When “Show and Tell” Helps Write Only Part of the Story

The mantra of creative writing, “show, don’t tell,” is sound advice. Readers of fiction often become bored when told all the thoughts, feelings and motivations of characters. They may even feel insulted that the writer thinks they’re too dim-witted to figure out that Marcie is jealous or that Nancy is hurt. So writers are told to show this through the character’s actions, words and demeanor.

But when it comes to non-fiction and particularly in the personal essay or memoir, everything changes. For nonfiction writers there’s much more than just showing. Phillip Lopate, who literally, wrote the book on the personal essay, offers pointed advice in his newest manuscript: To Show and To Tell (2013, Simon and Schuster).

He’s saying that writers of nonfiction first need to show by dramatizing events. But it doesn’t end there; he stresses the importance of stopping and thinking about what the events of the essay mean.

“If writers do everything in scenes and dialogue, they’re not using one of the most powerful tools of memoir and essay, which is reflection – making sense of the experiences.”

Without reflection, with only showing, it’s like writing with one hand behind your back. There’s a need for what he calls “writerly curiosity.” For example, through the essays of Emerson and Montaigne we see writers grappling from sentence to sentence, trying to make sense of issues and being surprised with the results.

Lopate says this “curiosity is endlessly generative and regenerative.” Lots of reading in this genre will help writers explore how nonfiction theory works in practice. His classic volume, The Art of the Personal Essay (1995, Random House) can seem overwhelming with its 774 pages; but the book’s introduction is a mini-seminar in the form and it’s given me the go-ahead to include my deepest thoughts and observations into my work.

Lopate generally shys away from rules but still has found at least one he attests to; it has to do with ambivalent self-reflection. “Ambivilence means….you’re not so sure what you think, and you’re able to think against yourself. The essay feeds on doubt, skepticism and ambivalence. When you argue with yourself, and think against yourself, it makes for a richer, more complex discourse.“

So, it’s okay to be unsure of how I feel about the family secrets that gnaw at me. It’s acceptable to be uncertain at the beginning just how the piece will turn out or which side I’ll take. Once I got past all my childhood ordeals, I found I could use this curiosity to write the rest of the story. And maybe that turned out to be the best part.

Now, I find I have much more to say in my already extensive writing about my rocky father/daughter relationship. The conflicts hashed and rehashed in my early writing have been expanded into thoughtful revelations.

Our debates/arguments about the state of the world have helped develop my critical thinking skills. I learned early to defend my opinion and not be easily shut down. His insistence and determination have instilled values in organization and saving. It turns out Dad’s strict adherence to his rules has taught me some valuable life lessons and incorporating his values into my own life has paid off well.

And as a writer, being open to the uncertainty of what I think, feel and understand has added to the depth of my writing. What a relief to know that it’s quite okay to not know anything for sure and to work that out on the page.


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