Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

"Show, don't tell"


Some people salutate with "all the best," some with "grace" or "peace." Some Dutch folks (from Canada and the US, not Holland) use "het beste"; in fact, a California friend of mine uses it even though she hasn't a stitch of Dutch in her. "Sincerely" is standard fare, of course, but e-mails, which makes up 99% of personal correspondence these days, frequently skips the courteousy altogether.

So this week I got a note from a former student who ended it with the salutation, "show, don't tell," which I thought was cute because he was, thereby, acknowledging that at least something of a class I taught 15 years ago not only got through but stuck. "Show, don't tell."

When ideas calcify into cliche, they don't necessarily become less true, only less fresh. Take this one, for instance, the almost canonical first rule of good writing. In forty years of teaching writing, I've probably laid that one out a hundred thousand times because it seems to me that even though the line is old and hackneyed, it certainly isn't wrong.

In really fine writing, one doesn't want to say, "that man was ugly"--that's telling. "My uncle Jethro had an overbite that could have handled most of the Oklahoma panhandle"--that's showing. In memorable writing, a strong image always bests a clear idea; or maybe I should say that good images always make clear ideas stick. Show, don't tell.

Anyway, I had to chuckle when I read it there on the note, as I'm sure that ex-student of mine knew I would. He's a teacher himself, so his sweet acknowledgement was a clever way of saying thanks (I think!).

Got me to thinking, though. What if "show, don't tell" were all my forty-years' worth of students remembered from writing class? What if that catch phrase comprised the full volume of my influence in a thousand students' lives, the sum total of 40 class periods and six or seven essays in any semester of my life?--that's what I was thinking.

Here's what I'm thinking: guess what?--could have done worse. After all, "show, don't tell" is still a first-class writing tip; you could do worse than have that one stick to the insides of your mind. And people who write well do often get some breaks in life, I think--or that's what I'm told. I know a television news producer who claims that writing is just about the only skill she looks for in a candidate for a job--can she write? "We can teach her everything else," she's told me several times, "but if she can write she can do just about anything in news."

But who cares? The vast majority of my students are not bound for careers in TV journalism--or the law, where writing also counts, big-time. "Show, don't tell" ain't bad for other things as well.

Like living with neighbors, for instance--"show 'em, don't tell 'em." Like being a parent for that matter, or a teacher or just a good friend: if you want to make something stick, show 'em, don't tell 'em. Like living the Christian life, for instance--or even bringing the good news. The difference between walk and talk is embedded in the old line too, really--don't you think? The more I think about it, I could do worse than "show, don't tell."

So anyway, thanks, I'm saying, to the ex-student's sweet salutation. Lord knows I could do worse.
Hey--show, don't tell.


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