Show, Don’t Tell, Blah, Blah, Blah

I’ve been on a memoir kick for the past year or so. I’ve read good, not so good, popular, and obscure memoirs. And, I hate to admit it, but I like them more than novels. Even more than novels, it is clear to me that the old cliche of show don’t tell is still true.

Surprisingly enough, reflecting on the process of writing in the writing does not interest me at all. When Mary Karr says

“From today’s vantage, my withdrawal and coldness seem so corrosive and mean, I want to shake my young self,”

I want to shake her too. Shut up and tell the story. You were so much better when you said

“At the end of my drinking, the kingdom I long for…was a rickety slab of unreal estate about four foot square—a back stair landing off my colonial outside Cambridge, Mass. I’d sit hunched against the door guzzling whiskey and smoking Marlboros while wires from a tinny walkman piped blues into my head…I was empress of that small kingdom and ruled it in all weathers. Sleet, subzero winds, razor-slicing rain. I’d just slide a gloved hand over my tumbler…My sole link to reality was the hard plastic baby monitor. Should a cough or cry start, its signal light stabbed into my wide pupil like an ice pick.” (Mary Karr, Lit, HarperCollins, 2009)

I felt that way about Rick Bragg too. He writes long beautiful passages about the rural South, or about his tiny mother with her hands pressed to the top of the old TV, listening to preachers, feeling god through the heat of the television. And then he moans about being unable to buy her a house. He doesn’t use any detail, he just berates himself. You don’t see him in Haiti looking at cardboard shacks and thinking about his mother’s house that he hasn’t bought yet. Nope. He just tells you right out that he feels bad about it. This is not a therapy session, Mr. Bragg, please write like I know you can. I don’t have the book in front of me (thank you, [name redacted] public library), but trust me. It drove me crazy.

What should I read next?



6 responses to “Show, Don’t Tell, Blah, Blah, Blah

  1. I have to confess, I’m not a total “show don’t tell” person. Especially in a memoir.

    Most of the time I want a scene, yes, but sometimes I want some narrative exposition/background, and then I want a line or three of self-reflection. I need that writer to reflect now then, to tell me what’s going on in their head and why in the world they’re compelled to tell this story.

    I understand, of course, that this is roundly disagreed with by many, but it’s what I want as a reader.

    • So maybe my post was a little extreme. I also like a little exposition and self-reflection. But I hate to see too many of the puppet strings. Actually, I can’t put into words why those two instances didn’t work for me. It’s maybe glib rather than heartfelt? The authors lose track of their drive?

  2. What should you read next? Damn it Indy, I keep telling you, but you won’t listen. “The Hare with Amber Eyes.” Talk about showing, not telling! de Waal is a visual artist, so showing comes to him intuitively in what he calls “a biography of his family.” Of course, I think he is mistaken in his genre; his is a memoir too.

  3. What to read next ….. no idea. Maybe build a stack of what you want to read and close your eyes and pin-the-tail-on-the-book? I just started Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill, and it’s brilliant.

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