Writing Tip: Don’t Tell, but Show

cartoon illustrating angry boy with red face

 

An old one but a good one: don’t tell, but show.

What does it mean exactly? It means don’t tell us about loneliness (or any of those complex words like dishonesty, secrecy, jealousy, obsession, regret, death, injustice, etc) show us what loneliness is. We will read what you’ve written and feel the bite of loneliness. Don’t tell us what to feel. Show us the situation, and that feeling will be triggered in us.

don't tell, but show

When you take your child to school on their first day you may find yourself teary and relieved at the same time. Put into words what you see: the child’s face, the wave at the gate, the other mothers saying their goodbyes, another child coming up to take your son by the hand. We will get what you’re trying to say without you telling us directly.

don't tell, but show 2

When you write, be conscious of the senses and how they connect to the experiences you are writing about. Use sight, sound, smell, touch to create concrete pictures. The senses allow you to get as close as humanly possible in words to the wedding, the sunrise, the dog, the suitcase. It’s the best way to penetrate your story and breathe life into it. Don’t tell us about something, drop deep, enter the story and take us with you.

I hope this post on show, don’t tell is useful. Do you have any tips you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share with a friend if you enjoyed it. 

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Writing Tip: taste life twice

writer at work at typewriter

Writers live twice. They go along with their regular life, are as fast as anyone in the grocery store, crossing the street, getting dressed for work in the morning. But there’s another part of them that they have been training. The one that lives everything a second time. That sits down and sees their life again and goes over it. Looks at the texture and the details.”  – Natalie Goldberg

quote by Anais Nin against a night sky

So here I am on a month away from my Sydney home wanting to recharge the creative batteries. I’ve just had a 4 night visit to Marrakech, Morocco. I got back to Villefranche sur Mer, where I’m renting a writing studio, last night. It’s a 3 hour flight between Nice France and Marrakech. So seeing as I’d traveled all the way across the world, I thought it a good time to visit Marrakech. Wow! What a creative experience. All the senses are awakened. Maybe I’ll live life twice and write something set in Morocco.

For now I’m feeling grateful to be able to travel and experience other cultures. The Marrakech-born people I met have never left their country. In the photos you can see me and Morad, the night manager at Riad Daria in Marrakech, one of the very kind and welcoming Moroccon’s who helped me during my stay. We’re pictured on the terrace of the riad. After the chaos of Marrakech’s souks, there’s nothing like a calm retreat. Below us is a corner of the rooftop terrace.

The first pic is the famous Jardin Marjorelle, the beautiful garden once owned by Yves Saint Laurent and home to the Berber Museum. He gifted the garden to Marrakech, the city that adopted him in 1964. Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge bought the electric blue villa and its garden to preserve the vision of its original owner, landscape painter Jacques Majorelle, and keep it open to the public.  A memorial to the French fashion designer was built there. This year a new museum dedicated to him was opened next door to Jardin Marjorelle. I was lucky enough to visit. The museum retraces Saint Laurent’s forty years of creativity, the world of fashion he created, some designs influenced by his life in Marrakech. He too tasted life twice.

 

 

Writing Tip: Slow things down

woman in blue tennis dress position to hit big forehand

So, here’s the thing:  choose something in particular to write about. For example, what it felt like having a tennis lesson after a twenty year break. Give us the specifics. Dig deep for the details, but at the same time be aware of the world around you. As you focus on what you’re writing, at the same time stay conscious of your surroundings:  the white painted cane Bentwood chairs in the café, the cool breeze from under the door on your sandaled feet, the hum of the traffic outside. Just add a sentence every now and then about the trees that overlooked the tennis courts while you were having a tennis lesson. When we focus on our writing it is good. Seeing the colour of the sky when you toss the ball gives breathing space to your story.

If you are sitting in Meditation you calm the butterfly mind by paying attention to your thoughts, giving them space by acknowledging them before returning to the breath, in and out through the nostrils. In the act of slowing down your breathing, as best you can, you remain open so that you are receptive to awareness of sounds as they arise: sounds near, sounds far, sounds in front, behind, to the side, above or below.

With every breath you take, you feel the air, the sound of the ball as it hits the racket, the players on the other courts.

To slow myself down in tennis I often use the one, two, three method when serving or when receiving a ball from the server. I count ‘one’ as I prepare the service swing, ‘two’ as I toss the ball and ‘three’ when the racket connects with the ball. When receiving a serve I count ‘one’ as the server tosses the ball, ‘two’ when the server hits the ball, ‘three’ when I hit the ball to return the serve. It helps. My tennis coach Chris at Wentworth Tennis suggested I do this, to slow things down.

We should always be living in the present, not by ignoring the world around us, but by paying close attention. It is not easy to stay alive to ‘what is’. When we slow things down in our writing (and in our tennis), it is good practice.

What about you? Do you find a daily meditation practice assists your writing practice?

Writing Tip: Tell It Like It Is

speech bubble: I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse
Pinterest image

Use clear declarative sentences. This assertive statement was spoken by Don Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) in the movie The Godfather (1972).

It is not uncommon for women and other minority groups to add qualifiers to their statements. Such as ‘Parents need to stop organising every minute of their children’s spare time, don’t you think?’ ‘I loved that movie, didn’t you?’ In our sentence structure we look for reinforcement for our thoughts and opinions. We don’t always make declarative statements. ‘This is wonderful.’ ‘This is a catastrophe.’ We look for re-enforcement from others.

Another thing we do without realising it, is use indefinite modifiers in our speech:  perhaps, maybe, somehow. ‘Maybe I’ll take a trip somewhere.’ As if the speaker has no power to make a decision. ‘Perhaps it will change.’ Again, not a clear declarative sentence like, ‘Yes, nothing stays the same.’

It is important for us as writers to express ourselves in clear assertive sentences. ‘This is excellent.’ ‘It was a red dress.’ Not ‘The thing is, I know it sounds a bit vague, but I think maybe it was a red dress.’ Speaking in declarative sentences is a good rehearsal for trusting your own ideas, in standing up for yourself, for speaking out your truth.

When I write poetry I read through early drafts with a critical eye, taking out indefinite words and modifiers. I attempt to distill each moment to its essence by peeling off the layers until the heart of the poem is exposed. We need to take risks as writers and go deep within ourselves to find our unique voices and express ourselves with clarity.

Even if you are not 100% sure about your own opinions and thoughts write as if you are sure.  Dig deep. Be clear. Don’t be vague on the page. If you keep practicing this, you will eventually reveal your own deep knowing.

I hope this post is useful. Do you have any tips you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it. 

Writing Tip: Writing In Cafes

cafes, buses, palm trees, bright blue sky, cars on Bronte Road, Bronte

I am sitting in a café across the road from the beach in Bronte, Sydney.  This stretch of road has a whole row of cafes side by side facing the sea.  This is my favourite kind of writing place:  one where I can sit comfortably for a long period of time and where the owners of the café know me and welcome me.  This café is owned by a Brazilian man and his wife and has comfortable upholstered bench chairs with a direct view of the Pacific Ocean.  For my two-hour writing session my choice could be a traditional Brazilian dish such as Coxinha, Feijoda or Moqueca.  Or a cocktail like Caipirinha or  Caipiroska.  I must order something and it must be more that a Soy Cap, because I plan to be here for a long time.  I want the owners of the café to know I appreciate the time and the space they are allowing me.

However, today I’ll be very boring and order poached eggs on gluten-free bread 🙂

Why go to all this trouble to find a place to write?  Why not just stay home and work?  Because it’s good to get out and have a change of scene.  I find I need to be happy and relaxed when I’m creating on the page and sitting in a café with a pleasant vibe works for me.  Other writers need silence in order to concentrate, but I need to feel I am out and about in a beautiful place having a good time before the creative juices flow.

Strangely, writing in a café can help to increase concentration.  The busy café atmosphere keeps the sensory part of you occupied and content, so that the hidden, quieter part of you that composes and focuses is allowed to do its work.  It is something like being cunning when trying to get a spoonful of food into a resistant toddler’s mouth:  You pretend to be an aeroplane with all the sound effects and movements before landing the food-laden plane inside the child’s mouth.  Mission accomplished.

It is preferable not to turn up at a cafe for a cup of coffee and a writing session at the cafe’s busiest times, like breakfast or lunch. Go at the in between hours when they are pleased to see you because they don’t want the place to look deserted. The beach cafes are places I frequent in spring, autumn and winter, but not much in the summer. Far too crowded and noisy.

There is a real art to finding the right place to write. For me the best place  is one that has comfortable chairs, a pleasant outlook (preferably a view of the the sky and/or green or water). A welcoming, almost homely, atmosphere.

What about you?  Do you need to be at your desk in total silence to write, or do you like to experience the swell of humanity around you—to be surrounded by other human beings?  Or at home listening to a particular kind of music? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it. 

The Writing Life

 

pen and cup of coffee on cafe table

It’s a tough gig being a writer. Lots of isolation, lots of intense concentration, lots of rejection from publishers and agents. Sitting in a cafe with coffee and fountain pen is one of the good bits.

Why do I write? It’s a good question to ask yourself.

  1.  Because I’m a fool.
  2.  Because I want to impress my old school friends.
  3.  So people will like me.
  4.  So my friends will hate me.
  5.  I’m no good at speaking up.
  6.  So I can invent a new way of looking at the world.
  7.  In order to write the great Australian novel and become famous.
  8.  Because I’m a nut case.
  9.  Because I’m an undiscovered literary genius.
  10.  Because I have something to tell.
  11.  Because I have nothing to tell.

Hemingway has said, ‘Not the why, but the what.’ It’s enough to know you want to write. Write.

One of my favourite books on the writing process is The Writing Life by Pullitzer Prize winning Annie Dillard. It’s a small and passionate guide to the terrain of a writer’s world.

Book cover 'The Writing Life' by Annie Dillard

 Dillard begins:

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year. You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins. The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool. The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend. In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles. Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” —E. B. White

There is a famous story in the Zen world:

The student, newly arrived at the monastery, asks the master, “What work will I do as I seek enlightenment?”

The master replies, “Chop wood, carry water.”

“And what work will I do once I achieve enlightenment?” asks the student.

“Chop wood, carry water,” says the master.

So how does this stay apply to the writing life? A writer writes. That’s all there is to it.

“You’ll fail only if you stop writing.” – Ray Bradbury

Harry Potter book cover

Rowling has said that Harry Potter “simply fell into [her] head” and “all of the details bubbled up in [her] brain.” She “[had] never felt such a huge rush of excitement and [she] knew immediately that it was going to be such fun to write.”

Sounds like a fairy tale beginning to a fairy tale ending, doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s all ordinary readers need to know about Rowling’s path to literary fame, but us writers need more.

We need to know the not-so-glamorous version of what it was like to write Harry Potter. We need to appreciate how disciplined Rowling had to be to develop her idea into seven hefty books. We have to know that she wasn’t lazily sipping mochas for two decades while jotting down a continuous stream of words like a literary Fountain of Youth.

All too often we convince ourselves that we would write more if only we were well-known, or had more money, or could find more time. But none of that is what makes a writer a writer. It’s simply that a writer writes. – The Friendly Editor

writing quote by Ray Bradbury with author pic

That’s why I write. What about you? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it. 

Another great review for The Crystal Ballroom

 

The Crystal Ballroom book covers

I was delighted to read another wonderful and insightful review of The Crystal Ballroom this morning. It’s on Goodreads.

Here’s an extract:

An intriguing book, neither a collection of short stories nor a novel, but a series of vignettes – snapshots − of women, no longer young, but who are determined to wring every drop of verve and excitement out of life. Most of the action is revealed in conversations over coffee or drinks, between the protagonist, Sofia and her friend Ingrid. The ‘glue’ holding the story – or rather stories − together is a love of ballroom dancing and the venues in which such events are held, in particular the Crystal Ballroom, which is a character in its own right. 

In this unusual book Libby Sommer puts women’s psyches under the microscope – their hopes and dreams, fears and foibles – yet always with a deft touch and a sympathetic ear. 

You can read the whole review here.