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.

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.