Show, Don’t Tell
Current word count: 37,548 New words written: 1,722 Words til goal: 2,452 / 129 words a day til the end of September
My writing has been zooming along. So close to finishing. Yay! This word count is two days of writing, but I love to see that “til the end of September” number come down. Still hoping to finish sooner, and I’m on track. We’ll see.
Today, we have another great guest post, this week from author Gwen Cooper. You’ve probably already read a lot about her on this blog, as she’s a friend of mine, but if you haven’t seen previous posts about her, she just launched her second book, a memoir called Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, Or How I Learned About Love and Life With a Blind Wonder Cat. Here’s the post about her book trailer. Awesome news: Homer’s Odyssey made it to the New York Times bestsellers list shortly after its debut. Congratulations, Gwen and Homer!
Although Gwen’s first book, Diary of a South Beach Party Girl, it was a novel stemmed from her time growing up in South Beach. But Homer’s Odyssey is her first true memoir. In this blog post, on this anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York, Gwen talks about the challenges she found when tackling the chapters about Sept. 11, and how what finally helped her was the good old dependable writing advice of show, don’t tell.
And here’s Gwen:
I moved to New York from Miami in the late winter of 2001. Because it was located only a block from my office, I ended up taking an apartment only five blocks from the World Trade Center.
As the events of 9/11 unfolded, I was trapped in Brooklyn and away from my three cats, who were stranded in my apartment near Ground Zero. It took me several days to reunite with and rescue them. It’s an episode in my life that’s recounted in detail in two chapters of my new memoir, Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned About Love and Life With a Blind Wonder Cat.
Writing a memoir is never easy. Possibly the greatest challenge is in constructing a cohesive, narrative thread from the seemingly random events that make up a life. There were many places in the manuscript where I struggled with what to include, what to leave out, and how to frame things so that the book as a whole would stay focused. The easiest thing to do in a memoir is meander. The hardest thing is to make a life story read like an actual story.
Perhaps nowhere was that struggle greater than in writing the chapters that dealt with September 11th. How could I keep my book on-subject when dealing with a subject that would so naturally overshadow everything around it? And how could I describe in detail a three-day period during which I was separated from my cats (who were therefore absent from that part of the narrative), when my cats were the purported subject of my memoir in the first place?
I knew the trap I was most likely to fall into was the impulse to discuss the “big picture;” to talk abut the ways 9/11 changed us as a nation and me as a person. Yet to do so would be a jarring departure from the tone of the rest of the book.
So I went all the way back to the basic rules of writing I learned in my first creative writing classes in high school. “Show, don’t tell,” was the mantra of just about every writing teacher I had. I realized that the best way for me to show it all (or, at least, as much of “it all” as one writer could accomplish) was to stay focused and tell almost nothing. I spent almost no time describing my emotional state, the concerns we all had as a nation for what this event meant for us long-term, or any other “big picture” concerns.
Instead, I tried to show the reader my visceral and immediate reactions to the things I saw that day, as well as my actions and efforts in the subsequent days as I struggled to rescue my cats. In this, I was very detailed.
There have been a small handful of readers who’ve taken exception to my recounting of 9/11—who feel that, because I didn’t talk about my emotional state, I didn’t have one, or that the one and only thing I cared about that day was reuniting with my cats.
But the overwhelming response has been incredibly positive. I’ve received hundreds of letters from readers who’ve said they found the 9/11 chapters to be the most compelling in the whole book, and expressing great sympathy and anxiety for the emotional state I hoped to convey even while I was resolutely not “telling” it.
Writing those chapters was my first experiment as a writer with tackling a subject as big as September 11th. But it’s reassuring to know that, no matter how large or intimidating a subject may seem to me as a writer, the elementary rules still apply: Keep your focus small. Concentrate on the details. Don’t exposit the thing to death. Create a small window from which your reader can look out and see the whole view.
And, above all, always show. Never tell. Sometimes it’s good for us to remember that everything is possible as long as we don’t stray too far from the basics.