- In your next incarnation, be born in Colombia, or anywhere that the beliefs of a traditional culture clash with those of western rationalism.
- Work as a journalist. Learn the importance of close observation. Learn how everything has political causes and repercussions. Understand that however extravagantly unique an individual may seem to be, he is as typical of his society as an animal is of its herd.
- Steep yourself in great literature: the Greek tragedians, for their belief in the implacability of fate; the great North Americans, especially Faulkner and Hemingway, for their disciplined, tightly-controlled storytelling; and the modernist masters like Joyce and Woolf, for their streams-of-consciousness and lyricism.
- Forget everything you’ve ever heard about how to write fiction. Tell, don’t show.
I just finished reading Sarah Ruden’s acclaimed translation of The Golden Ass, a 2nd century AD, a classic and wonderfully ridiculous work that has been called the world’s first novel. And then it dawned on me: just recently I had read (and blogged about) a couple of other first novels of sorts, The Tale of Genji and Don Quixote. I started wondering: just how many novels have claimed this title?
Having taught in an American university writing program for a dozen years, I am convinced that what my students need more than anything is to read more, and to read differently. Many of them do read a lot, but they are reading American writers and very little else. Recently I discovered that two of my most gifted graduate students had not read Graham Greene, which flabbergasted me. And this is not their fault–it’s the fault of the professors who keep feeding them the same predictable stuff. The obvious weakness of the contemporary fiction scene in the US (and of “Program Fiction”) is its homogeneity and its insularity.
My book club is reading Don Quixote – and they’re hating it. This is an erudite group. They have plowed their way through ponderous and elusive authors like Faulkner and Jane Austen. They’ve devoted long hours to devouring All the King’s Men and The Tale of Genji. But Don Quixote is killing the best of them. And I think I know why. They’re all listening to, not reading, the book.
9/26/15 – Tell, Don’t Show
Show, don’t tell is such an axiom of creative writing programs, and indeed of advice given to writers in general, that it is rarely questioned. The most recent author to visit the university program where I teach, for example, gave this advice to our students—and of course it’s sound, especially for the beginning writer, who is much more likely to err on the wrong side, of summary and exposition, including so few scenes that the writing remains dull. No less a master of fiction than Joseph Conrad said that the novelist’s task was to make the reader see, and who can doubt that that entails writing dramatic scenes most of the time? All the same, I have been pondering this question a good deal lately, and would like to share my reflections on why “show, don’t tell” has become such an unchallenged axiom—indeed an almost sacred Commandment—particularly in the United States, and what interesting alternatives to this strategy there might be.