Tuesday, August 29, 2017

An Audience for the Solitary Writer

            A theater director coached actors to imagine telling their story to their audience, not speaking directly to the audience, but telling the story in a way that involves the audience emotionally, that makes the audience a part of the story by having them become invested. We see this happen when audience members sit up in their seat, lean forward, wishing they could get up there to help.
            I was thinking of how this would apply to writing, a process that has no initial audience, since most of us write alone. We’re often told to write for ourselves, as if no one is watching. This is good advice for those who have strict censors over their shoulder or for those who sacrifice their truth to market appeal. But I’m wondering about the value of imagining an audience in the first stages of writing, not a critical audience but a generous and sympathetic audience, an audience who is invested and wants to help. Or an audience you feel needs to know the story, desperately needs to hear it.
Would a new energy come out in the prose?
I’m going to experiment here.
In the corner chair, a man reads his newspaper. I don’t know him. He rubs his eyes. He has a pencil in hand, perhaps filling in a crossword puzzle. We will never meet, and when I walk out the door, our lives will proceed in separate directions, though we don’t know that really. We don’t know the parallels, that maybe being in this square of the grid right now means passing the same intersections on leaving, running in our paths only a sliver apart in the great expanse of space.
Let me try again, trying to invest you, my audience, in this moment too.
He crosses silver-haired legs, a newspaper resting on his knee. His pencil teeter-totters between his fingers, waiting for his brain to snare the word, command the letters to fill the boxes. Sunday morning crossword at the local coffee shop. What he does when he leaves, I don’t know. Does he pull up a curved driveway into a white garage? Does a schnauzer or greyhound bark behind a red closed door? At home, his wife tosses yesterday’s newspaper, softened under his scribbling, into the recycling. She’s yawning; he’s now rubbing his eyes, the teetering pencil paused. I sip my coffee, knowing that though the grid we’re in, intersecting at this coffee shop, is wide enough to hold separate lives, that given the expanse and chance of space and time, we won’t intersect here ever again. His brow narrows now on the word at hand. Mine narrows too at this deciphering, wondering when I walk out of this sliver of the grid we share, what I leave behind, what he does, and what is tossed like the softened newspaper that once held the energy of his moving hand. How I’d like to hold it all, keep him valuably alive however faraway his sliver of the universe moves from ours.
Not quite there. The idea of a grid and our place is large, philosophical, maybe straying too far from telling the immediate story. I haven’t convinced you yet, I think. Because maybe I don’t need him, don’t need you to know him. I’m not fully invested yet myself.
            If an actor isn’t invested, the theater director offered another piece of advice: imagine the person or action to be something you’re familiar with, someone you care deeply about or a situation that is particularly important to you. Replace the scene you’re in with this familiar one so your true emotions come to the surface. Another attempt:
My name is Melanie and I was once in love. I’m not a beautiful woman, a sharp jawline, nose too large, but he was a beautiful boy. Oh, his tiger eyes, lashed and arched in black, the sweep of dusk on those bedroom lips, that hair so black the glittering universe swooned for it. This could be him forty years into our futures, one slim leg crossed over another, silver-haired now over the dimming shine of his brown skin. A morning crossword puzzle at the local coffee shop, sipping oversweet coffee, a pencil teeter-tottering between pianist fingers as his mind waits to snare the right word. On this grand grid of space and time, we have not intersected since that young and lustful falling. I don’t know who waits behind his door at home, as he skips the porch steps to the landing, still agile though he rubs his back’s new ache. What car in the parking lot will take him to that home. His brow narrows on the word at hand, and I imagine a wife at home, tossing the softened newspaper from yesterday, his scribbles rubbed from the careful boxes already. This could be him, the boy removed from my life but never erased. Somewhere on a perpendicular or a parallel track, or oh, knowing him, on an angle all his own, twisting the ninety into a backward angling thirty-five, rounding like the twine he used to wear around the sculpted tendons of his sun-browned neck, the dangle down his plated chest…the dream of unwinding all he was to find his center, like pinning the possibility of his life on this stranger sitting in the coffee shop, tapping the unfinished crossword on his knee. Me, hoping he doesn’t toss it in the trash when he leaves, that he holds onto what’s unfinished. The way I’m held, with unfinished longing, trying to circle in on this infinitely receding grid.
And in the director’s advice, the next thing is to put that emotion for the true thing in your life into the play at hand, the imaginary character and scene. To imbue this stranger with the love for the boy.
Odd now…I’m finding I don’t want to make the transference. The boy is the story. Is every story. Distance and connection; hope and love.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Show Don't Tell: Another Look

Good writing isn't as easy as following a list of ten rules. All writers have heard the importance of learning the technique "show, don't tell." But in too many blog tips and how-to lists, I think the concept has become oversimplified to a quick-and-easy fix, as if changing an adverb to an action fulfills the quest for reader involvement.

I recently came across a writing handbook that suggested showing rather than telling a story and gave a short example:

Telling: "No, I won't go," Ron said angrily
Showing: "No, I won't go." Ron slammed down the phone.

Within the context of a story, this might work. As readers, we might have been feeling Ron's anger building for three paragraphs and the phone slamming is exactly what we would do too. But as an example of learning to show and not tell, I think it fails. And I see lessons like this too often. If the reader isn't feeling the same anger, the action of slamming the phone will be as ineffective as "Ron said, angrily." So what?

"Show, don't tell" isn't simply replacing a stated emotion with a physical action (Jillian felt sad/Jillian wiped a tear). It's the writer becoming so involved in the story that he or she stops telling it. The story begins happening around the writer; the story's world reflects the feelings and governs the actions. The reader is then involved in that world because the writer is involved.

I came across a passage from Elizabeth Chadwick's novel The Summer Queen. I would present this as a superb example of an author showing us the story as the character lives it rather than telling us what the author thinks the character feels about the story. By its close, I feel my breath tight, suffocating on the news.

      William broke the seal, read what was written, and turned to Alienor. “Madam, perhaps you should sit down,” he said, gesturing to a carved bench near the wall.
      She stared at him. Dear God, Louis was dead, she thought. She did as he suggested. Roses overhung the seat, heavy and red, their perfume filling each breath she took.
      A frown clouded William’s smooth brow. “Madam,” he said gently, “I grieve to tell you that Raymond, Prince of Antioch, has been killed in battle against the Saracens.”
      Alienor continued to stare at him. The smell of the roses intensified and the air grew so thick that she could barely breathe, and what air she did inhale was drenched with the syrupy sweet scent of flowers on the edge of corruption.
       She felt his hand on her shoulder, but it was a flimsy anchor.

I would suggest delving deeper into "show, don't tell" by reading good, respected writers who have proven their skills over time. I would look at passages in which you, as a reader, have felt the emotions deeply, have experienced a setting and become lost in it.

To show and not tell isn't as simple as phrase replacement. When I'm editing my work, I sometimes come across pages in which the story feels distant to me. I'm not involved. Nowhere in them do I necessarily find a pointless dialogue tag or have a narrator say, "Samuel felt confused." Yet, something is missing. Despite steering clear of what appears to be "telling," the story isn't immediate; it's not "showing" the world in an authentic, immediate way that makes me feel without thinking and know without being told.

Think back to when you were a kid playing pretend. Your parents call you for dinner and you suddenly realize that you have been gone from this world, lost in something else as true. Think of those day or night fantasies, those moments when we imagine a scenario and forget we're driving or become startled as someone speaks. I think writing requires that same state of being lost to one world and alive in another. When we pretend, we don't tell. We are doing. And in a good story, that doing is shown to a reader.

So, to those quick-and-easy writing tips, I would add just a little more: Don't simply slam down the phone. Be there to know the phone and the table it's on, to know the clipped, tense language that surrounds you, to know if the air is thin or heavy, to know the history of the relationship happening over the phone. Be in that place and time with that character so that what happens is inevitable.

Show the reader what you saw when you were there, so that they can be there too, without instruction, without clear guidance, but inevitably as they follow your character, as they read the next words.


Patricia J. Esposito is author of the novel Beside the Darker Shore

Reviews of Beside the Darker Shore:  
GLBT Bookshelf
Two Lips Review
Goodreads/Thomas Olbert