Show and Tell

I took a long bus ride last Saturday, from Long Island to upstate New York (6 hours). I like long bus rides; they are especially good for shaking me out of a rut and for the past week I’ve been in deep rut territory, stuck on the same two pages of text in my Damn France Book, spinning my mental wheels trying to figure out how to write about my favorite town in Normandy.  (By the way, I sent the manuscript of That Damn France Book to my agent a few weeks ago and she said she loved the changes I’d made to focus the narrative and she’s sent it to my editor who has sent us word that so far, the editorial committee’s opinion is that they don’t hate it , for now…but  I’m writing on, as if the publishing gods  were kneeling at my feet begging me to rescue literature from its doldrums.)

The trick to writing about a favorite place is to write about a favorite place without ever announcing  “This is my favorite place.”  Because if your reader comes to a paragraph that starts with the sentence “This is my favorite place,”  her eyeballs will drop right out of her head from a sudden, violent, excruciating attack of boredom.

You know this is true. You know this is true because you,  reader extraordinaire, have had to scoop up your own dead-from-boredom eyeballs  after having to read the kind of lazy writing that tells you information rather than shows you:  This is my favorite place TELLS you nothing more than the one measly fact that the writer has a favorite place in the world (and you, reader extraordinaire, are screaming in agonized boredom:   Big  *%##@**  Deal! Everybody and their moron sister-in-law has a favorite place in the world! Some people even call Branson Missouri their favorite place in the world!  Having a favorite place in the world doesn’t make you special or interesting! Stop wasting my time! ).

The reader extraordinaire wants a writer to show WHY that place, of all places, is that writer’s favorite place in the world. The reader extraordinaire wants the writer to describe that place in detail, with personal insight (back story) and humor and history and luscious sensual itemized particulars. Because then the reader extraordinaire can decide  for herself what kind of place that place is — and decide for herself what kind writer chooses that place as her favorite place (is this a writer I can stand spending a book with? ). The reader extraordinaire likes to be actively involved with the text this way –  thinking, weighing, judging, empathizing, challenged by new ideas, disabused of prejudices, etc.

The ordinary reader , on the other hand, likes  to read sentences that tell rather than show – the ordinary reader likes to be told what is funny, beautiful, sad, interesting, etc.,  because the ordinary reader doesn’t trust her own judgement. Or doesn’t care. Or is just stupid. I wish I wrote for ordinary readers. They are so easy to please…

So I was stuck, trying to figure out how to show that persnickety reader extraordinaire why this place (Bayeux) is my favorite place in the world and I was getting no where so I got on a bus and went to upstate New York.

That photo [above] is Kingston, New York ; the half-way point between Long Island and upstate New York. The bus stopped at a red light and I looked out into that rainy dreary Saturday and I thought Jeeze. Is that the loneliest place in Kingston, New York or what?

But the camera’s flash made it look too spiffy. Here’s what it looked like for real (without flash):

And here’s why I went to upstate New York:

This is Florence White. After getting her BS degree in Home Economics from the University of Vermont in 1943 and returning home to marry another teacher who became the superintendent of schools, Florence taught homemaking to high school and college girls until she retired about two decades ago. Florence is 88 years old and has recently written a memoir about growing up in a small town in rural upstate New York.

My aunt took a copy of  Florence’s memoir (one of 70 self-published manuscripts) to the local historical society, where it was  a big hit. We went to visit Florence to give her the news and Florence exclaimed “Oh! You don’t know how happy that makes me! I could cry!”

I’ve read Florence’s memoir; she is a natural-born writer in that she shows her story, and does not tell it.  Her memoir is a collection of anecdotes about the people and events of her childhood — and for all the drawbacks of that kind of loose story structure as far as its appeal to a mass readership [memoir structure is something I would love to discuss in the near future] the thing Florence does totally right is that she never starts a story by telling the reader: This is a funny story that happened when I was five.” (And believe me, I’ve read a lot of self-published memoirs that do just that.)  Instead, Florence simply writes the story, trusting that the humor and her language skills will show the reader why this story is funny. I laughed out loud more than once.

“A lot of people talk about writing their life story,” Florence told us, “But I’m so proud of myself that I actually sat down and DID it!”

And that’s the first Lesson For The Day: Stop talking about it. Park Your Butt Down and WRITE. Florence White says so.

The second Lesson For The Day is: Show, Don’t Tell.  The next time you’re reading something that annoys you, ask yourself if it’s because the writer has mistaken you for an ordinary reader and is telling you what she should be showing you. And the next time you’re reading something that captures your heart or mind, ask yourself if it’s because the writer is showing you something that a hack would have simply told you about. 

Oh, by the way, yes; the long bus ride did give me some new ideas about how I can write about my favorite place in the world without telling about it. And I’m going to spend the rest of my day proof reading what I’ve written about my favorite place in the world not from my own starry-eyed, self-smitten, delicate [in other words, a writer's] point of view, but from the cranky, demanding, easily-bored point of view of a reader extraordinaire.

But I might have to take a time out to watch the hobos in the back yard. They have Spring Fever like crazy.

3 comments to Show and Tell

  • Barbara Lemme

    Excellent advice!! Now I need to read what I write with that in mind. Writing is very hard when we want folks to see what we see and feel what we feel. We may not even feel that way about things on another day or in another year. Let people discover what they want.

  • As usual, wonderful advice. Now if I would just do it. Would we be able to get a copy of Florence’s book?

  • Place. Place. Place. For me, it always comes back to–and down to–place. Whether it’s a favorite town in Normandy or your sister’s closet where you go to wrap yourself in her important big-girl clothes, get place right and your character (you) will have something to do. I’m having Linda Lappin, a novelist who gives workshops on place (in Italy and Greece!) as a guest on my blog tomorrow. Drop by for a biscotti and a writing exercise.

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