Reviewing the Writer’s Digest list of 10 writing rules, we come to Rule 3—“show, don’t tell,” advice you’ve probably received from an English teacher at some point in your schooling. It’s an important rule, which author Natalie Goldberg recommends following. Goldberg provides an informative example to illustrate the difference between how a timid student might fulfill the typical “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” assignment when compared with a fearless writer. The former would tell, Goldberg says, writing something along the lines of, “I had a good time. It was very interesting and fun.” The bold describer would show, not tell. Regretting her own timidity, Goldberg wonders how much her teacher would have preferred if she’d shown instead of told and written the truth: “My mother dyed her hair red, smoked Marlboros, while my sister and I played Parcheesi on the back porch, sitting on the cool cement. My father ate an early dinner of steak and iceberg lettuce each night before he left to tend bar until 5 a.m.”
That’s the difference between telling and showing, and you can see why showing makes for a vastly more interesting memoir. But what happens when you want to reveal what’s going on in your mind? There’s no action to describe, but it’s critical to your memoir to share your thoughts about a situation. Literary agent Donald Maas addresses this, maintaining there is an effective way to keep the reader interested while conveying, for example, “ the intuition out of nowhere, for no solid reason, that she’s going to leave me.”
Maas’s solution? “The trick to telling is to base your passage in emotions. Less obvious emotions are good. Contrasting emotions are better. Conflicting emotions are best. If moving beneath the surface, in subtext, then you’re cooking. Fold into these feelings whatever outward details are at hand in the moment.” I agree with Goldberg that showing beats telling every time, but I also agree with Maas that, when telling is your only available choice, you can include a bit of candid emotional turmoil and still keep your readers engaged.