(from Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Greenberg)
There is an old saying in writing: “Don’t tell, but show.” What does this actually mean? It means don’t tell us about anger (or any of those big words like honesty, truth, hate, love, sorrow, life, justice, etc.) show us what made you angry. We will read it and feel angry. Don’t tell readers what to feel. Show them the situation, and that feeling will awaken in them.
Writing is not psychology. We do not talk “about” feelings. Instead the writer feels and through her words awakens those feelings in the reader. The writer takes the reader’s hand and guides him through the valley of sorrow and joy without ever having to mention those words.
When you are present at the birth of a child you may find yourself weeping and singing. Describe what you see: the mother’s face, the rush of energy when the baby finally enters the world after many attempts, the husband breathing with his wife, applying a wet washcloth to her forehead. The reader will understand without you ever having to discuss the nature of life.
When you write, stay in direct connection with the senses and what you are writing about. If you are writing from first thoughts – the way your mind flashes on something before second and third thoughts take over and comment, criticise and evaluate – you don’t have to worry. First thoughts are the mind reflecting experiences – as close as a human being can get in words to the sunset, the birth, the bobby pin, the crocus. We can’t always stay with first thoughts, but it is good to know about them. They can easily teach us how to step out of the way and use words like a mirror to reflect the pictures. As soon as I hear the word about in someone’s writing, it is an automatic alarm. “This story is about life.” Skip that line and go straight into life in your writing. Naturally, when we do practice writing in our notebook, we might write a general line: “I want to write about my grandmother” or “This is a story about success.” That’s fine. Don’t criticise yourself for writing it; don’t get critical and mix up the creator and the editor. Simply write it, note it, and drop to a deeper level and enter the story and take us into it.
Some general statements are sometimes very appropriate. Just make sure to back each one with a concrete picture. Even if you are writing an essay, it makes the work so much more lively. Oh, if only the philosopher, Descartes had followed these instructions. “I think, therefore I am” – I think about bubble gum, horse racing, barbeque, and the stock market; therefore, I know I exist in America in the twentieth century. If all philosophers tried to show instead of telling we would all be a lot happier.
Several years ago I wrote down a story that someone had told me. My friends said it was “boring”. I couldn’t understand their reaction; I loved the story. What I realise now is that I wrote “about” the story, secondhand. I didn’t enter it and make friends with it. I was outside it; therefore, I couldn’t take anyone else into it. This does not mean you can’t write about something you did not actually experience firsthand; only make sure you breathe life into it. Otherwise it is two times removed and you are not present.