Is “Show, Don’t Tell” in Memoir Good Advice?

reader demonstrating show don't tell reaction

If you’re a writer or trying to be a memoir author, you’ve heard the advice to “show, don’t tell.” It’s easy to think you know what it means until you sit down and try to put it into practice. But as with most writing, it is important to “show, don’t tell” in memoir.

Too many adjectives

Especially in a memoir, we want the reader to know our deepest feelings about the experiences we’re describing. The natural way to convey our reactions is to use adjectives—it made us sad or happy; we felt afraid or angry; we were surprised or baffled. It’s okay to pepper your work with adjectives like these, but it’s just not that effective. When you spoonfeed the reader your emotional intent, the reader doesn’t become as engaged as when the reader organically experiences the same emotions.

As you get better at “showing, not telling,” you’ll find that you rely on adjectives less frequently. You’ll describe everything that occurred, but you’re not an objective observer. You’re you. It was your eyes that saw the event take place, your ears that heard the accompanying sounds and conversation, your heart that took it all in. And then it all gets filtered through your memory. So telling the story in itself lets the reader know how you felt about it.

Trust the memoir reader; don’t authorsplain

The product that comes out of all that is a biased and detailed account. The emotions you felt are exactly the same that the reader is likely to experience. You don’t have to “authorsplain” how the events made you feel. Readers are smart. Did the joke strike you as funny? The reader already knows this, because you described the way you laughed uncontrollably. Were you feeling jealous of someone? The reader senses that when you mention that in your mind you were picturing yourself strangling the person. Did you feel ashamed of yourself about an incident? The reader feels your shame because, after all, who wouldn’t be ashamed of doing what you so vividly just described?

Your reaction is important

The other clue is what happens next in your story. Instead of telling the reader about your shame, maybe you reported that you slouched, turned and left the room without saying a word. If you were afraid, you could describe your hand shaking. Even a simple “a huge smile crossed my face” is better than “I was so happy to hear this.”

The role of the confidante

Dialogue can be useful, too, in letting the reader know what’s going on in your mind. Relating an experience to your friend can let the reader in on your thoughts that might not be as obvious. It’s still tricky. Telling a friend “I’m so happy” is no more compelling than saying it directly to the reader. But in skilled hands, dialogue can be a useful device.

Watch this space for more “show, don’t tell” in memoir!

Check back soon, and we’ll give examples of passages that show vs. those that tell. That will make everything crystal clear!

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 3: Show, Don’t Tell

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 3: Show, Don’t Tell
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 address 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.
http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/writing-rules-10-experts-take-on-the-writers-rulebook

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.

Try Garner’s as a Reference for Grammar and Usage

Try Garner’s American Usage as a Reference
So many questions about grammar cannot be answered simply yes/no, either/or. While we tend to think of grammar as cut-and-dried, it’s really more of a reflection of preferred usage at this moment in time—preferred rather than absolutely correct, and only at this moment because a living language is constantly changing. So a grammatical construction you learned in school 40 years ago may be less valid today. That’s less valid, not exactly wrong. Also, word choice, usage and even punctuation vary widely depending on your geography. Each English-speaking country seems to have its own rules.
For all of those reasons, for American writing I like a usage guide that’s not on everyone’s radar: Garner’s American Usage. Most people rely on a stylebook such as the AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style, or a dictionary like Webster’s or American Heritage. But unlike those references, which provide right-or-wrong information, Garner’s Modern American Usage includes the immensely helpful and sensible “Garner’s Language-Change Index,” a five-stage continuum of acceptability ranging from unacceptable to commonly preferred. Garner’s also is a fun read, adding information about the language and elaborating its points with humor.
A review by School Library Journal published on the Oxford University Press website calls Garner’s “the best of its kind in that it simply reports the facts in an engaging way; language evolves and usage changes. An invaluable ready-reference tool.”
http://www.amazon.com/Garners-Modern-American-Usage-Garner/dp/0195382757/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1366214307&sr=8-1&keywords=garner%27s+modern+american+usage
http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Reference/EnglishUsageGuides/?view=usa&ci=9780195382754

So many questions about grammar cannot be answered simply yes/no, either/or. While we tend to think of grammar as cut-and-dried, it’s really more of a reflection of preferred usage at this moment in time—preferred rather than absolutely correct, and only at this moment because a living language is constantly changing. So a grammatical construction you learned in school 40 years ago may be less valid today. That’s less valid, not exactly wrong. Also, word choice, usage and even punctuation vary widely depending on your geography. Each English-speaking country seems to have its own rules.

For all of those reasons, for American memoir writing I like a usage guide that’s not on everyone’s radar: Garner’s American Usage. Most people rely on a stylebook such as the AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style, or a dictionary like Webster’s or American Heritage. But unlike those references, which gauge each case as right or wrong, Garner’s Modern American Usage includes the immensely helpful and sensible “Garner’s Language-Change Index,” a five-stage continuum of acceptability ranging from unacceptable to commonly preferred. Garner’s also is a fun read, adding information about the language and elaborating its points with humor.

A review by School Library Journal published on the Oxford University Press website calls Garner’s “the best of its kind in that it simply reports the facts in an engaging way; language evolves and usage changes. An invaluable ready-reference tool.”

Verb Tenses, Part III

Verb Tenses, Part III
To finish up this three-part series, we’re going to talk about the “perfect progressive” tenses. Instead of using the past participle as we did for the present perfect, past perfect and future perfect tenses, for the progressive tenses we’ll need the present participle. For example, the past participle for to sing is sung, as in, “She has sung professionally in front of thousands of people”; the present participle is singing, as in, “She has been singing professionally since her teen years.”
Present Perfect Progressive Tense
Conveys current, ongoing action that began in the past, continues in the present and may continue in the future.
Formation: has been or have been + the present participle of the verb
I have been thinking about writing my memoirs.
We have been learning about verb tenses.
Past Perfect Progressive Tense
Conveys past, ongoing action that began in the past before another action.
Formation: had been + the present participle of the verb
I had been thinking about writing a novel before I changed my mind and decided to write a memoir.
She had been reading her book for three hours before she finally broke away to have dinner.
Future Perfect Progressive Tense
Conveys future, ongoing action that will be completed before another future action.
Formation: will have been + the present participle of the verb
As of June, I will have been working on my memoir for a full year.
If he starts his homework now, he will have been studying for three hours when he finally breaks for dinner.
I hope you found these tenses useful! Write if you have questions!

To finish up this Write My Memoirs three-part series, we’re going to talk about the “perfect progressive” tenses. Instead of using the past participle as we did for the present perfect, past perfect and future perfect tenses, for the progressive tenses we’ll need the present participle. For example, the past participle for to sing is sung, as in, “She has sung professionally in front of thousands of people”; the present participle is singing, as in, “She has been singing professionally since her teen years.”

PRESENT PERFECT PROGRESSIVE TENSE
Conveys current, ongoing action that began in the past, continues in the present and may continue in the future.
Formation: has been or have been + the present participle of the verb

I have been thinking about writing my memoirs.

We have been learning about verb tenses.

PAST PERFECT PROGRESSIVE TENSE
Conveys past, ongoing action that began in the past before another action.
Formation: had been + the present participle of the verb

I had been thinking about writing a novel before I changed my mind and decided to write a memoir.

She had been reading her book for three hours before she finally broke away to have dinner.

FUTURE PERFECT PROGRESSIVE TENSE
Conveys future, ongoing action that will be completed before another future action.
Formation: will have been + the present participle of the verb

As of June, I will have been working on my memoir for a full year.

If he starts his homework now, he will have been studying for three hours when he finally breaks for dinner.

I hope you found these tenses useful! Write if you have questions!

Verb Tenses, Part II

Please read the Write My Memoirs blog post immediately preceding this one. Now that you have a handle on what a past participle is and, I’m going to assume, you pretty much know how to use the present and past tenses, we can move on to the difficult tenses that use past participles. Let’s example three:

PRESENT PERFECT TENSE
Conveys action that either began in the past and continues today or took place at an indefinite time.
Formation: has or have + the past participle of the verb

I have cooked [present perfect tense] dinner but have not served [present perfect] it yet.

You own [present tense] many books and have passed [present perfect] down the joy of reading to your children.

I sent [past tense] an email to my friend, and I hope [present tense] that she has read [present perfect tense] it by now.

PAST PERFECT TENSE
Conveys action that took place before another action in the past.
Formation: had + the past participle of the verb

I had intended [past perfect tense] to eat [infinitive] dinner at home until I decided [past tense] to go [infinitive] out instead.

I suppose [present tense] they had notified [past perfect tense] me earlier, but I neglected [past tense] to mark [infinitive] the date on my calendar.

FUTURE PERFECT TENSE
Conveys future action that will occur before another future action.
Formation: will have + the past participle of the verb

I will have finished [future perfect tense] all of my work when I end [present tense indicating a future event] my day with my favorite TV show.

I assume [present tense] that the teacher will have corrected [future perfect tense] our essays by the time class begins [present tense indicating a future event].

If anything is not clear, contact us or post on our Facebook wall! More tenses next time.

Grammar Lesson: Verb Tenses, Part I

Grammar Lesson: Verb Tenses, Part I
When our Write My Memoirs members hire us to edit their memoirs, we notice that verb tenses seem to be a tough grammar hurdle that trips up many writers. So let’s tackle these tricky little verbs one tense at a time. I’ll devote as many blog posts as it takes, starting with today.
When we list the forms of a verb, typically we list three tenses: present tense, past tense and past participle. The last one—the past participle—is the most problematic. To illustrate the three tenses of the regular verb to help, you would list: help (present tense); helped (past tense); and helped (past participle). In practice, this goes: today I help the customer; yesterday I helped the customer; over the past week I have helped many customers. You can see that the past participle takes a helping verb like have. For regular verbs, the past participle is the same as the past tense—in this case, both are helped.
However, there are many irregular verbs. Let’s try to take: today I take my temperature; yesterday I took my temperature; I have taken my temperature many times this week. In that irregular example, took is past tense, but taken is the past participle. To run also is irregular: today I run; yesterday I ran; I have run five times this week. That’s an unusual case, because the past participle run is the same as the present tense, first person. Keep in mind, though, that “person” presents another variable that can change the present tense, but the past participle remains the same. With to run, the past participle remains run when we change the example from first person to third person: today he runs; yesterday he ran; he has run five times this week.
Practice on other verbs until we dig into this again next time!

When our Write My Memoirs members hire us to edit their memoirs, we notice that verb tenses seem to be a tough grammar hurdle that trips up many writers. So let’s tackle these tricky little verbs one tense at a time. I’ll devote as many blog posts as it takes, starting with today.

When we list the forms of a verb, typically we list two tenses—present tense and past tense—plus the past participle, which is a component of the remaining tenses and is the most problematic.  The last one—the past participle—is the most problematic. To illustrate the three tenses of the regular verb to help, you would list: help (present tense); helped (past tense); and helped (past participle). In practice, this goes: today I help the customer; yesterday I helped the customer; over the past week I have helped many customers. You can see that the past participle takes a helping verb like have. For regular verbs, the past participle is the same as the past tense—in this case, both are helped.

However, there are many irregular verbs. Let’s try to take: today I take my temperature; yesterday I took my temperature; I have taken my temperature many times this week. In that irregular example, took is past tense, but taken is the past participle. To run also is irregular: today I run; yesterday I ran; I have run five times this week. That’s an unusual case, because the past participle run is the same as the present tense, first person. Keep in mind, though, that “person” presents another variable that can change the present tense, but the past participle remains the same. With to run, the past participle remains run when we change the example from first person (I) to third person (he/she): today he runs; yesterday he ran; he has run five times this week.

Practice on other verbs until we dig into this again next time!

How Important Are Grammar Rules?

How Important Are Grammar Rules?
If you’re writing a memoir, by definition you’re now a writer. For the first time since high school, you may be thinking about grammar. But is that really necessary?
My quick answer is that, yes, most of us could use a grammar refresher course. I found an audio course for $179 that you can take right from your computer on September 20. Click here to learn more. (We do not have any connection to that company; we neither receive a share of the profits nor have taken any courses there ourselves to recommend.)
This particular course aims to help you get rid of some bad writing habits like splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions and using passive voice. Are those habits so evil? Not really. If anything, these rules are losing favor and become antiquated. But as a writer, you should be aware of them. You should recognize these “flaws” when you see them and limit them in your own writing. But I would not say you must eliminate them altogether. Take this sentence: “I want to always know where you’ll be.” While that demonstrates a split infinitive—always splits the infinitive to know—it’s probably the clearest and most efficient way of expressing that thought. However, it’s not the only way; there are lots of ways to say the same thing. Learning these rules will open your eyes to all of the options, and you can improve the impact of your writing if you avoid “breaking” these rules as much as possible.

If you’re writing a memoir, by definition you’re now a writer. For the first time since high school, you may be thinking about grammar. But is that really necessary?

My quick answer is that, yes, most of us could use a grammar refresher course. I found an audio course for $179 that you can take right from your computer on September 20. Click here to learn more. (We do not have any connection to that company; we neither receive a share of the profits nor have taken any courses there ourselves to recommend.)

This particular course aims to help you get rid of some bad writing habits like splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions and using passive voice. Are those habits so evil? Not really. If anything, these rules are losing favor and become antiquated. But as a writer, you should be aware of them. You should recognize these “flaws” when you see them and limit them in your own writing. But I would not say you must eliminate them altogether. Take this sentence: “I want to always know where you’ll be.” While that demonstrates a split infinitive—always splits the infinitive to know—it’s probably the clearest and most efficient way of expressing that thought. However, it’s not the only way; there are lots of ways to say the same thing. Learning these rules will open your eyes to all of the options, and you can improve the impact of your writing if you avoid “breaking” these rules as much as possible.

Video Lists Top Ten Rules of Writing

Video Lists Top Ten Rules of Writing
This week’s WriteMyMemoirs blog post started out as a post to discuss the writing rules noted in a YouTube video called Top Ten Writing Rules From Famous Writers, which was posted last year by Lyra Communications. Instead, I’m on a rant! These are the ten rules listed:
10. Stephen King: Write a draft; then let it rest.
9. Stephen King: Read a lot.
8. George Orwell: Never use a long word when a short one will do.
7. George Orwell: Never use the passive voice when you can use the active voice.
6. Pierre Berton: Know your audience.
5. Pierre Berton: Recycle and read the good stuff before you write.
4. Andrew Morton: Honor the miraculousness of the ordinary.
3. Stephen King: Good copy = Draft minus 10%.
2. Bob Cooper: Look at every word in a sentence, decide if all are really needed and, if not, kill them; be ruthless.
1. Al Kennedy: Writing doesn’t love you; it doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.
I suppose those ideas are worthy of discussion—although I’m not sure they’d be my top ten—but I’m finding that I’d rather critique the video itself than the rules. I have a lot of problems with this video. First, there seems to be a “famous writer” shortage. Wouldn’t you be more interested in ten rules from ten different writers? Here, only six writers supply all ten rules. I also question how well these writers meet the title’s definition of “famous.” King and Orwell are the only famous writers, and that Cooper guy was the narrator’s professor; I don’t think that credential qualifies him. Also, speaking of Cooper, I had to reword his writing tip to make it grammatically correct! For the #1 writing tip, which is really not a tip but a plea, the narrator refers to the author as a “he” when really the person actually is a woman. The communications lesson from this video is not what the company intended but, rather, to make sure your information is accurate and compelling before you post on YouTube.

This week’s WriteMyMemoirs blog post started out as a discussion of the writing rules noted in a YouTube video called Top Ten Writing Rules From Famous Writers, which was posted last year by Lyra Communications. Instead, I’m on a rant! These are the ten rules listed:

10. Stephen King: Write a draft; then let it rest.

9. Stephen King: Read a lot.

8. George Orwell: Never use a long word when a short one will do.

7. George Orwell: Never use the passive voice when you can use the active voice.

6. Pierre Berton: Know your audience.

5. Pierre Berton: Recycle and read the good stuff before you write.

4. Andrew Morton: Honor the miraculousness of the ordinary.

3. Stephen King: Good copy = Draft minus 10%.

2. Bob Cooper: Look at every word in a sentence, decide if all are really needed and, if not, kill them;  be ruthless.

1. Al Kennedy: Writing doesn’t love you; it doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.

I suppose those ideas are worthy of discussion—although I’m not sure they’d be my top ten—but I’m finding that I’d rather critique the video itself than the rules. I have a lot of problems with this video. First, there seems to be a “famous writer” shortage. Wouldn’t you be more interested in ten rules from ten different authors? Here, only six writers supply all ten rules. I also question how well these writers meet the title’s definition of “famous.” King and Orwell are the only famous writers, and that Cooper guy was the narrator’s professor; I don’t think that credential qualifies him. Also, speaking of Cooper, I had to reword his writing tip to make it grammatically correct! For the #1 writing tip, which is really not a tip but a plea, the narrator refers to the author as a “he” when the person actually is a woman. The communications lesson from this video is not what the company intended but, rather, to make sure your information is accurate and compelling before you post on YouTube.

More Grammar: The “They” Issue

“Everyone can find something they like on the menu.” Right or wrong? I hope you don’t mind another grammar discussion as you plug away at writing your memoir.

Today’s column by New York Times blogger Philip B. Corbett tackles the continuing dilemma of the gender-neutral singular pronoun. I’m among those who bristle at pairing the singular “anyone,” “everyone” or “no one” with the plural “they” or “their.” Corbett mostly agrees but also discourages resorting to the old-fashion “he” or the cumbersome “he or she.” I’m guessing he wouldn’t much like “s/he,” either. The problem is that English leaves you no good option. Or does it?

I’ve long advocated for just switching up the sentence. English is a rich language, and it’s not that difficult to say the same thing in a different way. This is Corbett’s solution as well. He tends to simply pluralize everything. For example: Should every student design their own curriculum? He changes that to: Should all students design their own curriculums? That’s good with me, except I would use curricula rather than curriculums, but I prefer his second suggestion: Should every student design an individual curriculum?

When we apply this to the first sentence above, we can come up with a few choices: All diners can find something they like on the menu; Anyone find something on the menu to enjoy; Everyone can find a satisfactory choice on the menu; The menu addresses all tastes and diets. Etcetera!

Avoid Redundancy in Your Memoir

Every so often I like to use the blog for a mini grammar lesson. With references to “PIN numbers” and “ATM machines” tossed around all the time, let’s discuss redundancy. You want every page of your memoir to be compelling, and filling space with excess words does not meet that goal. Here are some common redundant phrases you should avoid:

Autobiography of my life. If it’s anyone else’s life, the term is “biography.”
Basic fundamentals. If they’re not basic, they’re not fundamentals.
Completely eliminated. Yes, that’s the meaning of “eliminated.”
Estimated to be about. “Estimated” or “about”—you don’t need both.
Fellow classmates/colleagues. There’s no need for “fellow.”
Free gift. It wasn’t a gift if you had to pay for it.
Future plans. We rarely make plans for the past.
Kneel down. It goes without saying that you’re not kneeling up or laterally.
May/might possibly. The uncertainty is built into the word “may” or “might,” so you can drop “possibly.”
New innovation. An innovation is, by definition, always new.
Pre-planning. How did this ever come into use?
Unintentional mistake. They’re called “mistakes” because they’re unintentional!
Very unique. If you’re correctly using “unique” to indicate something that’s truly one-of-a-kind, you won’t need to qualify it.

And what about your PIN number and the ATM machine? Spell out the acronym, and you’ll see the redundancy: Personal Identification Number number and Automatic Teller Machine machine. Similarly, refer to your GPS system as just a GPS.