How Much To Tell

October 8, 2010

In my memoir class the other night, we were discussing Kathryn Harrison’s The Mother Knot. We’ve been looking at how Harrison creates scenes and scenelets.  In our last conversation, we were focusing upon Harrison’s artful telling.

Telling.  If you’re a writer, if you’ve studied writing, I’m sure you’ve heard that dictum, Show Don’t Tell. It’s almost a commandment.  Students are told this so often that they think that the only way to narrate a memoir is to create scene after scene after scene.

But Show Don’t Tell is just so much hokum.  Which doesn’t mean we should never write scenes.  But if you want to find out whether published memoirs tell more than they show, or show more than they tell, or use an artful combination of showing and telling, study a few of your favorite memoirs carefully and I think you’ll see that, in many of them, there’s a hell of a lot more telling than showing.

My favorite comment about telling versus showing is in Kit Reed’s marvelous little book Story First: The Writer as Insider. It’s out of print now, but there are used copies available and I wish some enterprising publisher would put it back in print.  Reed’s book is about writing fiction, but what he says is applicable to memoir.

Reed says that you’re either in a scene or you aren’t.  “The reader sees and hears.”  But, he says, “artful telling has its own kind of life and movement. . . . [A]rtful telling creates the set and becomes one of the characters, as much a part of the story as the action.  In the hands of a skilled artist,” Reed writes, “the reader will move from passages in which the author shows to passages in which [s/]he tells and back again so swiftly that [s/]he will not even mark the passing.”

But, Reed warns us, sometimes a writer “will tell too much because [s/]he can’t sort out the right things to tell from the wrong ones.”

So.  How much to tell?

My class was looking at a moment in The Mother Knot that comes just after her doctor tells Harrison that unless she stops losing weight, she’ll face hospitalization.  She describes (tells) a previous hospitalization for depression; she tells us what she and her husband have told the children about the reason their mother went to the hospital.  And then Harrison tells us how she explains her weight loss to her daughter:

“This time, when I could no longer disguise how thin I was, I anticipated my older daughter’s concern and told her my thyroid balance was off, a credible lie since 1996, when I had been diagnosed with Graves’ disease” (Kathryn Harrison, The Mother Knot, NY: Random House, 2004, p. 39).

We had a lively discussion about this passage.  One of my students, writing about health issues in her family, asked the class whether we thought Harrison should have said more about Graves disease.  Another student indicated that with the phrase “thyroid balance was off” the reader gets a truncated definition about the disease – all the reader needs to know at this point.  I thought that because the memoir deals with many health issues – her son’s asthma, her own anorexia and depression, her knee surgery, her mother’s death from cancer – that saying more than this might have been too much, tipping the memoir over into a “too-muchness” about illness and disease.

My initial response was glib, not reasoned.  There are times, for sure – as when I wrote my book Breathless about my having asthma – when every single detail is important, when everything about an illness (in this example) needs to be written out.  To do less would be to minimize the importance of informing the reader just what life with such a condition is like, and I myself have argued that we’re in a culture that wants us to say less, not more, about our medical conditions; that we’re in a culture that wants us to keep them hidden; that we’re in a culture that wants us to act as if everything is just fine, that we’ve become better persons for it (that’s the narrative the culture rewards) and that it’s important to say however much we need to about illness and infirmity.

But in Harrison’s case, I think she told us just enough about Grave’s disease.  In our discussion, one of my students pointed out that the information was being given to the reader in the context of her figuring out what she would tell her older daughter, and so more information would be too much because this was a point of view situation – we’re seeing Harrison thinking about what she’ll tell her daughter; we’re not seeing Harrison describing this condition for the edification of the reader.

How much to tell?  Each of us has to decide this on our own, and in the writing of a memoir, we’ll have thousands of these decisions to make.  (Not in our early drafts, of course, but in our final ones.)

I’m facing this challenge right now in my memoir about my father’s military service before and during World War II.

My father served on an aircraft carrier, and I’ve written a draft of a chapter in which I’ve written “more than you ever wanted to know about aircraft carriers.”  I’ve had good readers, kind readers, who’ve pointed this out to me.  But it’s taken me a while to understand that too much is too much.

I’ve read books about aircraft carriers; searched the web and read articles about them; found magnificent details about the carrier my father served on, that, for example, the hull of the carrier groaned, and so many of the sailors couldn’t sleep, though others were lulled to sleep by the constant low-pitched sound that you could never escape when you were below deck.

But in my current draft of this chunk, I’ve realized that what I need to write about aircraft carriers is not what I know, but what my father would have learned about it.  That is, I have to use my father’s point of view here, not mine.  Yes, my father would have known about the groaning of the carrier’s hull – in fact, he told me about it, and I corroborated what he said with research.  But I shouldn’t tell the reader the dimensions of the pilots’ ready rooms, for example, even though I know what they were, because my father wasn’t a pilot, and he would never have set foot in them.

How much to tell is an issue we all face in writing memoir.  And I think that the example from Harrison can act as a touchstone for us as we make our decisions.  How much does the reader need to know?  And whose point of view is in play during a run of telling language?

This demands that we write, and then we think about our writing.  We’ll never get this right – how much to tell – on the first try; we might not get it right on the third try.  But I’m confident that by the time we get to our final draft, we’ll know just how much to tell our readers in any “artful telling” situation.

Meantime, if you can, get your hands on Kit Reed’s Story First. You won’t be sorry.

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One Response to “How Much To Tell”

  1. Edi Giunta Says:

    “…what my father would have learned about it.” Such a great point, Louise–and such an accessible solution. I love it!


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