Images and Explanations
“Show don’t tell” is an old piece of advice which a lot of tutors use to get their students writing with power and effectiveness. It’s perhaps most important in writing poetry but it’s a useful idea to have in mind when you are writing prose fiction or script. Of course, many famous published writers break the rule, if it can be called a rule, but then the first rule of any art or craft is to be able to follow the rules before you start breaking them. The most commonly quoted example of the “Show don’t tell” advice is what Chekhov wrote to his brother in 1888: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
We could find all sorts of parallels to this:
“Don’t tell me the child is excited, show me how she is pulling at her mother’s sleeve.” “Don’t tell me John’s soul is heavy, show me John sitting in his armchair, his eyes wide open, staring at nothing.”
“Don’t tell me the view is stunning, show me the dinosaur-backed mountains stretching into the distance.”
Try making some more up for yourself, dealing with people, animals, places, objects; and with situations, actions events. It’s a useful exercise and when you get to the point whereusing images rather than explanations is part of your intuitive practice, you can then allow yourself to break the rule on the odd occasion and turn it around so that you “Tell, don’t show.”However, if you wrote a piece of prose or a poem, that was all “tell” and no “show”, it would come across as incredibly boring, pedantic, and would run the risk of sounding like a lecture or a piece of propaganda.
The important thing is to realise that effective writing, especially in poetry, arises out of images rather than explanations. So you need to be able to conjure powerful images and then trust them to carry the message of what you want to say. The parallel in scriptwriting would be to avoid dialogue that explains, and use instead dialogue that furthers the action, or is part of the action.
Sometimes the need to explain can’t be avoided. Shakespeare used explanation frequently in the opening of his plays to set the scene. See for example, the first scene of The Winter’s Tale, where one courtier is telling another courtier what the dramatic setting is between the two kings, Leontes and Polixenes. David Hare did something similar at the beginning of his play, Skylight, where two characters spend a long time reminding each other of things they have done together in the past. It’s a technique for allowing the audience to find out something about events before the play actually opens. But it runs the risk of boring the audience and not getting them hooked.
In prose fiction, the advice is usually to bring your back information in incidentally and not make your first paragraph or chapter sound like a police or social worker’s report You might begin writing with a good deal of telling but when you redraft, you need to consider how , or even remind yourself as author of what your story is about and who your characters are. Much of this information can come in incidentally or be left to later in the structure of the story.
If you are writing prose narrative or script, you will sooner or later move out of the “tell” mode because you are bound to have some action or argumentative dialogue which will break awayfrom explanations. But in poetry, if you are not careful, you could write a whole poem which tells the reader what the narrator/character feels or sees, for example, without any images which show what that character is feeling or seeing. Chekhov wasn’t a poet but he knew the importance of using images in storytelling
And that brings me to the question of observation as an essential activity to take place before writing. Sometimes the observation may be imagined. We might want to describe a desert scene, but we can’t all fly to the Sahara before starting to write. However, we can do a lot of our observation online with virtual reality which allows us to observe natural objects or creatures up closer than we could actually do in real life. I guess that most visual artists use observation as a starting point and using your eyes and drawing something is no bad starting point for writers either. When I do writing workshops with children, I very often get them to observe something and then draw it before they start writing. Sometimes they object:
“Please, Miss, this is a writing workshop not an art workshop.” I usually reply, “This is an observation workshop.”
We can learn a lot about writing from the way children’s picture books are set out. The illustrations in good children’s books are part of the storytelling – they are the “Show, don’t tell” part that has to be verbally expressed in adult books but nevertheless, even in adult books the picture can be represented by a verbal image not a verbal explanation. A good children’s book to look at is Shirley Hughes’ Alfie Gets in First. The story hinges both verbally and visually on the fact that toddler Alfie runs in to the house before his mother and little sister. And then the front door closes and Mum is outside without a key and Alfie is inside and too short to reach the door handle. The inside of the spine between the two opposite pages of the book represents the way Alfie is separated from his mother and sister.
An interesting exercise for writers is to take a children’s picture book and see if it is possible to represent one of the pictures in an image using words without too much explanation.To help your, remember that effective images rely on nouns and verbs, explanations rely on adjectives, adverbs and abstract nouns. Images rely on details and particularisation, explanations rely on generalisations.
To flow or not to flow:the risks of getting carried away Liz Cashdan January 2017
Many students in their commentaries explain that they changed some word or omitted a phrase “so that my writing would flow better.” And as tutor, my comment is usually: “What do you mean by flow?” I think it’s a dangerous word. I know the word “rhythm” is derived from the Greek word for flow, and as writers we want our writing, whether prose or poetry to have its own rhythms, but we don’t always necessarily want it to flow, a word with connotations of smoothness and lack of complexity or difficulty. If I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sprung rhythm, then flow is the last word to describe his extraordinary use of language: maybe jerkiness, disjointedness would be better descriptors. Similarly, if we look at the way Arundhati Roy uses language in her novel, The God of Small Things, then again disjointed would suit many of her sentences rather than flowing.
Here is Hopkins’ truncated sonnet, Pied Beauty, where he praises things that don’t flow smoothly and uses language where both the meaning and the rhythm imply jerkiness not flow:
GLORY be to God for dappled things--
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And álltrádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Similarly, Roy invents words and breaks sentences into phrases without a main verb.
“Not old. Not young. But a viable die-able age.” Or “Little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning. Suddenly, they become the bleached bones of a story.”
In both these examples Roy plays around with punctuation in order to break the flow. And in the second example, like Hopkins, she uses both ideas and style to convey her meaning to the reader.
So maybe students who use the word flow for their writing product would actually find it more helpful to think about flow as a description of their writing process. The Hungarian psychologist MihalyCzikszentmihaly( Creativity : Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper 1996) took the meaning of flow in psychological terms as being the state where an individual is totally immersed in what they are doing. Most writers will recognise this state and, of course, its opposite when they cannot write, often referred to as writers’ block.
According to CZikszentmihalyyour first draft may well be written in a state of flow. He suggested five stages of creativity: preparation, incubation, illumination which includes the “Ah-ha” moment, evaluation and elaboration. As far back as 1980 Hayes and Flower (in L. Gregg and E. Steinberg eds. Cognitive Processes in Writing, Hillsdale NJ. Erlbaum) referred to three stages: planning what to write, generating and drafting, and finally editing and revision. They were followed by Frank Smith who suggested three stages: pre-writing, writing and re-writing (Writing and the Writer, Routledge 1982). Smith describes some experiments done with writing students where they were asked to write their story on one page and comment on what they were doing on the opposite page. Of course, that might well break the flow since the very fact of observing yourself would inevitably alter what you were writing.
There is an interesting account by Rosalind Brackenbury of how she kept a commentary on the writing of her novel,The Woman in the Tower, and how the comments fed into the text of the novel. (Susan Sellers ed. Delighting the Heart Women’s Press 1989 p 103-109). I’m not sure if the commentary was part of her flow, or whether it interrupted the flow. You could try this out for yourself and see whether it helps or hinders your writing.Here is what Brackenbury wrote about the marginal writing of one book becoming itself another book:
“Realisation –that this book is in the margin of the other, typed one, and if I have a true and unselfconscious voice, it’s here. I see the possibility of using this idea for another book, the free, fluid, ideal, diverse, differentiating one. Which will tell no story but will be in the margin of the story. “ (103)
Other psychologists/writers have offered similar analyses of the writing process. C.L.Doyle (“The Writer Tells: the Creative Process in the Writing of Literary Fiction”in Creativity Research Journal ii (i) 29-37) suggests writers have a “seed incident (P30) which enables them to move from a “fiction world” into a “writing realm” which I suppose is where the flow takes place.
The following diagram comes from a book written by Czikszentmihaly in 1998 ( Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life.Basic Books)
As far as I’m concerned, and it fits the way I write, I like the idea of our brains and working practices using both flow and control. Once you are aroused, you get into flow, then you take control and then you can relax and hopefully you can forget all about boredom, apathy, worry and anxiety.
The death of John Berger at the age of ninety at the beginning of January 2017 suddenly brought back to me the enormous influence he had on me and my generation as viewers of art, readers of literature and as practitioners ourselves. I had not thought very much about him recently, and have to admit I have not read his novels, though I shall certainly now read To the Wedding, especially after seeing Rowan Righelato’s review in The Guardian
When I first saw Berger’s 1972 BBC programmes, Ways of Seeing,and then read the book I was a secondary school teacher. It blew my mind open. Up till then I had taught English Literature as if it consisted, aka Harold Bloom (The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994), of middle class male writers whose fortress was occasionally threatened by the likes of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, or John Clare. And the same went for my art gallery visits: I accepted unquestioningly the idea that brilliant male painters had the right to paint the female body, clothed and unclothed, and again occasionally someone like Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt or Gwen John were allowed a look-in. As Berger put it: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” (Ways of Seeing 1972 p.45)
But Berger didn’t only look at the male/female issue in painting. He also analysed the class aspects of the great painters of the eighteenth century. And of course the two were closely linked because the whole question of marriage and property among the English upper classes was based on the idea that the woman was the man’s property. The marriage often depended on the property that a woman could bring to her husband. The example that Berger offered was Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews. They are painted, the wife sitting on a bench in the couple’s parkland, with her husband standing behind her, so he, like her, is able to survey their lands but he can also take in his wife at the same time. Class and gender go hand in hand in this picture.Berger could equally well have referred to the novels of this period, especially those written by women, where place and space were male-dominated.
In effect, the novel became the place where women could enter the public sphere and declare their viewpoints about property and marriage. This is borne out in the novels of Fanny Burney, Mary Robinson, Charlotte Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft for example, all near contemporaries of Jane Austen who herself made it very clear in Pride and Prejudice that her heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, was not going to marry a stupid man like Mr Collins just because that would keep the Bennett property in the family.
There were also some women artists of the time like Angelika Kauffman and Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun who managed to paint pictures of women, often showing them writing, reading or painting themselves, and not just looking pretty for the sake of the male gaze.
More recently in my teaching and writing career I came across the paintings and photographs of the Nigerian/British painter, YinkaShonibare. He took the Gainsborough painting and re-appropriated it in a startling manner: Mr and Mrs Andrews are set in their familiar landscape but they are headless and instead of wearing eighteenth century costume, they are clothed in coloured cotton fabric, representing Britain’s colonial acquisition of, or trade with, cotton-growing colonies. I don’t know how far Shonibare was indebted to John Berger for this idea.
After Ways of Seeing I then went on to read Berger’s A Fortunate Man (about a country doctor)and The Seventh Man, (about refugees,) both books written in co-operation with the Swiss photographer, Jean Mohr. Later when I started writing poetry and thought about the use of imagery in words to carry a message, I recognised how close my words-only practice was to the way Berger had used the images of Mohr’s photos to support his message. The one that I have always remembered is a photo of a bend in a river at the point in the narrative in A Fortunate Man, where the course of the doctor’s life changes.
I know I am not doing John Berger justice by leaving out not only his novels and poetry, but also the many books he went on to write about art and artists but I particularly wanted to share here the effect he had on me in my literary critical studies and my writing. It was Berger’s writing that alerted me to so many other writers and critics, for example, David Dabydeen, the British/Guyanan poet who wrote a poem in the voice of the black servant boy shown at the side of an eighteenth century family portrait, Francis Wheatley’s Family Group and Negro Boy (Coolie Odyssey 1988).
Here is the last verse of Dabydeen’s poem:
“Whilst painterman splash, drip, dip, rearrange,
And produce picture marvellously strange
How fair they seem and full of grace
Benevolence and love spread upon each face
And me at the edge typical of my race
Holding back the urine the hurt ad disgrace.”
It is thanks to Berger and poets like Dabydeen, that I have developed my own poetry, often giving a voice to people of the past who were not allowed a voice in their own epoch.
Whatever our specialisms, as writers, visual artists and musicians, we should all be indebted to John Berger for his strong and thought-provoking ideas. I particularly like the way he calls himself a listener and a storyteller.Whether you know his work or not, here are two worthwhile programmes from the BBC about John Berger:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b082qynq a BBC documentary
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nyd1V0gp37I a BBC world service interview
Difficulty and Accessibility Liz Cashdan
I recently went to an exhibition of street photography from Sheffield Museums Archives in the Graves Art Gallery. I came away feeling thoroughly stimulated and working out how I might use some of these photos, set partly in Sheffield but also across the world’s streets, as a way into writing poetry. There were many names I had never heard of and others who have haunted my memories of photographs over the years, like Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier Bresson, Paul Nash.
As I left the exhibition I passed an advert screen headed Mindfulness suggesting viewers should attend evening sessions to find out how art can “calm body and mind.” What! I want art, whether it’s visual or written to stimulate body and mind, not calm it. Sounds more like Classic FM with its smooth classical music. Let’s have accessibility by all means but only after we’ve worked through the difficulties and earned our access. And let’s go away from our viewings and readings still feeling concerned about meanings, context, genre and style, wanting to see more, read more, research more.
If texts are hard to decipher we may give up, stop reading and not bother with them. On the other hand, if texts challenge us, we may come away feeling we have achieved something as a reader, made reading a possible re-writing of the original text. I’ve always found Geoffrey Hill’s poetry difficult, hard to work out his meanings on a first quick read, and I’ve been tempted and given in to simply saying “I don’t much like Geoffrey Hill.” But recently, I’ve read what he has had to say himself about writing.
“The word accessible is fine in its place; that is to say, public toilets should be accessible to people in wheelchairs; but a word that is perfectly in its place in civics or civic arts is entirely out of place, I think, in a wider discussion of the arts,” Hill said in an interview in The Guardian in 2002.
Hill pointed out that difficulty is democratic because it supposes that ordinary people can read and understand difficult texts. He has also said:
“We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We're difficult to ourselves, we're difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most ‘intellectual’ piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why doesn't music, why does poetry have to address in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes.”
(quoted in: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/geoffrey-hill
But it’s not only in poetry that difficulty appears as an issue for readers: it also appears in fiction. Will Self wrote with reference to fiction: “The hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism.”
Maybe we no longer want to read Henry James’ long sentences or James Joyce’s puzzling structures and prose or even Jane Austen’s turn of phrase – we’d rather just watch on TV. But are we willing to look at new experiments in structure and language like Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (Random House 1997) or Eimear McBride’s mixed up sentences in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Faber 2014)?
Amit Chaudury, writing in The Guardian on difficulty in prose and poetry (prompted it seems by the death of Geoffrey Hill in July 2016), claims that one marker of recent attempts to make prose style less difficult, is the elimination of the semi-colon, though he detects it may now be returning. He sees Virginia Woolf’s complicated use of punctuation in To the Lighthouse as her way of writing complicated ideas about her characters. By contrast, difficult poetry is signalled more by the nature of the thoughts themselves as expressed in complicated language. This is what makes Geoffrey Hill’s poems difficult to read. And I suspect what puts me off as well, is that when I can make sense of what he is saying, I don’t like it anyway because it’s too philosophical and Hill’s philosophy is based in the religious and spiritual. Strangely, Chaudury thinks TV is now the writing site where difficulty is more likely to be encountered. (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/07/amit-chaudhuri-praise-difficult-language And I used to think that TV is for people who are too lazy to read books. I know better now.
All the above instances refer to difficulty as encountered by readers. However, at the OCA we may be readers a lot of the time, but on Creative Writing courses students will be judged and assessed largely on their writing. I don’t suppose any students, whether writing prose, script or poetry, set out to produce writing that their readers will find difficult, but it may happen. In that case, should tutors advise students to write in a way that their readers will find more accessible? I reckon that’s a dangerous question. It makes me think of Harold Pinter’s plays where I’ve often been confused at a first performance or reading. And of course Pinter always answered people who asked for an explanation of what his plays meant with a refusal to explain because the play itself was the explanation. Or parallel to that Eliot’s dictum that “the meaning of a poem to a particular reader is whatever satisfies that reader the most.”
click here to see 'point of view in Elliot's Poetry'
The viewpoints of poets themselves have been collected in Strong Words(ed. W.N. Herbert, Bloodaxe 2000). In his introduction, Herbertquotes James Fenton: “When you’re actually engaged in the process of writing, you must always be writing into the dark.” I suppose negotiating the dark is always difficult.
Maybe we all have to have the courage to be brave in our writing and brave in our reading.
Blog: September 2016
What kind of words do you use
The great thing about the English language is that it has two sets or roots – Latin and Anglo-Saxon. Of course it has a good many other influences too, like Greek, Celtic and Hindi but it is one of the few European languages which is lucky enough to have two roots. The only other one I can think of is Romanian which has Latin and Slav origins. Other languages tend to be based on one root – German is Saxon, Russian and Polish are Slav, French, Italian and Spanish are Latin.
The other amazing thing about English is that there are more people in the world who speak it as a second language than there are those for whom it is their first language. This means of course that apart from, for example, English English and Scottish English, American English, and Australian English, there are those other more strangeEnglishes like Malaysian English or Indian English.
So what does this mean for writers using English. As a child of first generation immigrants from Russia, I grew up in London with the sound of strange accents and the unexpected use of the wrong tenses. But then I also heard an array of London accents, received English and cockney, and some strange sounds and vocabulary from the Norfolk governess who was supposed to make sure I didn’t grow up with a Russian accent. That’s why when I say “poetry”, most people think I’ve said “poultry.” And why I have to think hard before I use “howsomever” instead of “however.”
I am always amazed by the writing process. I often wonder how the things I write appear on the page. The metaphors for writing are endless: Seamus Heaney’s digging in his poem of that name; manipulating an old-fashioned telephone exchange suggested by Frank Smith in his book, Writing and the Writer; discovery and exploration explained by Vernon Scannell in a 1970s English text book.
Before you start there’s nothing except for some thoughts whirling in your head, but when you’ve finished there’s a poem, a narrative, a plot, characters you didn’t know you knew, a story, a poem, a new world that you didn’t know existed!
Many of my poems give a voice to someone from the past. My first degree was in History so historical subjects have always interested me. Sometimes I look for a voice in a painting or sculpture, perhaps the artist’s, or a suggested narrative. I like my poems to be anchored in time and space through the voice, whether it’s mine or someone else’s. In that way a poem is like a photograph. Here are two stanzas from a poem in the voice of Edward Elgar describing the incident with his friend George Sinclair’s dog Dan which is depicted in one of the Enigma Variations:
From Elgar’s D-O-G in The Same Country
We walk the banks of the Wye, George thinks organs,
I am planning something orchestral. Dan is dreaming
riverbank mud, the smell of decaying bulrushes, when
splash, Dan’s in the river, tumbled head-over-paws.
Dan rights himself, struggles upstream, paddling
to keep up with out laughter. He leaps to the bank,
barking at the moorhens, shaking the water off
his wet coat: “Set that to music,” says George.