Getting a Word in Edgewise

DeLauné Michel, author of Aftermath of Dreaming and The Safety of Secrets, is hosting my blog again today. She let me choose which of her articles to post, and I couldn’t bear to pass up either “How Do You Choose? Or Why I Wrote This Novel,” which I posted yesterday, or this article, so she graciously agreed to let me use both. I hope you enjoy her story as much as I do.

In the French Catholic world where I grew up in South Louisiana, there was only one ritual more important than Sunday Mass, and that was the dinner hour. True to our heritage and locale, in the house that I grew up in, dinner was the most important time of day, partly for the food – my Momma’s incredible Creole cuisine – but mostly for the conversation. Or should I say storytelling. Because that’s what it was: long, detailed, funny, and illuminating stories. And God forbid you didn’t have one.

My father started first. Every night, my four older sisters (yes, four, and no brothers!) and I would sit quietly, eating our dinner while Daddy told Momma about his day. We were expected to pay attention. We were expected to learn and understand what Daddy did running the insurance company, which I never did until a few years ago. But we were not expected to be part of that conversation.

Then Momma talked about her day. My mother had her own life of running the Arts Council and working on her Ph. D. and writing, but at this point, we were more than just a silent audience because we were actually players in some of the stories of her day.

Then finally it was our turn. All five of us. And let’s just say that with four extremely verbal, intelligent and expressive older sisters, getting a word in edgewise was not an easy feat. So I didn’t. At all.

Finally when I was about six, Momma and Daddy realized that I rarely-to-never spoke at the dinner table, so in an effort at equality and to stave off me being a future dinner-party-mute, they enforced a new rule: Every night, I was to get my own time to talk with no interruptions, no cutting off, no shouting over. Ready? Go!

There I was: the youngest at the table, the one with the least schooling, the least experience, and the least stories as it were, but with the time to talk. I cannot think of this memory without a visceral sense of four bodies literally sitting on their hands with their mouths clamped shut. And possibly bored. Or indulging. But regardless, I got to talk, to tell the story of my day. And boy, did I. From the beginning. Because to me it was very clear that each event flowed to the next and the next wasn’t possible without what proceeded it so how could I tell them about the red-headed woodpecker at the park with Gracie Mae if I didn’t tell them how hard it was to decide which shorts to wear that day, purple or pink?

It never really got much easier to talk at that dinner table, and when I got older, the enforcing of that nightly rule fell away, and I either fought my way in to the conversation or I didn’t, but something amazing had happened. I was able to feel what it was like to have the time and the space to be heard.

As far back as my memory goes, I always knew that I would be writer. I come from a family of writers: my mother, my first cousin Andre Dubus (House of Sand and Fog), and another cousin is James Lee Burke, so that world has always been around me. But that experience at the dinner table is what made me need to write, and made me keep writing. I need to be heard, and doesn’t everyone? Even if it is only on a piece of paper or a computer screen. And if I’m not interrupted, if someone reads my stories, that is a glorious bonus. But what’s most important is that I give that time and space to myself in the dinner party of my life.

It’s no surprise that Spoken Interludes, the reading series that I produce in NY and LA, is basically a reconstruction of the dinner table. People come together, have a meal, and writers tell a story by reading their work.

So, if you pick up The Safety of Secrets, I’d love to hear what you think. And it’s okay to interrupt me. Promise.

7 Responses to “Getting a Word in Edgewise”

  1. Bertram Says:

    But what’s most important is that I give that time and space to myself in the dinner party of my life. What a lovely way to describe your writing experience.

    Thank you for hosting again. This article really tugged at me the first time I read it, and I’m pleased that you allowed me to share it.

  2. xelene Says:

    DeLaune, Your story really touched me. Thank you for letting Pat post your inspiring article to Bertram’s Blog.

  3. DeLauné Michel Says:

    Thank y’all so much. I often feel that I am writing in a vacuum, so am always happily surprised when people read it, and even better, relate to it!! Pat, thank you for this lovely opportunity to be able to connect.

  4. Aaron Lazar Says:

    DeLaune (sorry I can’t get the accent to show up in the comments here!): what a lovely story. I could just picture you at that dinner table, bursting with stories and words and wanting to get a moment in the spotlight. Delightful piece! So glad you now have all the time in the world to be heard! Best of luck with your books. ;o)

  5. Dorothy Says:

    Great story! What a great way to learn self expression and to test the extent of your imagination. I think its a beautiful story and an excellent lesson in the necessity of constantly using your imagination.

  6. Yosis Says:

    DeLaune, I suspect I may not be the only person curious about the origin of your beautiful name (?). Your article portrays the polar opposite large-Catholic-family-dinner-hour experience than I had as a child (parents and siblings who actually listened??), but that contrast only underscores the point: We all want to have the time and the space to be heard. Thank you for sharing!

  7. DeLauné Michel Says:

    Thanks for these lovely comments, y’all. It is great to hear that so many people relate! I was named for Helene DeLauné, the first woman over from France on my mother’s side of the family. Helene DeLauné was in the court of Marie Antoinette and her husband, Jules Andre, fought in the French Revolution. Antoinette gave Helene DeLauné jewels to help her and her husband escape to South Louisiana, a far cry from the court of France! As a child, I often thought of her when things got rough, as I imagined that what she went through must have been pretty awful, so it gave me strength. hope y’all have a great week.


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