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How to Use Showing and Telling in a Personal Essay

19 Apr
In this essay at the Washington Post, Melissa Stephenson tells the story of how running helped her cope with being a single mom

In her essay at the Washington Post, Melissa Stephenson tells the story of how running helped her cope with the stress of being a single mom.

The personal essay genre can be found across the Internet and in print magazines, and because of these many outlets, the form has given writers from many different backgrounds and experiences the chance to tell their stories. These many voices have led to a lot of innovation within the genre, yet when I teach structure in the personal essay, I try to show how almost every essay contains certain elements: a narrative, sure, but also passages revealing context (explaining how the reader should understand the narrative) and emotional importance (showing why the narrative matters to the people involved). The question becomes this: How does a writer weight each of these elements and arrange them? What is the focus of the essay?

A great place to find one answer to these questions is Melissa Stephenson’s essay, “As a mom, I couldn’t afford to fall apart after my divorce. Then running saved me.” It was published in The Washington Post, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay begins by introducing two clear problems: 1) the writer is a newly single mom and in need of a way to manage the stress of the situation, and 2) her preferred coping mechanism, running, has become difficult due to knee pain. Then, the essay gives context for this situation. In the past, she dealt with problems in a particular way (“I drank too much, stayed up late listening to music, cried when I wanted and left the house for hours on a whim.”). Now, though, that approach isn’t possible because she has kids. She doesn’t have “the luxury of falling apart.”

We’re mostly not shown this information but, rather, told it. This runs counter to one of the basic workshop lessons: show, don’t tell. Yet this is impractical advice. Telling is essential to storytelling (see what I did there?). The opening of the essay grabs our attention through statements of fact—facts that that reveal the conflict faced by the writer.

The essay continues telling us things, most importantly that Stephenson continues running but also seeks medical care, eventually entering and finishing a half marathon. It’s a moment that reveals the emotional importance of the essay: “No one came to meet me at the finish line. Perhaps it’s the lesson I needed: You’re in this by yourself. Single. Solo. Alone.”

But this moment comes only a third of the way into the essay. Most of the attention is paid to Stephenson’s second marathon and the successes and challenges she encounters during it. Here’s why this is interesting from a craft standpoint: for the most part, we don’t learn anything in the course of the race that don’t already know. She needs to run, experiences pain, and fights through it, all of which we’ve already been told. What the race does, then, is show us Stephenson’s experience of these things. It’s one thing to tell a reader that you need to run and are willing to fight through pain and sorrow to do it, but it’s quite another to show it.

And what gets shown? Details of the pain and race but also details of Stephenson’s thoughts during the pain:

That familiar tightening seized my right knee — a pain I’d spent three years eradicating. For an entire mile I processed a single, circular thought: Is that my knee? No. It’s just a glitch. I’m just settling in. But wait. That is my knee. Is that my hip? And my knee?

Showing doesn’t only mean descriptions of setting and character. It can also mean simply slowing down, settling into a moment.

Stephenson uses telling to set up the conflict that she intends to show the reader. Without the telling, the reader might not care as much about the marathon, and without the showing, the essay would lose a great deal of emotional punch. Both are necessary.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use showing and telling to set up and dramatize a narrative:

  1. Introduce a problem and solution. Stephenson does this in both her title and first paragraph. Try using her title as a model: “As a ___, I couldn’t ____ (or needed to ____). ___ saved me.” While Stephenson was writing a personal essay, this exercise can work with fiction as well, even third-person stories.
  2. Introduce a problem with the solution. Stephenson’s solution is running, but her knee hurts. We don’t get a lot of details about it at the beginning, only that it involves arthritic pain. More detail—showing the reader this pain—wouldn’t really advance the essay at this point. The point is that the pain makes it difficult to run. So, introduce something that makes your solution difficult to pursue. Don’t worry about describing it in detail.
  3. Introduce emotional importance. Stephenson does this with a statement of fact—”No one came to meet me at the finish line”—and a direct statement of what that fact meant to her: “Perhaps it’s the lesson I needed: You’re in this by yourself. Single. Solo. Alone.” So, find a moment or fact that clearly conveys a clear emotion. Stephenson felt alone. The feeling was so profound that she was forced to grapple with it. How do you—or your character—grapple with the emotional fact?
  4. Use a narrative to show everything you’ve introduced. So far, we’ve been telling the reader things. Now it’s time to show the reader. Stephenson does this with a blow-by-blow account of her second marathon. It presents the problem and solution and obstacle (pain) in detail and also gives her thought process as she experienced each one. Earlier, she was telling the reader what the situation is, but now she is showing what the situation felt like. So, find a narrative (an extended story or an anecdote) that can be told with descriptions of exterior and interior details that will show your readers everything you just told them.

The goal is to use telling to establish a situation (problem, solution, obstacles) and then to use showing to reveal the what the situation felt like—the experience of it.

Good luck.

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