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“Show AND Tell” vs. “Show DON’T Tell”

Show and Tell

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.

About ilona fried

Writer, Feldenkrais trainee, and explorer of internal and external landscapes.

6 comments on ““Show AND Tell” vs. “Show DON’T Tell”

  1. Jessica
    March 6, 2011

    Great post, Ilona – I too, was not prepared for the rigor, challenge and soul-bearing in 200 words or less…but what a great (and fleeting) 4 weeks it was! 🙂 Still wondering about that perfect “balance” as I think of the multitude of paragraphs Dickens used to describe a hat in one of his books and I can remember thinking…”Get to the point, already!” The class was also an exercise in something else for me…patience. 🙂

  2. Bill Henderson
    March 7, 2011

    You guys were very good sports to do those exercises and stick to the word limit! There was some amazing writing in that class. I wish we could have continued. Following the class’s suggestion, I’m now thinking of doing a four-weeker on “artful telling.”

  3. andreadupree
    March 7, 2011

    Totally envious that you all got to extend Kindergarten into the dark depths of adulthood. What a great class! This would have been the perfect chance for me to “overwrite” that memory I have–Kindergarten, Las Cruces, New Mexico, I took in the little stuffed animal, a long-nosed brown mole, my dad had given me for my birthday to show and tell. We sat in a circle on the Big Red Rug. While it was being passed around to my delighted peers, the teacher asked me his name, and I told her. My father had picked it out. “His name’s Turd,” I said proudly. Her face drained of color–it was spectacular. Oh, the fun and innocence of childhood.

    • ilona
      March 7, 2011

      Hilarious! Do you still have this Turd?

      • andreadupree
        March 8, 2011

        Sadly, Turd was a victim of my peripatetic lifestyle. Lost somewhere between Berkeley, Las Cruces, and Denver. Sorry, I have to go cry.

  4. Sharon Carroll
    March 10, 2011

    My sympathies, Andrea…. Moving back from Turd to Bill (somehow that doesn’t sound right!), it was an amazing class (telling). It was a class act of learning with excellent handouts and literary examples, as well as Bill’s witty, patient, and warm ways of teaching us to think and read deeply and write purposefully. It was the icing on the cake (showing)! Thank you, Bill. And thank you, Ilona, for such a great writeup about it!

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This entry was posted on March 6, 2011 by in Delusions, Member dispatches, Writing.

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