Showing and Telling
And, Breaking the Rules
I’m here to tell you not to listen to anyone’s advice about writing. That includes the bullshit like, “don’t tell me, show me…”
“…if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.”
― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
And there are as many kinds of writers as there are hearts and minds.
The idea of showing rather than telling is attributed to Anton Chekhov, who wrote in a letter to his brother, “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.” I would have to agree that this description is more provocative than, “a moonlighty night” (Frank Zappa). But I also like moonlighty.
The other night we were at a restaurant, joking about the descriptions of craft beers on the menu: “earthy, with notes of juniper and citrus,” and upon asking the server for clarification, she said, you know, it’s a danky kind of beer. Danky? I protested, saying that only forests could be danky. Everyone knows that. The point is, people get away with murder when it comes to language.
Let’s have a look at Hemingway. He said: There is no rule on how to write. Now, that sounds radical, doesn’t it? And yet, that line was carefully crafted in iambic tetrameter (there IS no RULE on HOW to WRITE). It is a beautiful sentence. And it’s a perfect example of Modernism: minimal, with notes of orthodoxy. Like architecture designed on the maxim that “less is more.”
Modernism is appealing, especially in uncertain, complicated times. And yet, art needs to reflect the period in which it is written. If a writer is connected to the world, rooted in the history of her craft, and critical of the trends in the technology of communication, then she sits on a three-legged stool that will allow her to write in a meaningful way.
The best thing that you can do is write from your heart. Jack Kerouac believed in the purity of his stream of thought: “By not revising what you’ve already written you simply give the reader the actual workings of your mind during the writing itself: you confess your thoughts about events in your own unchangeable way . . . Well, look, did you ever hear a guy telling a long wild tale to a bunch of men in a bar and all are listening and smiling, did you ever hear that guy stop to revise himself, go back to a previous sentence to improve it, to defray its rhythmic thought impact…?”
Well, there you have an example of expressionism. The Jackson Pollack of writing.
Have you ever read any Postmodern writing? Good luck with “showing not telling.” You can’t even trust a word to do its job in that stuff. All the words are wannabes. It’s positively danky!
So, what do all of the brilliant writers have in common? They struck out on their own, breaking furniture and blazing trails. So do you, writer, follow in their footsteps? Or do you immerse yourself in life they way they did, and find your own voice? Don’t do as they say, do what they did. Blaze your trail and see where it leads.
If you have anything to say, anything you feel nobody has ever said before, you have got to feel it so desperately that you will find some way to say it that nobody has ever found before, so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter — as indissolubly as if they were conceived together (F. Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter Scottie). The key is having something to say, isn’t it? And it can be a small thing, or a large thing, as long as it shows us some understanding of the world, something that we can gain from your particular expression of experience.
In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen said, We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.