Part 1: First, Step Back

I have a client whom I shall call Victoria. She is person who comes to writing after a very successful career in another realm. She has a story she is burning to tell that is set in that other realm.  She had been working on it for years before she came to me – taking classes, going to workshops, completing whole drafts that somewhere deep in her bones she knew were lacking. They just didn’t have the depth, the oomph, or the power of the books she loved as a reader, and she couldn’t understand why. She had a great idea, a clever setup, a clear vision of the story, a command of the English language, and big passion for what she was doing. So what was missing?

Note that Victoria happens to be writing fiction, but this same process happens all the time with non-fiction, too, and everything I am saying here applies to all genres. I’m calling this Part 1 because I already know it’s going to be really long and I have a lot to say that I think is critically important, and I want to touch on all genres in a specific way, so there’s going to be a Part 2 and probably Part 3…

So Victoria and I did what I usually do with new clients who are deep in frustration: we went back to square one, to the origin of her story – the spark that first fired in her brain. We dug down into what her story was really about, and to what she was really trying to say, and to how the character could embody that idea.  It turns out that she  only had a vague  and general idea of what she wanted to say, which is kind of like having a vague and general idea of where to pour the foundation for a house. (In non-fiction, we would go through this exact same process, but instead of a character embodying the idea, a structure or argument would embody it.)

Victoria gamely took on every assignment I gave her, and it seemed like we were cracking the code of the story – she got it in a way she hadn’t before -- and then she began to write scenes again, trying to nail down where her story should start. In fiction and memoir, this is the moment when the character first becomes aware that the clock is ticking, when the teeter-totter has tipped, when change is imminent and unavoidable. In non-fiction, it’s about your reader’s point of greatest pain, the place where their problem or need is most clear, the moment where your ability to help or serve or guide meets their deepest desire.

Victoria kept not getting it. She kept writing scenes that were flat, she kept lapsing into backstory, she kept telling the reader everything rather than showing it and letting it unfold. I would say, “Give us more emotion here, show us more, let us in more,” and she would give more backstory, sometimes pages of backstory, because she did, after all, finally understand the story. I would then say, “No, that’s too much information. The reader doesn’t want all that right now. Prune it back.”

A few days ago, Victoria got mad at me. I mean, not really. She’s a super sweet person. But she said, “You keep telling me the opposite thing! I guess I have no idea what you mean.” (And of course, along with this admission came a wave of doubt for Victoria -- maybe I’m just not good at this, maybe  I will just never get it, maybe I can’t do it…)

We were on the phone at this point, and I took some time to explain to her exactly what show don’t tell means, and exactly the skills a writer needs as they edit their work.  To wit:

1.     Show don’t tell is not literal. It’s not about the color of the sky and the clock on the wall and the bowl of lemons on the table. It’s about meaning. It’s about emotion. It’s about letting the reader FEEL what the people on the page are feeling, letting them be in their skin, letting them experience what they are experience as things unfold.  And yes, this absolutely applies to non-fiction. I am currently reading Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto – a stunning book about complexity and failure – and he is a master at show don’t tell, both with the examples he gives, and with his own curiosity and quest. We can feel what drives him. We can feel what he feels. We are with him as he drives his point forward.

Another word about show don’t tell.  Checkov famously said “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” I sometimes wonder if this isn’t where the show don’t tell misunderstanding originated. Because YES, please don’t just tell us about the moon, show us the light of it. That’s very good. But writers take this to an extreme and they take it to mean, I shall now show you the sun and the moon and the curtains on the window and the couch in the room with the hand embroidered pillows and the dust bunnies under the couch. But look more carefully at Checkov’s quote: The glint of light on broken glass. That broken glass is not just a random physical detail. That’s spotlighting something that matters in the story. Broken glass?? And is there blood? Did something bad happen? Why? To whom? Seven words and already you have the start of a story.

Checkov also said, "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." This quote is actually a more accurate encapsulation of the show don’t tell concept. What he’s saying is, show us what matters and (equally critical) don’t show us what doesn’t matter. What he’s saying is, let us into the world where we can see and feel what matters. That’s what show don’t tell is really about

2.     A writer must hold multiple perspectives in her head when she edits, which means that she must first step back from the action/emotion/mindset/perspective of the writer. This is THE key editing skill, THE key revision skill, THE key concept you need to master to hook and keep your reader.  Writing is a completely different undertaking than editing – it’s creation, it’s about flow, it’s often unconscious, we often have no idea why we write what we write – and that is as it should be. But once you step back to assess and improve the work (which you should be doing regularly – before you start to write, actually, and habitually as you go on. Getting to the end of a rough draft without ever having stopped to think about what you are doing, and why, and if it is working, is a recipe for disappointment if not disaster), you have to consider multiple perspectives. Those perspectives include:

  • You, the writer, the creator, the architect, the god of your story.
  •  You, the person who has lived a long life, who brings a billion experiences to bear on the  work, the person who has opinions and biases and the burden of all kinds of knowledge.
  •  The reader, for whom you are crafting an experience or an argument.
  •  In fiction, the characters, who themselves have lived long lives, bring a billion experience  to bear on their life, who have opinions and biases and the burden of all kinds of  knowledge

Victoria suddenly said, “WAIT! This is exactly the same thing my cello teacher has been telling me! I totally get it now!”

I am privileged to hear all kinds of revelations about the creative life, but this one was new to me. How could a cello teacher be talking about the same thing?

Victoria explained:

He asks me to isolate and identify issues, which requires me to listen while I'm playing.  Harder than it sounds, trust me. The (impossible) goal is to listen to a recording of my own playing and not notice anything amiss in the recording that I didn't notice while I was playing.  He asks me to focus on the following separately when practicing until I can integrate them all:

  1. Tone
  2. Pitch 
  3. Tempo
  4. Phrasing 
  5. Articulation (how the notes connect)

There are other things, too – how you old your hands, how you bow, the emotion you are trying to convey. I am not a musician, but my sister is a professor of music theory, and I grew up playing piano and flute and singing in the church choir so I at least have a working knowledge of these concepts – and this suddenly made perfect sense to me.

Although any of us can make music and have a grand old time by banging on a drum or belting out a Disney song, to make really good music that makes people feel something requires an understanding of the layers and nuances of some very complex concept. And the only way for most people (those who aren’t native geniuses) to gain that understanding is to break it down – to strip the music apart – so that you can build it back up as one integrated whole.

The same is true for writing. In order to write like a virtuoso, you need to break down the work and evaluate it from each of the perspectives.

  •  Am I, the god of my story, imposing my will on it to too high a degree?
  • Am I, the person who has lived a long life, failing to consider what the reader doesn’t know about my world?
  • Am I, the person serving a reader, understanding their experience of every moment – knowing when they might have a question, when they might pick up a clue, when they might not be able to put the book down because of what I have promised will happen next?
  • Am I, the creator of these characters, considering what they know and what they fear and what they want and what their life experiences are bringing to bear on this piece.

Sounds quite impossible, right? It’s not. It can be learned. One of the greatest compliments I get from my students is when they say that they begin to hear my voice in their heads. Because it’s not really MY voice they hear – it’s theirs. They are just using mine to access theirs, to build up theirs. Hearing me continually asking, “Why, why, why, why, why?” or “What do you mean?” or  “And so?” (which is to say, why should we care?) becomes a habit, and through that habit, the writer begins to integrate all the perspectives they need to write excellent work.

What I am going to attempt to do in my next few posts is to explain more about each of the perspectives, and attempt to show you how this all works.

For the record, the cello teacher Victoria refers to is Steven Polage, a Juliard graduate who teaches at the University of Oregon. That is his photo, above.

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