WRITING: Emotional Immediacy All Up In Your Business
Someone–I think it was Orson Scott Card, but then again, I always think it was Orson Scott Card–once said this: don’t tell your readers about the apocalypse. Tell them about a pair of child’s sneakers hanging from a telephone wire.
Yes, it’s good show vs. tell and all that writer-writer nonsense. But that’s not what he meant–at least, it’s not everything he meant.
We’re not a species made up of big-picture thinkers. Life is overwhelming, and so are some of the things that happen in it–when a person talks about justice, for instance, the inevitably give you an example of what justice is. Justice is a criminal going to jail for a crime, a police officer getting indicted for shooting an unarmed citizen, your stepsister dropping the remote she just stole from you in the fishbowl and shorting it out. Take your pick.
But we’re not built to look at justice and automatically get it. The one word, ‘justice’, isn’t going to bring a tear to anyone’s eye. On the other hand, the story of a man wrongfully held on death row for fifteen years for the slaying of three people he never even saw might–the story of his first day out of prison, the sun shining, the daughter of one of his supposed victims waiting at the door, all grown up now and smiling, to take him home. Maybe she always believed in him–maybe she cried when they sentenced him, standing beside her grey-faced and livid-lipped father in the courtroom.
That’s a story that might inspire some emotion. And it’s a story about justice and forgiveness–the need for it, the lack of it, the way you can sometimes find it in the strangest of places. (Does the father ever forgive him? Does he meet them at an Applebee’s and buy our ex-con a steak? Do his hands tremble when he pays the tab?) And the smaller you go with the details–the father’s shaking hands, the daughter’s floral perfume, the way the ex-con eats, as though he were still hunched over a prison trencher, one arm around his plate–the more affecting the story will be.
It wasn’t too long ago, after all, that the only other people most of us would ever know were the folks around us in the village, maybe a feudal lord up in the manor, a priest in the village church. We’re social creatures, and we care about those we know better. So give us somebody to know. Give us something to care about.
Don’t think of it as show vs. tell. That gives it all the immediacy of a Tuesday in grade school. Think of it, instead, as a sort of emotional deconstruction–don’t write a story about the horrors of war, write a story about Private Will Henckels, nineteen years old, whose mother stitched his name in every pair of his underwear in bright red thread, so he’d be able to tell which pair was his on even the darkest corner of the front. Write a story about the Iowa State science fair, in which he won second place last year for a project about talking to plants. And then write a story about the bullet that went through Private Henckels and the moment he woke up in a hospital bed, went to scratch an itch on his left leg, and realized that leg wasn’t there any more.
We can’t deal with tragedy head-on. We don’t know how to respond to the deaths of innocent people, mass murder, genocide. We all know these things are wrong, but what can we do about it, other than say what we all know?
Think about the times someone close to you has had a beloved family member die. Not a lot to say about it, is there? Just ‘I’m sorry for your loss’. And you both stand there for a minute. And you know what’s happened. You know there’s a corpse in a coffin in the next room. But you don’t talk about it.
You just stand there.
But as a writer, you can’t just stand there. You’ve got a story to move forward. So you talk about the drapes. You talk about your wife sending an arrangement, taking what felt like five years to research what flowers were appropriate for a funeral.
You don’t talk about the senseless deaths of nine people, gunned down in a church while worshipping. You don’t talk about the young man who shot them, whose eyes are cold and flat, and whose manifesto is terrifying.
You talk, instead, about a flag. You talk about a symbol of racism and hatred and a bygone era. You do this because the real thing–the deaths, the sociopath, the red raw hatred–are, in some ways, incomprehensible. You talk about something less terrible as a substitute for the great unknown, a more approachable canvas for your condemnation and horror. You talk, in short, about the symbol, because the real thing is too awful for what even I recognize are ‘mere’ words.
Is it cowardice? Is it distraction? Or is it just what we are, how we are?
At the funeral, you utter a few pat phrases of comfort, and you stand there.
Then you talk about the drapes.