Monday, April 18, 2011

Show, Don't Tell

I went to a writing workshop over the weekend.  I didn’t know what to expect when I walked in the door.  The facilitator was a woman who has written dozens of children’s books and several adult books based on her life living with different cultures around the world.  She gave use plenty of advice; things like, “don’t quit your day job” and, “long words are not always better.”
We were told how to work through writer’s block and how to cut unnecessary descriptions to make our writing more powerful.  We listened as she crafted sentences in multiple ways to demonstrate her points.
The most interesting advice, in my mind, was, “show, don’t tell.”  This means that, “I was distraught that I had forgotten to bring my stuffed monkey on vacation,” would be better expressed as, “I couldn’t sleep the entire week of vacation.  Without my stuffed monkey to clutch, the hours of darkness ticked slowly by while I counted cracks in the ceiling and listened to the hum of the ice machine in the hallway.”  This sentence has no bearing in reality, of course.  I am a 41-year old woman and I certainly don’t need the security of a stuffed monkey in order to sleep.
With this advice in mind, I think of how to show, not tell, of my desire for a child.  What can I say to make it clear?  I could say, “The holidays bring out my maternal instincts,” but that doesn’t make an impact.  How about….
“Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year, but also one of the most difficult for me.  I watch families pile out of their cars in the church parking lot on Christmas Eve and my heart aches.  I think of the things I did as a child with my mother in preparation for Christmas.  I want to teach my child to roll out cookie dough, not so thick that it won’t cook through, but not so thin that it burns too easily.  I want to make paper chains and see my child leap out of bed each December morning to tear a loop off the chain and count down to the big day.  I want to teach my child how to wrap presents, planning each cut of the shiny paper to maximize how many gifts can be wrapped from each roll and saving the small scraps in a neat pile for the inevitable tiny stocking stuffers that are purchased on December 23rd.  I want to watch her eyes shine when I demonstrate the ‘zip!’ of scissors sliding along curling ribbon and show the seemingly magical spiral of ribbon it produces.  I want to open the tiny windows of an advent calendar, building the story of Jesus’ birth sentence by sentence over a month.  I want to teach my child the art of making Slovakian nut rolls, how to roll the sweet dough and how a tiny pile of brightly colored orange zest, fragrant with essential oils, can transform a bowl of ground walnuts into something surprisingly tasty and complex.  I want to sit down in front of the television on cold evenings and share the stories of Rudolph, Frosty, Kris Kringle, mice who build musical clock towers, and a small boy clutching a security blanket on a dark stage, teaching the true meaning of Christmas.  I want to have to eat plates of cookies that have been left by a hopeful child and throw stones at the roof to mess up the snow and make it look like flying reindeer have been there.  I want to come home from church at midnight and be awakened at dawn by a child who is bursting with the excitement of finding out what has been left under the tree.  I want to decorate a tree, not with shiny balls that all match, but with a haphazard collection of ornaments made from yarn, construction paper, and glue.  I want to have to clean glitter off the dog’s nose and vacuum it out of the carpet for weeks.  I want Christmas to be less orderly and predictable, more crazy and chaotic.  I want to be a mother.”


  1. You will, Kristen. You will.

    I like very much how you've shown without telling.

    My best writing course ever was one in which I produced my "masterpiece" short story only to have an instructor circle a sentence at the end of the story and say, "Start it here."
    After the shock and humiliation wore off, I wrote something far better and much more effective than I ever could have imagined.


  2. Oh, sweet Kristen - I just cried through that entire last paragraph reading it to Mark. How absolutely beautiful and funny and touching, and all I can think about is that amazingly lucky child that will have you as a mother. That child has no idea at this moment the joy that is in store for her (or him). You are one of the most beautiful people I know, and I am so happy and proud to call you my friend. Even if you do sleep with a stuffed monkey.

    Beautifully written, as always. I hope you've contacted an editor ;)

    All our love,
    Stacey & Mark