Showing ideas is harder than telling them

by Jerry Waxler

I’m a person who admires ideas, so when I try to talk about my life, I want to talk about ideas. And yet, storytelling is largely about action. How do I turn my predilection for ideas into a story? That’s why I’ve developed a method to gather together scenes for a memoir, but even with this method some things are harder to show. Take for example my recent memory about how important books were in my life. Books are filled with ideas, and ideas were important to me especially in high school and college. How will I ever describe the centrality of ideas, when ideas themselves do not make good storytelling material?

To help me understand this question, I’m looking at the way other memoirists handle the same issue. Take for example, Tommie Smith’s “Silent Gesture.” He is a teller, telling about his life. I am interested, and keep turning pages. I like him and what he’s done and what he stands for, and want to know more about him. And while he occasionally shows me a scene, a lot of the book is filled with him telling me about his thoughts. Tommie might say, “I was good at running and kept winning race after race.” It’s accurate and informative. But I can’t enter into it with him. On the other hand, George Brummell in “Shades of Darkness” shows everything. In Brummell’s book, he walks down the street tapping his cane, stumbling into things, cursing when he gets lost. I can feel his situation. I’m there with him.

So how would I tell about the importance of books in my life? I could list them, and tell about them. For example, “Catch 22 made a big impression on me, along with other books that broke down the barriers of logic, and showed me that all is not as it seems.” Nice statement but it doesn’t take you into my life. So I look for a scene that includes a book. Here’s one. This scene provides a window into my world. It takes longer to write but it lets a reader get to know me a little more, and see a couple more parts of my world. By the way, this snip of narrative is not polished. To write a blog every day I’m going to have to publish drafts, not something I like to do. Let me know if you think the unpolished writing distracts from the point. Here’s my example of a scene with a book:

For my birthday, when I was twelve, my father gave me Robinson Crusoe. It was a plain orange book. It didn’t even have a picture on the cover. I placed it in the little stand by my bed, and just glowered at it for weeks. I wanted a Hardy Boys book. I used to go to the candy store where there was a shelf of Hard Boy books. I would pick them up and just stare at them. I could feel their mystery calling to me. But when I begged dad to let me exchange Robinson Crusoe for a Hardy Boys book, he refused. It was one of the few times I felt pressure from my dad. I knew it was the right thing to do and I knew I was being a brat. It was a case of pleasure taking priority over conscience. Finally I gave in and started to read it. Once I adjusted my mind to the old fashioned language, I got into it. I started to feel more smitten with this guy landing on an island and trying to survive. When I was done, what had started out as an insult turned out to be an opening. I was hooked on classic literature. And what started as a reason to feel separated from my dad turned into a reason to feel grateful to him. His gift to me that birthday was more than just a book. He gave me a gift by pressuring me to stretch beyond my limits.

That scene conveys an idea about my relationship to books. Now, if I’m going to include such an abstract point in my memoir, I need to look for others. Oh there’s another one. In ninth grade, I was more interested in the science fiction book I was reading than I was in my English class. The teacher walked up behind me and caught me in the act of reading. It’s an ironic sin to be caught reading a book in English class, but he never forgave me.

3 thoughts on “Showing ideas is harder than telling them

  1. This is an interesting and helpful essay. I’ve wanted to write a “My Life in Books” essay, but was at a loss of how to convey my appreciation of them.

    The idea of writing scenes about my relationship with books is new to me.


  2. Hi Marilyn,

    What a lovely comment! It made my day for two reasons. One is that I love to offer useful ideas. So in giving to you, you’ve given to me. The perfect circle. The other reason is that this is one of my earliest blog entries, and you have commented on it more than a year later. How cool that my words can linger. The power of writing is to communicate over time and space.

    Thanks for your comment. And have fun writing.


  3. Jerry,

    I learned of your blog through the Lifewriter’s Forum. I’m a member though I don’t often contribute. Yesterday, I decided to start from the beginning of your blog and read or listen to all of your posts, as I have time.

    It made my day this morning to log onto my blog and find that I have a new follower!


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