The wooden teacup: crimes against ‘show, don’t tell’.

When my daughter was little I had an idea for a picture book called ‘Where there’s fun, there’s mess’, the idea being – ostensibly – to have parents relax about chocolatey fingers on pearly white sofa cushions and mud in the hallway and landslides of toys on bedroom carpets (but, probably, honestly, more about making my own slutty housekeeping feel like a virtue).

I never wrote that book, but luckily the author Anne Lamott wrote Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Lifewhich was called to my attention by the lovely writer Mary Nathan last night. In Bird by Bird, Lamott likens real-world mess to writing mess, and reminds us how vital the latter is to that all important ‘shitty first draft’ (which calls Hemingway’s dictum to mind: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’). Lamott rails against perfectionism (the desire ‘not to leave so much mess to clean up’) and its deathly end result, that horrible writerly trait of ‘tidiness’, which ‘makes me think of held breath’, as she says, ‘of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move’.

As the title says, this is a book about writing and life, and some of her larger statements gave me an ‘ouch’ moment or two of recognition regarding my life, as opposed to my writing (I’ve made no bones about my recent depression, as interested parties can read about here and here and here…). But at least, when it comes to writing, it’s never too late. Perfectionism – and, worse still, its twisted sister, avoidance – have wreaked their havoc in my Real Life (here’s Lamott on the subject: ‘Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life’ – too true), but the good news is that I’ve slowly entangled myself from the tyranny of writerly tidiness over the last twelve months (partly by ‘blurting’, as Ray Bradbury called it, about which you can read more here, and partly by hearing my mentor on the Escalator Literature Scheme describe a large chunk of my book as ‘boring’).

We all have default settings as writers, and this is mine: a belief that by piling on nice-sounding words that sit nicely together, like some kind of OCD-inflicted bricklayer, I’m taking a shortcut away from the messy necessity of that shitty first draft – when, in fact, what I’m doing is SUCKING THE SOUL from my story. First drafts oughtn’t to look like this…

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… but this:

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Which brings me to my personal nemesis: the wooden teacup.

We coined this phrase, Mary and I, last night. It so happens we’re both writing books set largely in houses – in elegant houses where people drink tea, sit on chairs, flutter eyelashes, notice the wallpaper, listen to footsteps approaching, remark on the weather – and while such detail doesn’t have to lead to smallness (by which I mean heartlessness, emptiness, woodenness) the sad truth is that laying the nice, neat bricks of your scene in the sort of careful prose that rightly belongs in the editing phase means you’re likely avoiding the fun of the story as well as the mess. If you’re too keen to keep it all tidy – the literary equivalent of ‘picking up after yourself’ as you go along – you’ll find yourself with ‘wooden teacup’ writing: fussy and finicky, lacking a heart (thanks to Mary again for identifying ‘heart’ as a necessary factor of any decent scene – not, of course, in the sense of Hollywood schmaltz, but instead as the single thing that keeps it all beating).

In her excellent blog, the novelist Emma Darwin identifies a culprit for what she calls this ‘blow by blow’ writing: a misinterpretation of that hoary CW chestnut, ‘show, don’t tell’. Now many of you doubtless don’t need reminding of this, but I do: unlike playwrights, for us novelists ‘there’s no necessity to write the whole of a scene in real time’, as Darwin says. This shouldn’t have been a revelation to me in the last twelve months (since I’ve pretty much spent my life writing) but the humbling fact is I used to know this perfectly well, when I wrote less self-consciously (i.e. before I was published), but somewhere along my word-blocked journey to Madder Hall I taught myself to show, show, show, no matter how painful the showing, and gave up on the humble art of ‘telling’ as somehow too easy. A lot of the trouble comes from writing in close third person (not a can of worms I want to open here, but watch this space…) without that sense of an author to step in with his or her observations, but what I’ve effectively done is crippled myself – ‘cramped’ myself, in Lamott’s word – by failing to ‘use the infinite contractibility and expandibility of time in a narrative’ (and now I’m back to Darwin – who goes on to hold up her own dirty hands and admit that she, too, succumbs to the wooden teacup once in a while, when ‘tired or stressed or not very well’, ‘pulling the action blow by blow out of [herself] and sticking it on the page’). I urge you to read her post (when you’ve finished reading this one…) and read it right through to the end – where she has some vital observations on the writer as not just a camera (perhaps thank Christopher Isherwood for that), but editor, voice-over and cinematographer too…  

In an ideal world, your reader shouldn't yawn... Image from http://www.myhouserabbit.com/photos42.php

In an ideal world, your reader shouldn’t yawn… Image from http://www.myhouserabbit.com/photos42.php

So the revelation is this: YOU CAN SKIP THE BORING BITS. And if you don’t know what to skip to, then here’s revelation number 2: YOU HAVE NO HEART. (Not you personally, natch – your scene.) All that clinking of teacups and scraping of chairs and offering of matches (the other thing my characters do with mind-numbing regularity is light cigarettes – the book’s set mostly in the 1970s, which is my excuse and I’m sticking to it)… well, zzzzzzz. It’s all so polite and so dainty and sometimes the prose, as it lands on the page, has a cool sort of flow of its own – but what’s prose without story? (A poem, I suppose…) What I aim for now in my first drafts is something as rough as a fishwife’s cackle, that somehow, in spite of the flailing proseholds the interest. Has heart. I want clutter, not teacups, because ‘clutter is wonderfully fertile ground’ (says Lamott), and amongst it are treasures. She quotes Kurt Vonnegut: ‘When I write I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth’. The point is, the world (of your book) is your oyster. In real life you might spend a disproportionate amount of time drinking tea (she types, whilst slurping) but characters in novels really shouldn’t (unless of course you have some juicy subtext in which case the drinking of tea is a prop, as it should be, and not the scene’s purpose). Take stabs at the page with that crayon and see what comes out. Write in longhand on paper. Switch person from first to third, or vice versa. Switch tense, back and forth if you like. Let the thoughts tumble out, let the thoughts become words – don’t be crippled, or cramped, by the need to ‘keep tidy’, to let words dictate thoughts. Read Ted Hughes’s Poetry in the Making  and remind yourself that writing (whatever form it takes) starts with finding out what you want to say before caring how you say it. Avoid the blow by blow, unless each of those blows really matters. Remember who’s telling the story – that’s you – and as novelists (unlike pesky humans) time is our toy, our plaything.

And, lastly, I want to quote a nice, fat chunk from John Gardner in his book On Becoming a Novelist which, for me, covers pretty damn neatly the question of ‘show, don’t tell’ and warns all aspiring novelists against wandering into wooden teacup territory:

‘The writer with a truly accurate eye (and ear, nose, sense of touch, etc.) has an advantage over the writer who does not in that, among other things, he can tell his story in concrete terms, not just in feeble abstractions. Instead of writing, “She felt terrible,” he can show – by the precise gesture or look or by capturing the character’s exact turn of phrase – subtle nuances of the character’s feeling. The more abstract a piece of writing is, the less vivid the dream it sets off in the reader’s mind. One can feel sad or happy or bored or cross in a thousand ways: the abstract adjective says almost nothing. The precise gesture nails down the one feeling right for the moment. This is what is meant when writing teachers say that one should “show,” not “tell”. And this, it should be added, is all that the writing teacher means. Good writers may “tell” about almost anything in fiction except the characters’ feelings. One may tell the reader that the character went to a private school (one need not show a scene at the private school if the scene has no importance for the rest of the narrative), or one may tell the reader that the character hates spaghetti; but with rare exceptions the characters’ feelings must be demonstrated: fear, love, excitement, doubt, embarrassment, despair become real only when they take the form of events – action (or gesture), dialogue, or physical reaction to setting.’

We could, but won’t (because this post is far too long already), take a detour here into T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on the objective correlativebut frankly if you think ‘spaghetti: tell’, ‘despair: show’, that’s pretty much all you need to know. Let us see the story unfold in concrete terms (as opposed to abstract), but dunk too many pointless biscuits in too many pointless cups of tea and you may just find you have something wooden where your story’s heart should be.

 

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Ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum… or the Music of Prose.

What do you do to relax? I do various things. I read books, I watch films, I take baths. I play Chopin’s Waltz in F major on the piano – delighting my neighbours – and listen to ASMR videos on youtube (and if the latter has you thinking I’m probably mad then you’ll know it for sure by the end of this post).

Above all, though, I write.

Is she kidding, you’re thinking? She writes to relax. I should clarify, here, that I don’t mean proper writing with plot arcs, and meanings, and narrative drive. That’s like juggling whilst riding a unicycle – backwards – and, wonderfully absorbing and rewarding as that is (when it’s working), I’d never describe it as soothing.

Proper writing is like this.

Proper writing is like this.

No, no, I mean something called free writing. You let your pen loose on the paper (or fingers on keyboard) and, well, you just write. You don’t think, you don’t shape, you don’t plan. Your brain flops – I can actually feel it, somehow – and you splurge your thoughts onto the page. Automatically. Writing without really thinking about it. Like jiggling around in a nightclub, say, as opposed to performing the lead role in Swan Lake on stage for a ravenous crowd at Sadler’s Wells.

Free writing feels like this.

Free writing feels like this.

And, NB, when I say this is writing ‘automatically’, I don’t mean to say this is ‘automatic writing‘ – in which practitioners believe they’re communing with spirits: the only communing you’ll do here is with your own brain – your subconscious, specifically – which is far more entertaining (and, just occasionally, more alarming, if you’re currently unfamiliar with its deepest enclaves). The technique has been fairly widespread among writerly types since Dorothea Brande’s ‘Becoming a Writer’ way back in 1934 (which you can read in its entirety here, with an intro by John Gardner, whose own book, On Becoming a Novelist is equally deserving of your time and attention). We free-write in order to access our un- or sub-conscious, says Brande: the most playful – or childlike – part of our brains, that must function in tandem alongside the critical, conscious part (that decides if the plot makes sense, etc.) ‘You must teach yourself,’ she says, ‘not as though you were one person, but two.’

If you’ve never tried free writing before, you’ll find some great prompts here at practice writing.co.uk (choose a prompt that immediately zings in your brain – it’s more likely to resonate with you), or simply write ‘cold’ if you like (let your natural environment prompt you somehow). Back to Brande: ‘The unconscious is shy, elusive, and un- wieldy, but it is possible to learn to tap it at will, and even to direct it.’ The key here is practiceMy students divide into two clear camps: those who groan at the ‘f’ of the ‘free’ (and would rather poke sticks in their eyes than be let off the leash), while the other half champ at the bit to get started (and often have poetry somewhere behind them). You need to keep trying. The older you get, the more likely it is that your brain has erected complex fortification systems – a series of signs reading do not disturb. But a writer must play. I’m afraid it’s essential. You can’t run away from yourself – not forever: this process, for me, feels like switching the light off and groping around in the dark. You won’t know, till you reach out and grab them, what treats you might find. There are all sorts of things in that darkness, believe me, and maybe you’d feel that much safer by switching the light on but don’t, please, I ask you: the best stuff is shy and elusive, remember. It shrinks from the light.

‘But this post,’ you’ll be saying around about now – if your memory is better than mine – ‘was supposed to have something to do with the music of prose, whatever the hell that means.’ Well, yes. I’m now getting to that. It’s not something you’ll hear very often from advocates of free writing, but this is the way do it. Think back to the start of this post (it was ages ago) and you might recall something I said about Chopin? My twin loves are writing and music. The two come together sometimes. Where they meet with the least complication is here, in the dark of that treat-filled room where I do my free writing. The way I relax is to write for the rhythm alone: I don’t care about meaning, or sense, or self-censorship. All I can hear is the sound of the words, the ti-tum, ti-ti-tum, and the ebb and the flow of the language. Rhythm in English derives from a pattern of stressed or unstressed syllables: somehow I reach for an iamb or trochee or dactyl without even knowing exactly what iambs or trochees or dactyls are, but the rhythm entangles me, lulls me… relaxes me. Pushes me into the groove where I do my best writing, and opens the juiciest part of my brain where the good stuff is hiding.

Have you ever read prose that’s so fluid it’s sort of hypnotic? Tobias Hill (a poet as well as a novelist) is great at this; so, too, is his namesake, Tobias Wolff, in this ravishing extract from Old School‘it carried me back to those Sunday teas in the headmaster’s parlour, red leaves or snow or whirling maple seeds falling past the tall windows. The great Persian rug is covered with cookie crumbs. The air smells of the Greek master’s cigar. In the fat corner someone plays ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ on the tinkly upright, fragments of the melody floating just above our voices. We boys stand in circles…’ And so it goes on. It’s just lovely, right? Full of music and assonance. Swoon. (Although, crucially, Wolff breaks the rhythm sporadically: prose isn’t poetry, after all.) I could read it forever. In James Wood’s superb How Fiction Works he describes the ‘mathematical’ perfection of certain sentences; the writer’s ‘third ear’ that hears something beyond mere content. I don’t, by any means, lay claim to excellence as a writer (‘Authors come in two kinds,’ my mentor once told me. ‘Those who are natural storytellers… and, well… you’re the other kind, I think’) but the one thing I would say I’ve got is a fairly good ear for the music of prose. Which is bugger all use, of course, when you can’t tell a story, but, still, in my long writing life I’ve pulled one or two sentences out of the bag that I’m proud of. For me, that’s enough.

If you have too much time on your hands…

…you might like to read the sample that follows. It’s copied verbatim from one of my copious Free Writing files on Scrivener, written without even thinking about it, or stopping, or censoring anything. This here’s the part where you’ll think I’ve gone crackers, but read it aloud – very quietly, when nobody’s listening – and you might find it trips fairly easily (mad as it is) off your tongue.

And you know what? I quite like those card-playing dolls…

The dolls looked alarmed. They were sipping their cold tea from cups made of apples and holding their clenched hands alone on the table in front of them. None of their hands could manipulate scissors. They gazed in the far vacant distance. You never knew what they were thinking. Their eyes were completely devoid of sensation. Their bodies were heartless. They mostly wore tartan, or plaid as the little girl called it, and spoke of their long ago love affairs, over the border, when none of their hearts had been broken by boys, since they had none to break.

Was it good, the girl asked? This doll’s life? They replied that it was, that she ought to come try it. She said she preferred the boom-boom of her own real heart. They were sorry. They sat playing cards for a while. Could she join them? 

The littlest doll had an ace. The fat doll with the wig the same pink as a radish was holding the kings and the queens, and the elderly doll with no eyes had a two and a four. They weren’t sure what the game was, or who was the winner. The time was passed tolerably well in the nursery. Still the clock ticked, and at last when the rabbity hands had advanced to the ten and the seven they sighed and explained it was high time for bed.

If you’ve made it this far, grab your pen or your pencil and write fifty words – without stopping – on owls, or hearts, or cards. Feel the flow of the sentences. Jig your way through them, as if in a nightclub, and reach for a word not according to meaning but sound. When I’ve done this in class I’ve seen students come up with all sorts of ridiculous things, but they’ve often had something – a sort of a spark – that their conscious writing lacked. ‘If you never let yourself go,’ as Germaine Greer (sort of) once said, ‘how will you ever know how far you might have got?’

Exactly.