Tag Archives: show don’t tell

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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An Interview with Roxane Gay

27 Jun
Roxane Gay is the author of X and the editor of X. She teaches at X.

Roxane Gay is the author of Ayiti, an editor at both The Rumpus and PANK, and a regular contributor at Salon, where this excellent piece about the Paula Deen controversy recently appeared..

When Roxane Gay claims in the bio on her website, that “I write things,” she’s not being vague, only inclusive. Her long list of publications includes the story collection Ayiti and appearances in story anthologies such as Best American Short Stories 2012 and nonfiction journals like Salon. She’s also the co-editor of PANK and the essays editor at The Rumpus. On top of all of that, she teaches writing as an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University.

In this interview, Gay discusses what it means to write a story in the guise of a restaurant menu, the virtues of exposition, and her response to people who claim that there are not that many good writers of color.

(For an exercise based on her menu-themed story “Contrapasso” click here.)

Michael Noll

The first thing every reader will notice about “Contrapasso” is its structure–which is amazing. I’ve never seen a story like it. How did using the conceit of a menu affect how you wrote the story? Did you write the story first and apply it to the structure, or did you take the menu structure and write a story that would make sense within it?

Roxane Gay

This story went through a few drafts. It’s been a while since I wrote this story but even though it has been through a few drafts, the menu structure was always a part of the story. Originally, it was just a few dishes and I was focused more on seven deadly sins and there wasn’t much story there. The editor of Artifice sent me some editorial suggestions and I really took them to heart, and expanded the story into a full blown narrative and the menu structure still worked really well, particularly because I fully committed to it in the revision.

Michael Noll

Just the other day, I heard someone advocating for “show, don’t tell,” but this story seems to show by telling. In part because of the structure, it rarely descends into a scene for longer than a few sentences. There is almost no extended dialogue. Several stories are told that begin and end within a single paragraph (about the cheesemonger, about cooking lobster.) As a result, I’m curious what your attitude is toward that that old advice of “show don’t tell”?

Roxane Gay

We love to talk about showing versus telling in creative writing and the distinction remains useful. That said, sometimes, parts of a story need to be told rather than shown. For better or worse, I use exposition a lot in my writing and I don’t balk when I see exposition in fiction. It’s not that you should show rather than tell. It’s that you should make the choice.

Michael Noll

The “Writing” page on your website is kind of astounding. You’ve published more than 100 stories and many essays. How do you produce so much material? What does your writing process look like?

Roxane Gay

I live in the middle of nowhere and suffer from insomnia quite often and I also write fast because I’m always thinking through story and essay ideas in my head. My writing process involves a lot of procrastination and then sitting down and just writing and writing and writing until I can’t write anymore.

Michael Noll

Roxane Gay's essay "We Are Many. We Are Everywhere" in The Rumpus includes this list of writers of color. It's long and wonderful, especially if you're a teacher looking for stories/essays that move beyond the usual topics for writers of color. Check it out.

Roxane Gay’s essay “We Are Many. We Are Everywhere” in The Rumpus includes this list of writers of color. It’s long and wonderful, especially if you’re a teacher looking for stories/essays that move beyond the usual topics for writers of color. Check it out.

Last summer, you wrote a piece for The Rumpus (We Are Many. We Are Everywhere) about the idea within the publishing world that the reason writers of color have little visibility is that there simply are not very many of them. So you put together a list. You also said this: “This is not a token list of writers to go to when you need someone to write about race—these writers write about a wide range of subjects.” What reaction did this statement get? What do you think needs to happen so that a statement like that is no longer necessary?

Roxane Gay

Great question. That whole project was really successful. A great list of writers was compiled. I don’t know that the statement you highlighted got a specific reaction but I included it because all too often, people tend to think that writers from a certain group should only write about issues specific to that group. I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t compiling a list of race-related subject matter experts. I was compiling a list of writers who happen to be of different races and ethnicities. For a statement like that to no longer be necessary, a list like the one I compiled no longer needs to be necessary. We’re a long way from there.

June 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

Show the Narrator’s Evolution

12 Mar
Nina McConigley's story "White Wedding" was first published in Memorius and will be included in her forthcoming debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians.

Nina McConigley’s story “White Wedding” was first published in Memorious and is included in her debut short-story collection, Cowboys and East Indians.

If someone asks, “What happens in the story?” the answer can tell you a lot. Maybe it’s a series of actions: guy gets killed in the Louvre, and so another guy interviews people, solves puzzles, meets Jesus’ great-great-etc granddaughter, and together they catch the killer. The main character probably doesn’t have much of an interior life. All changes are plot changes.

But what if the answer is “It’s about this guy, and at first he felt this way, but then he realized he felt this way?” The story is in his head. A story like this can present a problem: if the character’s interior life is the story, how do you show any of it? Most of us want to avoid writing this sentence: “Now he felt different.” But how?

Nina McConigley solves this problem masterfully in “White Wedding.” The story is included in her debut collection from Five Chapter Books, but you can read it here at Memorious.

How the Story Works

The narrator, Lakshmi, lives (and has chosen to live) in Casper, Wyoming, a city and state with an almost-entirely white population. She claims to be comfortable with standing out, but by the story’s end, she has perhaps decided to leave, in part because of her feelings about identity and place. As a result, the reader can gauge Lakshmi’s movement toward “the speed of [her] own escape” by how she feels about Casper.

Here are a few examples of her evolution:

  • The first paragraph ends with this statement: “We were used to white people.”
  • Halfway through the story, the narrator remembers her dying mother’s wish not to be “buried in Western clothes.” Instead, her mother asks to be buried in a sari. The problem is that the “people in the funeral home won’t know how.” But neither does the narrator. As she practices putting on the sari, her mother tells her Lakshmi that she should wear one more often. The narrator remembers thinking, “I would like to wear them more often. But where? To the Wonder Bar? To work?” Suddenly, the narrator isn’t so certain about her relationship to the place’s whiteness.
  • By the day of the wedding, the narrator has learned to dress someone in a sari. But that ability does not give her a connection to her Indian identity. When asked how she feels about being bi-racial, the narrator has usually answered, “It’s the best of two worlds! I get to be American, and Indian. I have two cultures to choose from!” But she’s learned that “the halves did not make a whole.” She is satisfied with neither white Casper nor her Indian heritage. As a result, she perhaps decides to strike out and find her own place and identity.

Notice how McConigley invests the narrator’s feelings about ethnicity in a specific object: a sari. The writing is never vague. The first paragraph even gives a statistic about the whiteness of Casper. The lesson, then, is to give the narrator an existential concern—Who am I? What am I doing?—and embody that concern in a particular place, object, or person.

The Writing Exercise

  1. Pick a character. You can invent one from scratch or choose an existing character from a story draft. 
  2. Find an existential problem. Answer this question: When the character can’t sleep at night, what does he/she think or obsess about? Write the answer as a general statement (Carl wonders if he’ll ever find love.)
  3. Locate that problem in something concrete. Embody your answer in a place, object, or person. For example, my character Carl might be really ugly, and so he obsesses about a particular feature of his face or body. Or perhaps he lives in a place where no one shares his interests (canning, video games, musicals).
  4. Change the character’s attitude toward the problem. Brainstorm how the character’s feelings toward that place, object, or person change over the course of time. So, Carl might become less self-conscious about his looks. Or he might decide to move somewhere that has people like him. Or he might change his views on the requirements of love—maybe people don’t need to share interests. Maybe there’s something else that can attract lovers. Once you find the change that will occur, you can create a story (obstacles for the character to encounter) that will allow them to take place.

It’s possible that this exercise will feel too didactic, as though you’re telling the reader too much. Keep in mind that these notes are for you. If you know how your character feels (and evolves), it will be easier to keep the story moving in the right direction.

Good luck!

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