondered if leeks could give you cancer. They were meeting to sort out personal training: two of the women wanted the third to train them. “I really need this,” was a repeat phrase, as was, “I can eat anything and not gain weight. I’ve tried” from the most svelte who also said of her height and weight, “These numbers don’t mean anything if I’m not healthy.”

But those numbers meant enough she kept bringing them up. I thought I might point that out and ask if she’d swap shells with another woman present, all of us conventionally less pretty that her. I got judge-y. I thought maybe I should go, or at least quit writing it down.

But I couldn’t stop. They talked about Facebook, creeps at the gym, men who messaged them (the chunky friend doesn’t get this kind of harassment from strangers and the thinner one said, “You don’t want. It gets old”). They talked about bodies adapting to fasts, green smoothies, and the expense of raw vegetables. One of them admitted hating the little fat on her son and bemoaned the loss of a childhood like hers, when kids played outside until the streetlights came on. It was a ranging conversation dominated by the gorgeous woman with an inbox full of messages from gym creeps and finally circling back to how great it will be to start working out again.

They left. I looked over what I had. Two pages of lines pulled from a thirty minute conversation. I thought of Raymond Carver’s line: Make use.

Sunday Night

Make use of the things around you.
This light rain
Outside the window, for one.
This cigarette between my fingers,
These feet on the couch.
The faint sound of rock-and-roll,
The red Ferrari in my head.
The woman bumping
Drunkenly around in the kitchen . . .
Put it all in,
Make use.

I will, Raymond.

Running Vienna

When we arrived, I asked our host where he suggested I run. He took out a map and showed me the streets from our apartment to Schoenbrunn Palace and promised kilometers of garden paths. I went the next morning, a fifteen minute run to the palace gates which open to the public at 6:30am.

I loved it.

I said Thank you, God. This summer break, running outside was bliss. The cool morning temperatures, breeze, and occasional rain. I ran the park’s paths for an hour.

I wanted to explore Vienna on my morning runs too so the next routes were up Mariahilfer, through the Museum Quater and along Burg Ring and the Danube Canal. Nearly everything I found, I found by accident. I tried to remember what direction I came from and at some turns, made a note of graffiti or statuary. I got lost a lot. I ran farther than I meant to. When I approached someone for directions, I used the train station nearest our apartment as reference. One man laughed and said, “That is a long way away.” He made a zigzag with his hand and told me which street to watch for and I jogged away hoping he meant long for a walk.

One morning I planned to meet a new friend at Belvedere for a run through the gardens. I looked up the route and knew enough of the streets and landmarks to guess where to turn. I ran and ran and ran, heading toward Belvedere, going wide and getting lost in a maze of short streets and tall residence. I stopped to ask a woman in a parked van if she spoke English. No. “Belvedere?” I said. She nodded and drew a map in the air, said, “So. So. So-oo-oo. So.” I nodded and got lost again.

Map of Vienna

Getting lost was fine. I carried fifty cents for a public toilet and learned which ones were nicest. I rarely ran fast so hearing Westbonhof was a long way away didn’t worry me. I looked up. I doubled back to see if I recognized a landmark. Later in the day I showed Justin and the kids what I’d seen that morning.

But after a few days of running the city, even the quieter streets, I found myself leaving the center early, returning to fit twenty or thirty minutes of Schoenbrunn paths in my run. My last week of running was entirely Schoenbrunn. I arrived when the gates opened and ran the flat paths and the hill. I made up patterns and loops. I got rocks in my shoes. The tree archways made me happy. The rose garden made me happy. The old men sitting on benches made me happy. I get giddy around other runners after so many months on a treadmill. I nod. I smile. I sometimes run to catch up and hold a pace, just to play running partner for fifteen minutes.

Map of the park at Schönbrunn

I met one runner on our way to Schoenbrunn and we seemed matched enough in pace that we ran a long loop of the gardens together. I loved it! We met up again my last morning in Vienna, by chance, and ran a few lengths of the park together. She’d just returned to Vienna after a year of traveling. She mentioned the value of connecting with people from the place you’re visiting. Agreed. I was so glad to meet both of my Vienna running partners.

My last run through Schoenbrunn, I went by a motley collection of broken statuary and columns piled in an empty fountain. It’s the corner of Schoenbrunn opposite the zoo, probably ignored by most visitors. But after the tree archways, that mess of stone was my favorite part of the garden. The haphazard jam of the leftover pieces – the different colors, shapes and sizes of carved stone – is beautiful. I stopped one morning on my run down the hill, on a path behind the fountain. I stood and looked at the floral design of tiles on the arch. The carved faces. Giant chunks of column. Maybe those pieces find their places at the end of hidden paths. Maybe one day they are given their own benches for us to sit on and look at them and think how lovely. Maybe they just stay together, leaning long enough that the pose gets comfortable.

If I Lived Here

Justin and I spent our first Christmas in South America in Peru. The trip included a boat ride across Lake Titicaca and an overnight stay on an island. Our group was hosted by locals whose way of life felt a little staged as they shepherded us through coca tea and dancing. The town was losing its indigenous population as youth left the island for education and jobs. I have mixed feelings about discovering these rarer, simply sustained places and introducing TV and potato chips, but when the daughter of the house led Justin and I up a ladder to our tiny room, I thought I could be happy here.

There was a short bed piled with heavy blankets, a red plastic bucket under the bed for a night toilet, a sturdy table and chair and a small shelf. I woke in the middle of the night with a blinding altitude headache and drank a Coke, took a couple Tylenol. It was silent and dark. I lay under the weight of blankets, next to my husband and in the morning, climbed down the ladder, ate a bland breakfast prepared by the mother of the house. I stood in their kitchen the size of a closet, spooning porridge and thinking I might like shearing sheep. I could stay and make my own cooking fire. I would drink the cleanest air and swallow the brightest stars and write poetry that said just that.

Then I shouldered my pack and climbed back in the boat, leaving that small room with its table and chair.

I play this game when I travel: If I lived here. It’s usually a quick game. Playing Vienna: If I lived here, I would shop at Billa or Denn’s or Spar. If I lived here I would take a weekend trip to a lake. Claire and I would go to Cafe Sperl for the apple strudel. I would eat Zotter chocolate. I would bike to work and walk everywhere and buy only the groceries I could carry home.

But I don’t live here, the game ends.

Even so, when I travel, I absorb the everyday. I enjoy the regular. I wear long sleeves when I run in the morning chill. I walk the same quiet street to the same park where Claire and Grant swing and climb and slide. I order a beer at lunch, if I like. Justin buys the same bread because it is too good to bother trying another bakery. I make ham and cheese crepes for dinner. I sit at a white kitchen table, my bare feet on the parquet floor. When I glance up from my notebook, I see rooftops and a spire with a gold point.

I leave some places thinking I am not done with them, not yet. I may not return, but I am not done there either. That small room in Peru. The spire I see from this kitchen window.

Online Reading

Mike Pesca is hosting a new podcast called The Gist at Slate. One segment from a recent episode is about why we fail at online reading with guest Maria Konnikova who wrote an article for The New Yorker titled “Being a Better Online Reader.” I read it on my iPhone (I do a surprising amount of reading on that teeny tiny device), sitting at the table, conscious of what Konnikova said on Pesca’s podcast, that we tend to skim when reading on a device. I read. And then I glanced over at my laptop to update my iPod.

Very much illustrating one of Konnikova’s points that we are better at online reading if we manage to ignore distractions such as hyperlinks, sidebars and pop-ups. She also discusses how taxing it can be to switch from one website format to another: new font, new colors, new photos. Read Konnikova’s article, but the last idea that stays with me is how much easier it is to find information we read in a book because we remember that paragraph was near the top of a left page or in the middle of the book. Finding information we read online – unless bookmarked or highlighted – is much more difficult. Even so, I think we can read and glean as much online as in print if we are able to singularly focus on the reading.

Let me know what you think of Konnikova’s article, or tell me about your own print/online reading experience.


I Love You I Never Stopped: PostSecret Prompt


I tried. I tried to write a flash fiction piece from this Sunday Secret. I tried four or five times this week. It was like – I can’t think of a simile. It was like that. I couldn’t think of anything past first paragraphs. I tried a thirty-something narrator and then a teenage narrator. I wrote backstory. I jumped in the middle. I tried dialogue.

Keep writing, I wrote.

One more page, I wrote.

My one more page veered from the prompt.

I want this to work.

I will try again.