Examples of “Show, Don’t Tell” in Memoir

Open book to show, don't tell

In our last blog post, we talked about why that old saw, “Show, don’t tell,” still applies in memoir and in good writing in general. Now let’s look at some examples.

Clarity: Chekhov + do tell

  1. First, let’s clear up two misconceptions.
    The origin of the “show, don’t tell” concept is credited to writer Anton Chekhov, and that is correct. However, the quote attributed to Chekhov is: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” That’s someone’s pithier interpretation of what Chekhov factually wrote to his brother, but it represents Chekhov’s meaning well enough.
  2. We don’t really mean not to tell. Of course your memoir is telling all sorts of things. “Show, don’t tell” just means that when you convey the feelings of the character—in a memoir that’s often your own feelings—the most effective method is to show with a vivid description rather than to tell with subjective words, typically adjectives, like sad, happy, angry and all the rest.

“Show, don’t tell” examples

In The Yellow House, author Sarah M. Brown skillfully uses her location for changing buses as a way to let the reader know how she felt about her place in society. She trusts readers to picture this location and her demeanor even though they may not be familiar with the businesses she identifies in the passage:

I was deposited at the corner of Downman and Chef Menteur where I waited to transfer to another bus. The stop, an uncovered bench the size of a love seat, was just in front of Banner Chevrolet car dealership’s lot full of buffed to shining cars, prices on yellow bubble numbers plastered to windshields, deals none of us could afford. We who were waiting for the always-late bus stood still in our places while others flew by—off the Danziger Bridge, off the interstate onto Chef Menteur, heightening the reality of our immobility.

When you show, you get to write detail the way you would if you were writing fiction. Do it well, and the reader will see exactly what you’re seeing—details the reader probably wouldn’t even notice in real life. William Finnegan is a master in his memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life:

I passed a graveyard. In the cemeteries in Tonga, late in the day, there always seemed to be old women tending the graves of their parents—combing the coral-sand mounds into the proper coffin-top shape, sweeping away leaves, hand washing faded wreaths of plastic flowers, rearranging the haunting patterns of tropical peppercorns, orange and green on bleached white sand.

It’s okay to blend show and tell

Don’t feel that you have to “fix” every sentence that veers out of show and into tell. Judge your writing on the merits of the whole. The better you learn the rule, the more you’re permitted to break it. From Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids:

When I went back upstairs I felt an inexplicable sense of kinship with these people, though I had no way to interpret my feeling of prescience. I could never have predicted that I would one day walk in their path. At that moment I was still a gangly twenty-two-year-old book clerk, struggling simultaneously with several unfinished poems.

There’s a lot of telling in that paragraph. Smith tells you that she felt a sense of kinship; she doesn’t describe a scene that illustrates that sense. She candidly says that she couldn’t explain that feeling and never could have predicted it; she doesn’t show you any of that bafflement through dialogue or action. But look at that last sentence—it’s all show. She describes who she was at that moment. As the reader, you put yourself in her place. You understand the distance Patti Smith feels from the established rock stars she just encountered, and simultaneously you sense the meeting of the minds because she’s a poet, perhaps a lyricist. You also have the advantage of knowing the level of success Smith eventually attains. This is a good example of effectively blending telling and showing.

Giving yourself permission to blend show and tell instead of limiting yourself to showing will help you to keep your writing momentum going. You don’t want to get so attentive to the writing process that it interrupts the flow.

Good Reaction to Our Grammar Course!

Thumbnail images of Grammar Course lessons

If you’ve been a member of Write My Memoirs for a while, you know that we don’t do any hard-selling. The site is free to use, and we’re not constantly emailing you to push our writing, editing and self-publishing services. But our new Grammar and Writing Course can really help you, at such an affordable price, so we’re tooting our own horn here!

People who have taken the course, consisting of eight video lessons plus a free intro lesson, say it has helped them identify their weaknesses in sentence structure, punctuation and word usage. The practice materials are yours to review any time you forget a point, and you also can rewatch the videos.

Who benefits most from our course? The course is designed for native speakers of American English, so residents of the U.S. will probably get the most out of it. The content aims at people of all ages who have a middle to advanced level of English knowledge but still aren’t writing in a polished, professional manner. Can non-native speakers learn something? How about native speakers whose grasp of English is closer to the beginning stage? The short answer is yes! If you want to improve your writing, no matter where you’re starting, the course is worth taking. It’s just $39!

Take a look at the free Introductory Lesson. You’ll see me, the instructor, and I’m a little goofy and nervous in that first lesson, which covers parts of speech and parts of a sentence. As you proceed through the other eight lessons, the topics get a lot less dry. You’ll have a chance to practice everything and access the answers to the quizzes. When you finish, you can email us a few paragraphs of your writing, and we’ll send you back our edits and suggestions. What a deal! Sign up for the course today!

Should You Hide Identities in a Memoir by Changing the Names?

Person hiding behind hand

Today’s blog is written by a guest blogger, memoir author Lani Cox. We asked Lani the question in the title. Lani writes:

What’s the purpose in telling your story? If it’s to connect to your readers, then I don’t believe using real names is as important as you might think. Even if you’re writing something journalistic, names can be switched out. Interestingly, the more you try to write objectively (as much as you can when telling your life story), the more your readers will respect your attempt to protect the not-so-innocent.

I’ve written two memoirs. In the first, I wrote about my experiences as a Waldorf teacher. In the second, I’m writing about my family. For the former, I changed the school’s name but left the city accurate, as there were several schools I could have been referring to. I also chose to change all of the names of the faculty and students.

For the second memoir, I haven’t changed anyone’s name, although I do not reveal the identity of my mother’s former boyfriend. I’ve simply referred to him as my stepfather, since he raised us. All of this could change, but there’s no reason that I can see to change anyone’s name, because I’m not saying anything damaging.

You could make the argument that you can’t predict how people will react to being written about, no matter what you say, and you would be right. I think, for this reason, it’s best to err on the side of caution, because you will more likely regret using a real name than not.

So I’ve made a judgment call. If I’m sharing what could be construed as negative behavior, I feel it’s best not to specify who it is. When I wrote a short piece about a classmate from grade school who teased me for my drawing, I was shocked when she told me she read it. This made me feel embarrassed and realize that you never know who’s reading your writing!

For my family memoir, it’s very easy to figure out who is who, so I don’t see the point in fibbing. Also, a couple of the folks I’m writing about have passed away. Of course, it’s not foolproof, but I feel that more and more readers are becoming educated that a memoir is your point of view, not the final truth on the matter.

What’s the purpose in telling your story?

 

Image by Nadine Shaabana for Unsplash

Is Your Story Worthy of a Memoir?

Memoir cover

So many people are not sure whether the story of their life or one episode of their life is special enough to be “memoir-worthy.” If you’d like to document your life so that your family and friends will have all the facts straight, every story is memoir-worthy. But what if you’re hoping that your book will land on the best-seller list or provide the foundation for a hit movie?

This is the first of two guest blog posts by memoir author Lani Cox, who supplies guidelines for knowing whether your story has the potential to sell.

How can you tell if what you want to share is worth telling? In a word: feedback.

I’ve written two memoirs. I self-published the first one, and for the second one, I’m trying to learn from the mistakes I made the first time around, so I’m taking my time. But with both, I’ve gleaned valuable insight from various sources.

Share it with a writers’ group

When I first started writing for public consumption, I joined a writers’ group. Most people were supportive, and if you have a negative experience, please don’t let that put you off. These days there are many avenues.

When I lived in the expat community of Chiang Mai, Thailand, I started my own group. My ad went unanswered for a long time—so long that I forgot about it until the day that a fellow writer contacted me. The group grew from there, and it was a wonderful experience. I’m still friends with the ladies I met through the group.

If there aren’t any writers’ groups in your town (as it is currently for me), try online groups and websites like Wattpad.

Share it on a blog

Something else I did was start a blog, uploading a chapter at a time. I started getting comments,  emails and shares as I was writing about the alternative world of Waldorf education, maybe because there wasn’t a lot of other information about it at the time.

A second blog about my expat experiences has led me to explore even more topics. Being part of a writing community is a great way to learn about other people and see what resonates with them. You also can learn a lot about putting yourself out there. These days, that is so important.

Share it with your friends

Before the internet took over our lives, I listened to the stories my mom and grandma would tell. I retold them to friends and to anyone who would listen. This was a more organic approach and planted the seeds of my storytelling future as a writer. You most likely already do this but, if you don’t, I’d encourage you to open up to others. Making connections is one of the most rewarding aspects of writing memoir.

 

Future Memoir Authors, You’re Experiencing a Historical Moment, so Take Notes!

Write My Memoirs

For most of us alive today, the global response to Covid-19 is something we’ve never seen before. Some older people may remember living through the fear of dying from earlier pandemics, the Great Depression’s crashing stock market, supply shortages that took place during World War II or perhaps a quarantine. But no one has lived through it all at once. This combination of fear of the illness, the mandated closing of public businesses, a “time out” for sports, general “social distancing” and extreme stock market volatility is not life as usual by any means.

Capture today’s history in text and images

If you’re healthy and stuck at home, what should you be doing? Taking notes. If you think you may ever want to write a memoir, these weeks very likely will fill up a page or a chapter. This is not normal life, and what comes next—whatever that turns out to be—may also be unprecedented. Although we’re all experiencing it together, your corner of the world is still unique. Take photos of your grocery store shelves. Drive around your town and notice how people are coping. Are they taking a solo walk or bike ride? Do you see people carrying files or a computer into their house to work from home? Are others just driving around the way you are in order to get out of the house?

This episode may be just a blip in your life and have no relevance to your memoir focus. But you never know, and you can’t recapture what’s happening today. Snap photos so that you own the images. Keep a diary so you don’t have to trust your memory. Stay aware of small things that you wouldn’t otherwise notice. And mostly, stay well! At Write My Memoirs, we want all of our memoir authors healthy and writing.

Two WriteMyMemoirs FAQs

Two Write My Memoirs FAQs
The email we get from our members and also non-members who are browsing various memoir sites reveals a few common concerns. So for those who have wondered:
Q: This can’t really be free. Where are the hidden charges?
A: This can really be free—and it is! You will never be charged for writing your story on the WriteMyMemoirs site and keeping it safe here. Our fee-based services are outlined under the tabs for “Writing Help” and “Publish My Book.” When you want to have a professional editor polish your work, or if you would like us to publish your work into a real book, you will be taken to PayPal for secure payment and we will proceed from there—you don’t have to do anything more!
Q: Why should I fill out the “interview” before I start writing?
A: You can opt out of the interview, but it’s there to help you pinpoint the important dates in your life such as when you started a new job and when your children were born. The information you provide automatically creates a time line that pops up when you start writing a chapter. That’s why we ask you to assign dates to each chapter—our program can then map out the appropriate time line. Because of space restrictions, not everything you mentioned in your interview will show up on the time line, but you’ll have enough to jog your memory, plus you can always look back at your interview to make sure you have your dates straight.
We’ll answer more common questions periodically on the blog, or please use our Contact Us form if you need to ask us something.

The email we get from our members and also non-members who are browsing various memoir sites reveals a few common concerns. So for those who have wondered:

Q: This can’t really be free. Where are the hidden charges?

A: This can really be free—and it is! You will never be charged for writing your story on the WriteMyMemoirs site and keeping it safe here. Our fee-based services are outlined under the tabs for “Writing Help” and “Publish My Book.” When you want to have a professional editor polish your work, or if you would like us to publish your work into a real book, you will be taken to PayPal for secure payment and we will proceed from there—you don’t have to do anything more!

Q: Why should I fill out the “interview” before I start writing?

A: You can opt out of the WriteMyMemoirs interview, but it’s there to help you pinpoint the important dates in your life such as when you started a new job and when your children were born. The information you provide automatically creates a time line that pops up when you start writing a chapter. That’s why we ask you to assign dates to each chapter—our program can then map out the appropriate time line. Because of space restrictions, not everything you mentioned in your interview will show up on the time line, but you’ll have enough to jog your memory, plus you can always look back at your interview to make sure you have your dates straight.

We’ll answer more common questions periodically on the blog, or please use our Contact Us form if you need to ask us something.