Other People’s Rodents

A group of Australian exchange students came to my sons’ school a while back. One of the most remarkable things I remember from their visit was their fascination with American squirrels. On more than one occasion, Australians were late for class because they were absorbed in watching gray squirrels scamper and cavort around campus. Bear in mind, these young men had kangaroos back home. And koala bears. And platypuses. But they didn’t have squirrels. So squirrels were a marvel to them.

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Seeing What You See: On Imagery

You have probably heard me talk about the importance of inviting a reader into a scene–presenting information to your reader as closely as possible to the way she would receive information in real life. In real life, we collect information via our five senses, and then our minds go to work on that information to make judgments, have ideas, feel feelings, reach conclusions, etc. I wrote about this idea at length in an earlier issue of The Habit called The Eye Is an Organ of Judgment.

Imagery is the most basic and most important tool for writing that invites a reader into a scene rather than telling the reader what to think. Imagery is simply language that appeals to the five senses by depicting concrete facts.

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On the Impracticality of Beauty

A cynic remarked that last week’s fire at Notre Dame has turned out to be an excellent excuse for social media users to post pictures of their vacations in Paris. A less cynical interpretation is that the fire at Notre Dame prompted social media users to memorialize an encounter with a work of art and beauty that reminded them that they were living in a bigger story than they typically thought.

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Mystery and Manners

“There are two qualities that make fiction,” wrote Flannery O’Connor. “One is the sense of mystery and the other is the sense of manners.” Since yesterday was Flannery O’Connor’s birthday (she would have been ninety-four), I thought this would be a good week to think about mystery and manners.

Mystery and Manners, as you may know, is the title of a collection of O’Connor’s “occasional prose.” It contains some of the most insightful writing about writing that you can ever hope to read. I commend it to you.

But what does O’Connor mean by those terms “mystery” and “manners”? The gist is that the fiction writer is always looking to approach the deepest mysteries through the surfaces of things. A storyteller may be interested in big, abstract ideas about ultimate meaning—love, hatred, sin, judgment, grace, etc.—but those big ideas are not the raw material of a story. The raw materials of a story are found in manners, not mystery. Manners are what we see with our eyeballs when we look out at the world of human interaction. “You get the manners from the texture of existence that surrounds you,” writes O’Connor.

The quotes above come from “Writing Short Stories” in Mystery and Manners. So does this remarkable passage:

Fiction operates through the senses, and I think one reason that people find it so difficult to write stories is that they forget how much time and patience is required to convince through the senses. No reader who doesn’t actually experience, who isn’t made to feel, the story is going to believe anything the fiction writer merely tells him. The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.

The essay is a form that allows a writer to go straight to the big idea (though I encourage even essay writers to be as concrete as possible). Fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t give the writer nearly so much leeway. Fiction demands that we deliver meaning through experience—through manners.

O’Connor was never shy about the moral dimension of storytelling. She could be judgmental in her stories; but more to the point, she expected her readers to exercise moral judgment. The fiction writer’s job, according to O’Connor, is to present to the reader a sequence of experiences that will engage his (the reader’s) moral judgment.

The [inexperienced writer] thinks that judgment exists in one place and sense-impression in another. But for the fiction writer, judgment begins in the details he sees and how he sees them.

It is hard to resist the urge to tell the reader what to think. It is so easy for a writer to pass judgment and hope that the reader falls in line. But unless a reader agrees with you already, he is rarely so cooperative. As O’Connor said, if the reader doesn’t experience a story, doesn’t feel it, he isn’t going to believe anything the writer tells him.

And yet…when you present the right images to the reader, those images are persuasive in ways that mere persuasion can never be. Judgment doesn’t exist in a separate place from sense-impression. If you can believe that, it will transform your storytelling. The sensory experience of a story isn’t window-dressing; it’s the story’s truest machinery. (I have discussed this idea at length in an earlier issue of The Habit, so I will refer you to it rather than go through it all again).

Do you believe that the world is shot through with meaning? If so, you can trust that all you have to do is to give a true account of the world as you have experienced it. You just tend to the manners. The mysteries will take care of themselves. This should give you freedom and hope in your writing.

Bonus Quotation:
This idea of mystery and manners, by the way, is important not just for writers, but for readers as well. If you feel insufficiently literary to “get” serious fiction, consider what O’Connor says on the subject:

The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.

Yes and amen.

Five Lessons on Writing from Jerry Seinfeld

This NY Times video of Jerry Seinfeld explaining his joke-writing process has been floating around the Internet for years, so you may have seen it already. But it’s well worth revisiting, especially on Fat Tuesday, a day devoted to jollity.

Watching this (for the umpteenth time), I’m struck by how many of Seinfeld’s lessons for joke-writing apply to writing of all kinds. Here are a few: 

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Painting the Alligator Green

In the book club I’m running over at Field Notes for Writers, the topic of childhood creativity came up. When you put crayons and a piece of paper in front of a small child, she knows exactly what to do with them. She doesn’t get artist’s block. She doesn’t perseverate over whether or she has enough skill or whether she’s talented or whether she has earned the right to call herself an artist. She just puts crayon to paper and gets busy.

As we get older, almost all of us lose most of that creative freedom. We grow in self-consciousness, we learn self-doubt, and our exuberance in the mere act of making dissolves as we start to compare, as we are subjected to criticism.

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Facts and Non-Fiction

A former online student wrote with a question about facts and non-fiction:

When I write, I make it a serious aim to be truthful and honest. I don’t want to force meaning into something, but bring out what’s already there, as you taught me years ago. But in order to tell something in an interesting and compelling way, sometimes you have to bring it together in an artful way that might not be 100 percent accurate. The heart of the truth is preserved—sometimes even better than it would be if you confused the issue with useless (to the reader) information … So as long as I’m concerned for the truth and kindness toward everyone I write about, is it okay to not be totally accurate? 

This writer had written up a non-fiction account of an event involving a few friends. When she showed it to one of the friends who had been there, the friend was bothered by the fact that she had telescoped several hours’ worth of events into a short scene and changed a few other details. The writer, on the other hand, was bothered by the fact that her friend was bothered.

So, how much are you “allowed” to monkey with the facts of a piece that purports to be non-fiction? At what point have you crossed the threshold from non-fiction into fiction—or into lying? I get this kind of question relatively often.

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Talk to Strangers: Everybody Has a Story

In a recent episode of the Radiolab podcast, producer Latif Nasser shares some of his techniques for finding stories to research and write about. The episode grows from this article, in which Nasser offers even more techniques, which range from setting Google alerts to rummaging around in library collections of personal papers and oral histories to repeatedly clicking the “random article” button on Wikipedia. 

I won’t list all of Nasser’s techniques, since you can click over to the article or podcast more easily than I can summarize them. His techniques are helpful, and I commend them to you. The most helpful thing about Nasser’s remarks, however, is his approach to story-finding almost as a lifestyle, or perhaps a philosophy. 

We all need to be in the habit of noticing, of keeping our eyes open to the marvels that surround us every minute of every day.

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Joy Is One Kind of Courage

Richard Wilbur is one of my favorite poets. This lovely remembrance by Christian Wiman articulates some of the reasons I love Wilbur so much. In short, for Richard Wilbur, creativity and productivity didn’t come from deep within the subconscious of the tortured artist, but from gratitude and wonder at a world he didn’t make. His gaze was outward, not inward.

What was revolutionary about Wilbur’s work, Wiman writes, is the light–in spite of the fact that Wilbur himself dealt with depression and addiction and the losses and hurts that we all deal with.

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The Eye Is an Organ of Judgment

I often tell people that Flannery O’Connor once wrote “the eye is an organ of judgment.” Turns out, she never wrote that. When I typed “the eye is an organ of judgment” into the Google machine, the only thing that came back was a picture of me, from a previous issue of The Habit in which I had misquoted Flannery O’Connor. Sorry about that.

In my defense, however, I will say that my misquotation is a pretty good distillation of something that Flannery O’Connor actually did write, in her essay “Writing Short Stories,” which you can find in Mystery and Manners

For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be gotten into it. It involves judgment.

She goes on to say that the student-writer is often so interested in thoughts and emotions that he neglects the concrete and sensory details where storytelling actually happens: 

He thinks that judgment exists in once place and sense-impression in another. But for the fiction writer, judgment begins in the details he sees and how he sees them.

The eye is an organ of judgment. O’Connor is specifically talking about fiction-writing in these passages, but she could be talking about any kind of writing. In fact, she could just as easily be talking about everyday life.

A familiar scenario will demonstrate what I mean: You are at a stoplight, waiting for a left-turn arrow. You’re the fifth car in line, but you know from experience that six, sometimes seven cars usually make it through before the arrow turns, so you’ll be fine. You get your arrow. The first car starts through the intersection, then the second and the third. You take your foot off the brake to move forward. Then you put your foot back on the brake because you realize that the fourth car, the one in front of you, isn’t moving. You see that the driver in front of you is looking down at his phone. You give a little tap on your horn. Nothing. The turn-arrow turns yellow. You lean on the horn. The driver ahead of you jerks his head up as if from a deep sleep and lurches forward and through the intersection just as the light turns red again. You, meanwhile, are left to wait for the next arrow.

Consider how many judgments you make in that moment. You judge that driver’s character and his home-raising. You reach conclusions regarding his ability to consider the feelings of others. You wonder how a person with such convoluted priorities could ever hold a job or otherwise contribute to society. 

How did this cascade of judgments start? It started with your eyes. You saw an arrow turn green. You saw three cars move. You saw a fourth car not move. You saw that the driver of that fourth car was looking down rather than looking ahead (you didn’t, by the way, even see a mobile phone). Those few visual stimuli were more than enough. The eye is an organ of judgment.

This brings us to the oft-repeated writing advice, “Show, don’t tell.” What’s the difference? “Showing” is simply presenting to your reader what she would see and hear (and perhaps smell, taste, and touch) if she were present in the scene where the action is happening. “Telling” is everything else–explaining, editorializing, describing what’s going on inside a character’s head, providing backstory, summarizing action, etc. Imagine there was a video camera set up in the room where the action takes place. Anything that could appear in the video is showing. Anything you write that couldn’t appear in the video is telling.

Here are two samples describing the same event; the first is all showing, and the second is mostly telling.

Sample 1 (all showing):
When the light turned green and the cars started to move, the car in front of me didn’t go anywhere. The driver just sat there, his head pointed down toward his lap, until I honked my horn…

Sample 2 (mostly telling):
When the arrow turned green and the cars started to move, the jackass in front of me just sits there, gawping at his phone as if it’s the Holy Grail or something, as if there’s not a whole line of people behind him who might have places to be. But God forbid that he should have to wait until he gets wherever he’s going to look at his texts or update his MySpace page or watch his cat videos or whatever he’s doing up there while the rest of us sit there and wait for him to notice that the world hasn’t stopped turning.

In Sample 2, everything before the first comma is showing–what anybody at the red light would see–and everything after the first comma is telling–interpretation and commentary and speculation by the writer.

The idea behind the “Show-Don’t-Tell” principle is that showing more closely approximates the way experience comes to us in real life. We gather information through our senses, then our logic and judgment go to work making sense of those inputs. When the person in front of you holds up a line of cars because he’s looking at his phone, you don’t need a narrator to tell you that he’s a self-absorbed jackass. You take in the sensory data (green arrow, no movement, driver looking down instead of looking at road), and you reach your own conclusion. And, by the way, almost everybody presented with that sensory data would reach a similar conclusion.

When you choose to show rather than tell, you are trusting that your readers’ judgment apparatus is intact, and that she will reach the appropriate conclusions without being told what conclusions to reach. But you are also trusting your own ability to show the right things that will lead the reader to the appropriate judgments. Telling is a shortcut: Here’s what I want you to think about this.

One important thing to note about showing and telling: it is hard to resist telling when you’re really trying to make a point. You want to leave sensory language behind and instead use emotional language, or maybe do a lot of explaining to drive your point home. But as counterintuitive as it sounds, writing tends to be more emotional when, instead of telling readers what to feel, you provide them with the kind of experience that evokes the emotion you want them to feel. In the two samples above, the second, more “tell-y” sample may have been more entertaining and interesting, but if you want to evoke the righteous anger we all feel when somebody else is texting and driving (a righteous anger that we don’t feel, by the way, when we text and drive), you’re better off writing something more like Sample 1, which gives the reader more space to exercise his own judgment. 

Along the same lines, if you’re trying to persuade, readers are more easily persuaded when they think they’ve reached a conclusion on their own, by exercising their own judgment, than when you tell them what to think. In both his fiction and his essays, Wendell Berry makes the case for agrarian values and rural living. When I read his essays, in which he is being openly persuasive, I want to argue back: Well, Wendell Berry, I’m glad you like living in rural Kentucky, but I quite like living where I can get decent Vietnamese food. When I read his novels, on the other hand, I want to sell out and move to rural Kentucky.

But I digress. Let us return to showing and telling. While most of us need to do more showing and less telling, it’s not at all true that you should always show and never tell. Some of the most memorable writing you’ll ever see is very tell-y (even in the two samples above, I think the second, tell-y sample is more memorable than the first). I often tell writers, however, that the way to earn the right to tell is by showing first.

If you want to read a story that is all showing and no (or almost no) telling, check out Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” It might leave you hankering for some good, old-fashioned telling. I will say this, though: every time I read that story, I like it a little better. For better or worse, telling tends to bring more meaning to the surface, whereas showing allows for more discovery by the reader.

For further reading: The best thing I’ve ever read about showing ann telling is the chapter, “Why You Need to Show and Tell,” in Alice LaPlante’s creative writing textbook, The Making of a Story.

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