I’m thinking about the insistence in creative writing on showing vs. telling. A workshop leader mentions that we are all storytellers… it is a natural human style, to tell what happened. She believes however, that scenes transform a tale into a closer experience, more alive. I imagine she is right. What do I know… or better put, I don’t trust that I know much. I tend to write episodically and with fewer ‘scenes’ than one might hope for. While I receive lots of feedback along the lines of, ‘beautifully written,’ I am not convinced that I couldn’t improve my game. Learn some stuff…
A scene: a writing workshop in a classroom at a local college. The participants include twelve, perhaps one or two more, writers of many skill levels. Each Tuesday we enter the large sterile space, drag some chairs, with arms that become little desks, into a semi-circle, and wait for our leader. She is often a few minutes late, not late enough to matter, but a perhaps unintended consequence of her arriving when the rest of the group is already seated is that her entrance results in a noticeably abrupt move from chatty-chatty to attention and silence. She doesn’t demand that, but there is something.
The leader is younger than I, but she is what could be called an old soul. She has wisdom — perhaps derived from her Indian heritage, but I would guess it was more likely a fortuitous genetic destiny already in place as a child. At any rate, the leader, Monona, collects everyone’s four pages of writing, and then selects one writer and has her or him read their pages to the group. We comment, in a predetermined order, and finally Monona expresses her response to the work.
Monona encourages the traditionally popular way of writing… prevalent at this particular juncture in history perhaps in response to the widespread revved up need for stimulation and action and the reluctance to take time with any aspect of modern life. Maybe it is a consequence of the Internet, or living in urban rather than rural communities, or simply the ubiquitous planes, trains, and automobiles, but whatever causes it, we don’t plop ourselves down on a sun porch with a thick book and leisurely inhale the pages including a long preface, introduction, and unimaginably slow beginning.
Start in the middle, the writer is now told… in medias res. Don’t take the time for an introduction to a tale, no one has the patience. Above all, put the reader into a scene, even better, create many. Lots of dialogue. Backstory only if relevant and urgent for the reader to know. Otherwise, chuck it.
Don’t tell us, show us, the writers in the class intone. Help us see the scene, don’t tell us when you can show us. As each writer offers that particular critique of their contemporaries in the group, I listen and wonder. Do I agree with this? It’s obvious from this blog that I naturally enjoy telling, describing, talking around a topic. What will happen if I stray down the modern path of sceneing?
I sit in my little student desk contraption and listen carefully. Mostly I listen to Monona. There is something here for me to learn. “Start the story when the neighbors stop speaking to you. Don’t make us wait. That’s the moment of conflict.”
She’s correct. But then again. I am attached to my old ways, worry that I will sound like everyone else. The MFA approach to writing — I remember an article in Poets and Writers Magazine years ago that described a particular style MFA graduates all seemed to have. And yes, it was similar to what Monona is suggesting.
But when she comments on another writer’s work in the group, I hear that she has something useful to offer. “This is a story about perseverance,” she tells one writer who has written about losing his hearing and then learning there might be a remedy. And I see that she is absolutely right. Seen from this angle, it’s a story with universal application. I too never give up. I can relate to this man’s tale. I wouldn’t have phrased the theme in the way she did, but as soon as she speaks, I realize it’s true.
At my turn, I read my pages, the story of a meandering relationship with a neighbor. And as I speak, I notice the particular places where a scene might replace a description. I envision going home after the workshop and rewriting and trying on a slightly more immediate style. Just to experiment with this piece, and see how it feels. No commitments yet. Simply a perhaps. Why not?
I am an old dog at this point, but I can still see intelligence when I am placed in front of it. I will engage with a new trick, or set of tricks here. It is a gift to open up to new and different, even if I’ve heard this particular instruction a hundred times before and ignored it, imagining that somehow it didn’t apply to me. I put my pen down on my notebook on the little desk, and cock my head to hear more. A little like meditating. Being present for this moment and then the next one. There is always more to discover. Even after so many years of a life.