Show versus Tell in a Memoir’s Internal Voice

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book Memoir Revolution to learn about the power and importance of memoirs and learn why now is the perfect time to write your own.

In her memoir Freeways to Flipflops, Sonia Marsh is a masterful fretter. She worries. She feels overwhelmed and helpless. She second-guesses herself. Maybe I shouldn’t have been a stay-at-home mom all these years. Was my move to Belize really best for all my children? Her thoughts feel incredibly honest and revealing, a window into her many misgivings.

By sharing her thoughts, Sonia Marsh allows us to see into her soul. She also provides an intriguing example for writers who are trying to figure out how much of their thought process they ought to include. When I started to write my own memoir, I assumed I knew the answer to this question.

I was taught that to write a story, you must “show don’t tell,” a piece of advice that was repeated so often it sounded like a mantra. In order to draw readers into the world of the story, the writer is supposed to create scenes complete with sensory impressions of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Since we don’t smell or see thoughts, and hear them only silently, I assumed I wasn’t permitted to reveal them.

However, years of attempting to follow this rule produced disappointing results. My critique partners complained that my story seemed remote and impersonal. I wasn’t revealing enough about my own thoughts and feelings. Finally I got the message.

In a workshop hosted by First Person Arts in Philadelphia, my fellow critiquers complained once again that something was missing from my scenes. Teacher Lise Funderberg, author of Pig Candy explained it to me this way. “If you don’t tell your readers why the scene is important to you, they won’t know why it should be important to them.” I went home and revised the passage. When I read it aloud at the next session, the eight people around the table stood and applauded.

Based on this new insight into my own memoir writing voice, I began to pay attention to the presence of thoughts in memoirs I love to read. I discovered that I often enjoy “hearing” what is going on inside the authors’ minds. However, I was not sure if they were  telling me their thoughts or showing me. After years of attempting follow the rule I have come to the conclusion that it is far more ambiguous than it first appears.

For example, in the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, the author teaches her students about the nuances of Vladimir Nabakov’s literature. Is she showing herself teaching, or is she telling us the literary theory? In my opinion, she is doing both at the same time. This happens a lot in real life. We tell each other all kinds of things. We even talk to ourselves.

When Frank McCourt walks alone around the streets of New York in his memoir ‘Tis, his observations of the city often amount to him telling himself what he sees.  He demonstrates the paradox of the “show don’t tell” rule by both violating and obeying it within the same thought-filled passages.

One of my most striking examples of “telling as a form of showing” comes from the memoir In Spite of Everything by Susan Gregory Thomas about a young woman attempting to grow up. Susan blamed her disrupted childhood on the narcissistic excesses of her parents. They were children of the 60s, swept up in the notion that the world would be a better place if they acted as selfishly as possible. Susan Gregory Thomas became fascinated by the problem that the boomers thought of themselves as happy-go-lucky kids, but from her vulnerable position all she saw was a generation of really, really bad parents. Her view of the generations made her a spokesperson for Gen-X, a role she took seriously. Since she believed so deeply in the importance of these generational influences, it naturally became an important part of her memoir.

Susan Gregory Thomas’ telling is different from Sonia Marsh’s. One author tells about her analytical expertise and ideas, and the other about her own interior dilemmas. However, they share one thing in common. Their thoughts about the world have contributed to excellent stories, demonstrating the appropriateness of thoughts in the memoir genre.

Both examples reveal the blurred distinction between showing and telling. By telling her thoughts, (or is it showing them?) each author let us participate in her inner process. Because this rule is so important in understanding the art of storytelling, in my next post I will explore the difference between memoir and fiction writing and show how it influences the show-versus-tell decision.

Examine your own manuscript for places that seem flat, and that might benefit from more insight into what was going on inside your own mind. Consider adding emotional depth and texture to the passage by sharing your own thoughts. After all, the first-person point of view lets us see the world through your eyes. Why not add the inner sense of hearing, and let us hear your thoughts as well? (Don’t add thoughts of the “narrator,” meaning the person you are today. As much as possible, limit your thoughts to the main “character” in the book, meaning the person you were during the scene.)

Footnote: For another article about the importance of ideas in memoirs, see my post about Colored People by Henry Louis Gates learned some things about life: His relationship to girls changed in this scene:

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)
Lise Funderburg’s Home Page Author of Pig Candy
First Person Arts Home Page
My Article About Reading Lolita in Tehran
Susan Gregory Thomas Author of In Spite of Everything

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

14 thoughts on “Show versus Tell in a Memoir’s Internal Voice

  1. I believe readers want to know the truth, and I remember reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” and feeling like she opened up to me on a personal level. She shared her inner thoughts and openly questioned whether she was right or wrong for not wanting to stay with her husband and have a baby. If I can’t connect with the author on a personal level, I lose interest in the memoir, and it seems more like required reading than a pleasant experience. Thank you for including me as an example Jerry.

  2. Jerry, thanks for expanding on the this three-word rule that has mystified all of us at one time or another. While drafting my memoir, I find myself constantly asking if I’m complying with “show don’t tell.” You have freed me to express myself more than I thought I could. And I think my writing would fall flat and lose its purpose: for my reader to know that others have felt the parental oppression of verbal and emotional abuse and the ability to move away from it, both physically and emotionally. Thanks for sharing your own thoughts on the topic.

  3. Writing my memoir in first person, showing – not telling is important. It is also important to vary how you show the thoughts. Sometimes I show the thoughts, other times I write my feelings in a journal (I kept journals as a teen), and sometimes I say one thing-think another. If I didn’t vary how my feelings are expressed, it would be very boring for the reader.

  4. Jerry, the only one of your examples I’ve yet had the pleasure to read is the venerable Frank McCourt. He made it look so easy, didn’t he?

    I think the trick for me while writing my memoir was to engage in a sort of self-hypnosis. In my head I had to “go there” and experience the entire scene. Then I could write (and rewrite!) about it, with all of the sensory experiences.

    I think this is the essence of showing–being there myself so I can put my readers there as well. If that makes sense.

  5. Jerry, as we are aware, you have a wonderful knowledge of memoirs and their authors. It is also insightful when you include examples from your own past. When Lise Funderberg told you, in a First Person Arts workshop in Philadelphia, “If you don’t tell your readers why the scene is important to you, they won’t know why it should be important to them,” you revised a passage. When you read it at the next session, the eight others in your critique group stood and applauded.

    That was special.

    You have reminded me that as a retired educator, I can experience each day on the Internet as an on-going writers’ workshop or conference or retreat or convention.

    I am posting a nightly diary entry on my blog, A 1961-65 Park College Diary. I plan to turn the entries into a memoir.

  6. Barbara,

    Thanks for your comment! I love your reminder that personal anecdotes bring my essay to life. That happens to be the reason I started my memoir in the first place. My writing was too impersonal and I wanted to learn how to use personal anecdotes. And now, years later I still need reminders. I grew up thinking in terms of ideas, and as an adult I’m still retraining myself to think in terms of stories.

    Yes, yes, yes. The internet is a vast adult-education training ground. There are lots of us here, helping each other learn how to write.

    Your posted diary entry sounds fascinating. What a neat project. Just to be sure it’s obvious to others how to find it, I’m adding the link here. By coincidence you are paralleling Sharon Lippincott’s comment in this thread. Diaries are a fabulous way to remember not only what you might have been thinking but what you actually were.

    Best wishes,

  7. Grace,

    Thanks for this comment. I love the image of self-hypnosis. I think the knack of finding yourself back inside the events is an important part of the process. Another way to achieve it is by writing prompts. When writers sit together and ask each other questions about the past, scenes jump to mind.

    This “show don’t tell” essay is also about the revision process when you realize much later that when you recorded the scene the way you experienced does not grip the reader, because you have not yet explained what’s going on. Adding thoughts during revision can help. The whole process of writing bounces back and forth from free-writing to reading and revising, and in some cases, back to free-writing. It’s a veritable playground of self-discovery.

    Best wishes,

  8. Jerry, thank you for creating a link to my blog about my college experiences after I wrote my previous comment. I have now read your very interesting January 5, 2009 post about Henry Louis Gates’ 1994 memoir, Colored People, with his account of how a visiting minister, when Gates was hospitalized with a broken leg when he was young, changed his perception of his parents’ viewpoint about girls.

    Courtesy of Amazon, I have also read the table of contents and opening pages of your book, Memoir Revolution. It is apparent that you have given a lot of thought to the concept of story and how it shapes our lives, and how our lives shape our stories.

    We are by nature cognizant of our own stories and that we are shaping them, and they, us, as we go through life. The reason I stopped writing in my 1965 diary, during the summer following my graduation from Park, was that I felt that the ins and outs, ups and downs, backs and forths of third grade teaching would be very difficult to compile in a one page summary. I wanted to give all of my time to lesson planning. I continued to write a typed letter home once a week, which had been a request of my mother when I left for Park.

  9. Thanks, Heather. I love your reminder about the importance of variety. This gets back to the fundamentals of “writing voice.” So much of the memoir writer’s early focus is on developing the bones of the story, but then we also have to put flesh on the bones. And it’s wonderful that you are thinking about how to keep the reader engaged. Jerry

  10. Thanks, Sherrey. We memoir writers pour so much attention into creating a great story out of the raw material of our lives. At some point, though we work our way down to the actual construction of scenes, dialog, characters. It’s as if there is a whole new world of challenges at that level. It keeps us busy!! Best wishes, Jerry

  11. Thanks so much for stopping by, Sonia. I love using your memoir as an example, because it offers so many lessons. Thanks for pointing out that your own love for a particular memoir style helped influence yours. One of the most important tools for memoir writers is to read and absorb lots of memoirs. Best wishes, Jerry

  12. This has got to be one of the most difficult concepts for writers. I attended a presentation this past April by an editor who explained strong writing and “show versus tell.” How eye-opening. I wrote a blog post about that. Sonia excelled at showing – she didn’t have to tell us she was angry or worried, we knew on our own by her scene set-up, her thought reactions, her realistic dialog.

    After watching this editor in April create showing out of telling examples, I saw how showing is not exactly what it seems to mean on the surface. It doesn’t have much to do with telling about the scenery, rather making scenery and what happens come alive by writing strong sentences that put readers right into the story and by using similes and metaphors, precise words, and examples–Sonia’s thoughts and dialog are examples showing her emotions. I think, though, that good writing has to include both showing and telling. What a big topic you took on, and love your use of examples to show us what you mean.

  13. Thanks so much for your comment, Linda. It is very kind of you to take the time to offer your observations on this difficult subject. I like the way you’ve stated it. Set up the scene. Use concise language. Don’t let your words get in the way. Well said! Here’s a link to your whole article for anyone interested in reading it.

    As you say, “After watching this editor in April create showing out of telling examples, I saw how showing is not exactly what it seems to mean on the surface.” It’s almost as if “show don’t tell” is a zen koan, intended to force to think, write, practice, learn, think some more and then ah-ha! Got it!

    Best wishes,

  14. Pingback: Show Don’t Tell: Difference Between Fiction and Memoir | Memory Writers Network

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