Discover more from Writerland
Writerland, Chapter 8: Show and Tell
Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
There is nothing like regret to undermine a writer’s joy. It works on the fragile psyche in so many ways and is most often experienced after the fact, when after all you’ve gone through in bringing a story to life you finally see it on the page and experience a feeling akin to hearing your own recorded voice: do I really sound like that? Tough to blame it all on an editor when you’re thinking, how could I have written such flabby, uninspired prose? Best to catch yourself quickly, before you begin asking whether you should ever write again. Stop. Breath. Repeat.
But there is one regret, painful though it may be, that has its uses: the regret of the Big One That Got Away.
Most writers I know have a story they’d give anything to have back, to be able to come at again, knowing what they now know. If that sounds a little like love and regret maybe it is fitting; because we are talking about a relationship at the core of a writer’s life, the relationship with the story. If this is a journey to joy, then pain is inevitable.
I have mine. It happened 40 years ago and even now I think back with frustration and regret at the memory of the story that should have been. Did I learn from it? Yes. Did it hurt? Deeply. Was it worth it? Do we learn when our hearts get broken? Yes, we do.
Maybe what makes this one so hard is that the memory of how it began remains so vivid, and so filled with possibilities. I was on a train from St. Louis to Chicago when the door between the cars opened and in strode a young man in an SS uniform. I can still see him. Blond and purposeful as he made his way down to aisle.
Excuse me, I asked, but what are you doing in that uniform?
I’m a member of the World War Two Battle Re-enactment Society, he replied, and I’m coming back from battle.
We talked a bit more and he mentioned that in a few weeks’ time the group would be gathering for its big event of the year: re-playing the Battle of the Bulge on a farm in downstate Illinois. I asked if I, a journalist, could attend. He gave me the name of the society’s president.
Was my heart racing? It surely was. My workdays were then spent covering events small and occasionally large for the suburban edition of the Chicago Tribune. I was itching for more when into my writing life walked the young man dressed like a Nazi with a story too good to be true. Better still, the society’s president had no trouble with my spending the weekend, with one proviso: I had to be in uniform. Could I bring my brother, I asked. Sure, he said. You two can play the roles of war correspondents. Be still my heart.
And so, on a Friday night a few weeks later, my brother Jim and I found ourselves in the middle of nowhere among the re-enacters. We were handed GI uniforms and helmets and directed to pitch our orange pup tent in the non-authentic zone, lest we sully the appearance of an army camp, circa 1944.
You should have seen them. Men dressed in period American, British, German and Russian uniforms. With weapons and mess kits and all the right insignia. Hundreds of them, or so I recall because the gathering, in my memory, was enormous. And they knew everything about the units they represented. They had studied. They were so ready to fight. I should explain that Jim and I had spent a lot of our post-World War Two/Pre-Vietnam childhoods sharing a bedroom where we played soldier with toy guns. How could this not be fantastic?
By Saturday night, twenty-four hours and a few skirmishes in, we were in our civvies and having steaks and beers in a restaurant nearby and I was falling apart. What am I seeing here, I asked my brother. What is going on?
It was not for lack of material. There was so much of it. Like the fact that the best of the re-enacters were Vietnam veterans who could not stop approximating the experience of war. And they chose to do so as the Waffen SS – who ran Hitler’s execution squads. I can still recall one man whose name was Willy and who looked like Robert Redford telling me that in the rankings of elite fighters the Waffen SS were second only to the Apache. Who says this, never mind who does the rankings. There was the Jewish guy who insisted that there was nothing even a little bit wrong with his wanting to dress like a Nazi. There were the duffers, of course, who liked to joke that the only difference between men and boys were the price of their toys. There were stories everywhere. But what was the story?
My brother, bless him, tried to help, and because he was studying to be the academic he is today – there is no finer Shakespearean than my brother Jim, and you can look it up – he took a scholarly approach: Homo Ludens, he suggested. The Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga’s seminal work on men and play. Cool. Great. Got it, I thought. Thank you, Jim. Yes, I can see it now.
We paid our tab, drove back, changed into our uniforms and that night joined the GIs as they fought the Battle of Bastogne. They fired blanks that sounded like rifle fire. They threw smoke bombs that exploded in purple clouds. And when the smoke cleared the Germans had carried the battle and ultimately the day. So much for being authentic.
But no matter; my notebooks were full. I had my story. I was ready to write. Wasn’t I?
Not even close.
Did that stop me? It did not. And at that moment, my story, my I-can’t-believe-this-one-is-all-mine-story was doomed.
Writers hear all kind of things about how to be better and one of them is: show don’t tell. As in, take me there with details and capture the moment by letting what you’ve gathered tell the story. This is pretty good advice and it often works, in good measure because it is clear: show don’t tell. I can do that. I can write.
But the problem with writing advice is that is can often be arbitrary, in contrast to stories which are situational. The most frustrating answer to someone seeking clarity is: it depends. It depends on a lot. Better to follow the clear and simple rules: show don’t tell. Put me in coach, I’ve got this.
I loved show don’t tell. I could see and take note and come back and, after laboriously pouring through my notebooks – great quote, great scene, gotta work those in! – write with the knowledge that the story would all but write itself. All I had to do was relay it.
And so, I set to writing the story of my weekend and the writing did not come easily. That should have been a clue. But hey, I was a journalist, and I would power through, even though I really had no idea what I was trying to say. I followed the arc of the weekend, and heaven knows I had so much good material that surely readers would be able to draw their own conclusions, right?
I finished. It looked pretty good. My editor at what was called the LittleTrib was brilliant, wise and thoughtful and gentle with her writers. Her name was Cissi Falligant, and we loved her so much that we gave her A. Scott Berg’s biography of the legendary Maxwell Perkins, Editor of Genius. Her, not us.
I trusted Cissi to be honest with me. And that she was. I can still recall our sitting in what passed for a cafeteria at our office – four tables and some vending machines – and waiting for her to tell me that I had not failed.
She had the story in front of her. Well, I asked.
This story can never be better than mediocre, she said.
Because you wrote before you knew what you wanted to say.
Of course I did. I had been getting away with it for years with stories not nearly so big and challenging. I could show well. But I had avoided telling. Showing required little risk. Telling? What if I was wrong?
Cissi and I remained friends and when we started the Big Roundtable in 2013 I called to see – pray, really – whether she’d like to work with us. She has been our senior editor ever since.
A few days ago, I emailed her to ask about that story and though so much time had passed she remembered.
She wrote: I remember mostly being sad for you. You were so enthusiastic. I remember looking at your eager face and very much wanting to tell you it was great. But when I was reading it, I kept hoping you would soon “get to the point”. All your beautiful reporting, the details and profiles that piled up upon one another, never really added up to a climax. I remember thinking, why cover the reenactment? Why should we care? And as much as I wanted to help you turn it into what you and I both wanted it to be, I couldn’t figure out an angle to pivot from – a profile of a single character willing to don an itchy, hot, wool suit and run around in the woods, or a resonant story of the original battle. I was sad for you and sad for me for having to tell you.
I would like to be able to tell you that having learned this essential lesson from someone I so admired I was able to immediately put it into practice. But it would take years before I was able to shake off the temptation of showing and not telling, years before I came to understand that as much as writers do need to show, there are moments when they need to tell. And those moments come early, when a writer is prepared to take a stand, to take the leap of faith that they have a story to tell.
Or more aptly in this ongoing story of a relationship, to commit.
We wanted to share with you some of the entries we received over the past couple of weeks to our last prompt. Our thanks to those who shared their writing with us. We’ll try this again sometime soon.
We also wanted to offer you a story in the hope of making the time pass a little more quickly and enjoyably for those whose lives are constrained by quarantine, lockdown, or illness. This story remains our most widely read and shared. It’s the story of a mother and a daughter and about the journey to forgiveness. It’s called Damage and the author is Mariya Karimjee.
Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.