The Writer and the Waltz

John H was right, of course.
The passing years have given that much to me.

“Show,” he said sitting down, passing me a pint of beer. John and I were in a pub, after school. He was my college creative writing instructor. He had a mess of black and grey hair. Permanent deep crevices either side of his mouth. His hands, thick fingered, always up at his chin as if in thought; his fingers and voice stained from his cigarette habit. He wore scarves, wrapped around his neck and blazers with jeans and desert boots. I adored him. He carried a rolled up copy of the latest New York Times Book Review in his pocket. John thought of writing as a trade much like masonry, a job that could put food on the table, and beer in the fridge wherever you lived. “Don’t tell.”

Show don’t tell, he said as every writing instructor has said since the dawn of time. “Is wrong,” he said sipping his beer. He flicked off his glasses with one hand the way he could and stuffed them inside his jacket pocket. “Well, mostly. Show, and tell, but probably show more.”

And he was right.

First what’s the difference you might ask?

All fiction, be it a short story or a novel, is about — among other things to be sure — pattern(s); and pattern is about time and space.

Think of it this way to begin: a story is not a plot. A story is the *sequence* as events happen; a plot is a version of the story not taken literally (there can be flashbacks for example, events are *packaged*). For example, I had pizza and beer for dinner (story), I had the excellent hamburger pizza and micro-brewed yeasty beer from the local saloon for dinner (plot).

Story has to, or should, begin at the beginning. Plot can begin somewhere else. Making this choice, plotting, begins the process of choosing pattern. By pattern I mean that in your prose there are repeated motifs or themes — an order ensues.

For example, there are central conflicts in novels that play out over and over again in smaller versions of this crucial issue. In short stories the complications leading to the climax are variants on the central theme from inciting incident to climax. This pattern, these spaces of attention for the reader, is the result of your timing as a writer. Traditionally, this is called scene (show) and narrative (tell).

Scenes show.
Narratives tell.

John H loved the blues. We’d hear some playing on stage at the pub, and he’d point and say, “Write like that.”

Over the music he said, “A scene is not narrative.” John H said, “A scene is action, a play between characters in dialogue and movement. Too much inside the head of any one character begins to read like narrative. Have them doing something. Not simply thinking.
Scenes are dramatized. Words spoken between characters. Actions and reactions. Objective descriptions of objects and settings that a reader would naturally see if the situation were, say, seeing it for themselves.  Everything else is narrative.”
I sipped my beer, and then asked a little too loudly as the music had dropped, “But when do I know?”
“It’s like a waltz, back and forth: Think about your reader.”
“Who gives a shit about the reader,” I replied.
He grinned, the lines in his cheeks near his mouth widened, deepened. “You should. Either you’re helping or you’re getting out of the way.”
I excused myself and went to the bathroom. I needed to face myself in the mirror. I sounded like a freaking idiot in front of my hero.
When I got back to the table, two women were chatting with John — Dominique and Maryanne, he said introducing them. I sat down.
“Imagine Dominique or Maryanne reading your story.”
I nodded.
“What do you want them to know by telling them, how much do you want to show them?”

We headed out in the cold winter night to stand by the pub door to have a smoke. “Which one do you like better? I could tell you, but isn’t it better that you should reach your own conclusion?” I had no idea what he was talking about.

We returned to the table. New drinks all around. The afternoon pub visit was leeching into nighttime. More blues. “This evening, last summer, we were coming back from Panama. The schooner was lifting in the surf…” John was telling a story. “The three of us.” He motioned with his hand in the form of a wave. Up and down. Up and down.
“Newport. Dominique had this great idea.”
“Kitty Wells,” she said, laughing. They were old friends, apparently. John gave me a smile again, his fingers up on his chin.
“We started dancing on the deck to Kitty. Dancing like fools.”
Maryanne sat forward to be heard over the music, “Custom guy says, ‘Hell you three have been at sea too long. Come on. Git. Go ashore and dance’.”
“So we did,” said John raising his glass to his two compadres. “We danced to Kitty Wells.”
“Good thing he didn’t think about moving any of our fish,” Dominique said.
“Why?” I asked foolishly.
“I was dancing with my darlin…” they began to sing.

John H was showing me the story of how they came back from Panama one summer night; and telling me a little bit too, but just enough. I could have seen all that he described — that’s “showing,” he said. But the “telling” part I knew what they wanted me to know and not know at the same time.

Later that week in class, John stood at the front of the classroom, behind a lectern, which seemed to be helping to keep him upright. He was bouncing around a little. “Information. How is the information presented?”
The room grew quiet.
“Can you see it yourself or is someone else — the author — telling you not to look at the fish.” I knew what he was saying, but my classmates maybe didn’t.
“Other than that. Well, if your story… novel shifts in time, you want to tell your reader about it. Get them situated, so to speak.” The characteristic grin.

Outside, after class, he leaned against the building and smoked a cigarette. He pointed at some clouds with a rolled up book review, and I glanced up at the sky. “What do you see?”
“A schooner,” I said, “lifting in the surf…”
“Three souls dancing, dancing to the Tennessee Waltz.”
He stubbed out his cigarette and went back inside.

A few years later, sitting in a bar alone writing in my journal, I opened a letter that came that day from a friend I’d gone to college with saying John H had passed away.

I can still see his grin.
The passing years have given that much to me.