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Remember early elementary school, where “Show and Tell” was a chance to bring your pet rock, a stamp collection or the shed skin of a snake and talk to your classmates about it? Being a writer of non-fiction, I can’t (knowingly) tell a lie and must confess that my only memory of “Show and Tell” was of what I was NOT allowed to bring to school; I had found a dead animal, probably a bird, in our yard and thought it would be a very cool thing to introduce to my fellow five year olds. Some sane adult gently pointed out that it might not be such a smart idea to carry a carcass to the classroom, and so my career as a “Show AND Tell”-er, much like the remains of that bird, never got off the ground.
Life, however, presented me with a second chance…of sorts. I recently completed a Lighthouse workshop to learn how to become a “Show DON”T Tell”-er. Novelist and instructor William Haywood Henderson led more than a dozen of us – a potpourri of poets, novelists, short storyists and non-fictioneers – in a rigorous exploration of text where we analyzed each word, phrase and paragraph for the meaning and emotion that was being shown and not explicitly told. Since it was a relatively large group and we only had four weeks, I thought we’d get away with not having to expose our own prose to such intense and focused scrutiny, that the class would be a bit of a vacation when it came to actually writing. Well, I was wrong. Not only that, he gave us challenging exercises that we had to execute using 200 or fewer words.
Perhaps we get what we deserve (or need), because my assignment was to follow a character through a decision-making moment without stating the thought process. As someone whose writing is heavily tilted toward revealing what is/was going through my head at various times, I was initially stumped. How would it be possible to show and not tell the inner workings of my mind, which even I don’t always understand? (which is why I write it all down in the first place…) And in less than one page? The pressure was on. I decided it would be easier to turn “me” into a “she”, to establish some distance and create someone else on the page. I have to admit, it was fun to pretend to be a novelist and make some of the stuff up, especially as I was writing about a woman on a date whose feelings toward the man change from cool to warm. However, in trying to show this evolution while being a stickler about the word limit, things leapfrogged from cool directly to hot, which was not intentional. But it gave everyone – myself included – a good laugh, which is much more than I could have expected from my kindergarten class had I insisted on schlepping that poor bird to school.