Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Show and Tell, or Seduction not Instruction

While I labour away on Chapter 4 of my thesis I'm not getting much reading done. But here's a brilliant critique by my old writing tutor, Alex Keegan. Alex taught me pretty much everything I know about creative writing. He's a hard taskmaster - to say the least - but he knows his stuff inside out. Here he is analysing a piece from The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by my favourite writer, Carson McCullers, in an article posted over on his own blog.

-----------

Tell Me, Is It Show by Alex Keegan

The whole piece is "told" to us (using told in the lay sense of the word) but is it TELL in the literary sense of the word?

Here it is:

That autumn was a happy time. The crops around the countryside were good, and over at the Forks Falls market the price of tobacco held firm that year. After the long hot summer the first cool days had a clean bright sweetness. Goldenrod grew along the dusty roads and the sugar cane was ripe and purple. The bus came each day from Cheehaw to carry off a few of the younger children to the consolidated school to get an education. Boys hunted foxes in the pinewoods, winter quilts were aired out on wash-lines, and sweet potatoes bedded in the ground with straw against the colder months to come. In the evning, delicate shreds of smoke rose from the chimneys, and the room was round and orange in the autumn sky. There is no stillness like the quiet of the first cold nights in the fall. Sometimes, late in the night when there was no wind, there could be heard in the town the thin wild whistle of the trainthat goes through Society City on its way far off to the North.
Let's see. Please note this is on the fly, not some academic essay spread over days.

That autumn was a happy time.
This isn't "It was autumn and everyone was happy." For me there's a voice here and lots unsaid. We have to expand on the minimum, see red-faced wifes talking over fences, kids with hoops.

The crops around the countryside were good, and over at the Forks Falls market the price of tobacco held firm that year.
Why "good" and not a more specific word?

IMO it's a narrator's voice, the town voice. Forks Falls, OTOH is a specifc name, definite, but we actually are told nothing. We have to imagine some place with a cute name, imagine a market.

And what does the price line tell us?

It tells us that some years the price falls or crashes. We have to work that out. It's in the shadow of the words.

After the long hot summer the first cool days had a clean bright sweetness.
The first is maybe stockish these days, but it might have been original then, but "long, hot, summer," faintly poetic, representative of a type of summer.

IMO we go to our databanks and think, "summer, hot, not short, this one, ah-hah." It's not REALLY described, is it? WE decide what a long hot summer is. The first cool days (the same) and the end is actual poetry, the words are not LITERAL.

Days aren't clean or sweet. And look:

After the long hot summer
the first cool days
had a clean bright
sweetness

It's poetry.

Goldenrod grew along the dusty roads and the sugar cane was ripe and purple.
Again, evocative but open for our interpretation.

As the previous sentence, it starts relatively plainly but is "open" and moves into near-poetry. I can imagine a negro worker of the day singing and the sugar cane was ripe and purple.

The bus came each day from Cheehaw to carry off a few of the younger children to the consolidated school to get an education.
Ah-hah, a nice picture but it's more than that.

We have the lovely name Cheehaw (specifics again, but just a name. We have to paint our own picture.) Then it's not just "the school bus arrived." We have "carried off" (not accidental).

Have you ever thought of the yellow school bus in the city "carrying off" the kids?

It's voice and attitude, it's indirect speech representing the town's way of seeing. And notice A FEW of the younger kids showing us when we think about it that a lot miss school.

And the ending. Surely "to get an education" is redundant?

But this is a brilliant author, so why have it? It's that old straw-chewing guy saying it, or the bar-keep, someone. It's what any/all/one local would say.

Boys hunted foxes in the pinewoods, winter quilts were aired out on wash-lines, and sweet potatoes bedded in the ground with straw against the colder months to come.
Very evocative, and though it's a statement it requires the reader to expand and "see" or imagine the boys, their dress, their manner.

The quilts clause is lovely, a beautiful direction to see the scene (but we have to draw it)... the sweet potatoes line is something we can see, imagine, but it also foreshadows the longer slower times coming.

In the evening, delicate shreds of smoke rose from the chimneys, and the moon was round and orange in the autumn sky.
The cadence her, the rhythms, ALONE evoke a feeling (I mean if they were UMMS) and they add to the poetry.

Try moving "in the evening" further into the sentence and it clangs like a cracked bell. And smoke as "delicate shreds" is not just evocative, but fresh, special, making us think differently the last third - the MOON - is lovely.

Interestingly I keep looking for a two syllable extra word before autumn:

In the evening,
delicate shreds of smoke rose from the chimneys,
and the moon was round and orange in the uh-uh autumn sky.

Doesn't matter if I'm right or wrong here. The point is the author is making me sing the words not flatly read them.

It's prose poetry and the rhythms and feelings are part of the whole experience. The extra is the rightness, the earthy specialness she's evoking, like the "Hovis Ad" in the UK.

There is no stillness like the quiet of the first cold nights in the fall.
How beautiful is that? What a sentence! It's far more than the semantcs, the bare meaning

There is no stillness like the quiet
of the first cold nights in the fall.

POETRY!!

and it finishes good enough to make me want to cry

Sometimes, late in the night when there was no wind, there could be heard in the town the thin wild whistle of the train that goes through Society City on its way far off to the North.

Sometimes, late in the night when there was no wind,
there could be heard in the town
the thin wild whistle of the train that goes
through Society City on its way far off to the North.

Almost a poem again

I can hear the train and the last line is the train's clatter.

The author gives us WILD whistle, not "shrill" or "loud" but a fabulous evocative word, and the whole paragraph fairly REEKS of atmosphere.

If I had six pictures amd one was of this town I think you'd pick it.

It has "THE ACHE", close to poetry, evocative throughout, the sounds and rhythms and implications mean we know or feel or sense or intuit far more than the bare words.

One great trick to distinguish between show and tell is to write a factual report of what you know with more or less certainty from a passage, what you feel you know or feels probable, what you think is likely.

If you get considerably more than a computer rendering of the original facts then it's show. I would say this is 100% show, and very very good at it, near-poetic

1 comment:

kevinkellywrites said...

Tom, your blog is really, really great. I know you don't have time while working on your thesis, but do you think a reader or two of yours might be interested in reviewing a book on growing up in the ‘60s? I’ve discounted my ‘60s coming-of age-novel Ride the Snake (author Kevin Kelly) to FREE on Amazon as a Kindle download for the weekend. Thanks for passing the word for folks to check out the madness and possibly review the book!