Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Suitcase and a Change of Clothes

As one of those unfortunate souls who learn only by doing, I collect bruises and people who say "I told you so" the way housewives collect dryer lint. I was elated, therefore, when I avoided, if not bodily harm, then wagging fingers, by learning part of Assignment #3 on my own.

Here's how it happened. My instructor directed me to an article, "Show, Don't Tell," in the school archives. "Show, Don't Tell" is advice that novice writers frequently hear. I, novice writer that I am, have frequently heard it, so I had a moment of private skepticism, doubting that I would benefit from hearing it again--and then I read the article anyway.

The author claims something extraordinary. She says that by "showing, not telling," by involving all of the senses in setting a scene, it is nearly impossible for a writer not to stumble on a potential plot. I wouldn't have believed her, of course, except that a day or two earlier, as I've already explained, I'd learned that lesson by doing a rough draft of Assignment #3.

The assignment is to write about a place remembered from childhood using all five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. I chose to write about being on the beach at night with my family when I was five years old. It was behind the Pink Pony Pub at Gulf Shores. Six of us held hands and waded into the Gulf of Mexico in our clothes. Do you see how even these sparse images try to form a plot?

It was very difficult not to go beyond the bounds of the assignment. I tried to limit the scene to sensory data alone, but every image has a suitcase and a change of clothes, if you know what I mean. If you start with the smell of dead shrimp, something tags along with that sensory image, whether from memory or association. You might remember that same smell from a certain fishing trip. Or you may remember the time you had delicious shrimp au gratin at a restaurant on the pier at sunset and later threw up. Or you may think of Forrest Gump.

When writers use sensory images, they get lots of baggage for free, so the writer in control of his material anticipates to a large degree what type of bag and change of clothes his chosen images most likely will bring along with them. This obviously won't be universal, but a skilled writer can appeal to a large proportion of readers.

That's also one good reason writers must also be readers.

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