Thursday, January 26, 2012

"Tell, Don't Show"

....As we've all heard a thousand times. But then witness last Friday, when I regaled my huddled in laws and vaguely-bemused wife with a story of one Tim Tebow, the Anointed and therefore Man Who Had To Die. Reader, I toot not my own horn when I say that they were enraptured...But after the inevitable Passion, and Fall, an inevitable question arose:

"Wait, you like watching football?"

I don't, actually. What I do like, though, is listening - and not to sports, but about them. The habit was ingrained in me early via my father, a lifelong fan who, what with our living in places that had no real televised broadcasts (especially of American sports) had to field endless questions from my brother and me. What was a baseball? Who were the Red Sox? And how could Mo Vaughan - a behemoth whose photograph I'd seen once in a Herald Tribune and feared ever since - possibly secure enough Bostonian orphans to satisfy his monstrous appetite?

So I learned about sports through a medium that I've been told since is defunct: the oral tradition. It didn't stop there, either. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of a long car ride, during which my dad was subjected to a veritable inquisition on the mysterious world of "Star Wars" (a movie he was sure we'd love). Less a start-to-finish retelling than a sort of encyclopedic Q&A (a story "in pieces", a la Calvino's Invisible Cities or Shklovsky's Sentimental Journey) the universe he created on that and subsequent drives remains one of my ur-texts, vivid and unrepeatable. Its digressive, deceptively-casual shape has remained in my brain ever since, knotted by loci of what still seem unbearable fascination. Han Solo, for example: was he a Jedi, or part of the Empire? Good or Bad? But what side of the Force was he on?! I give my dad infinite credit for refusing to give into my zeal for categorization. It made the story better - for even then I recognized that in a universe of super-powerful creatures, it was exactly Solo's slipperiness made him unique, and uniquely powerful.

Nowadays, I still love a good paraphrase, no matter what form it takes. I devour reviews; ditto previews, to which I have an embarrassing addiction. I hate playing video games, but love watching people play them (or talk or write about playing them). I read about sports without any desire to watch them. All predilections, I'm afraid, that are ridiculously easy to punch holes in (consumerist! American!) - but then what if there's something interesting going on here, too? What if what I'm really searching for when I ask someone to tell me about it is not an end to the conversation, but a return to that backseat of my family Volvo ("olvo" after the V fell off), with a loved face explaining the world to me one question at a time?

All this may have nothing to do with anything... On the other hand, take a second to think about how my father's storytelling differs from the kind that apprentice writers are generally told to practice today. Ruled as it is by Nabokov and Flannery O'Connor, contemporary American writing bows before the "eye" - not the real eye (abused constantly by tiny print and pulsing screens), but by the metaphorical organ of literary cliche. Writers are exhorted to "show", "make the reader see it", "notice" - all wonderful pieces of advice, of course. But I wonder if they don't occlude the world, occasionally, by making their words too unbearably clear? "What happens next?" we ask, and wait rapturously for the answer. Do we need to see it? Sometimes yes, sure, we do. But then remember Henry James (one of O'Connor's favorite writers), or Henry Green (who was blind), or Hermann Broch (who...uh...didn't own a TV). Think of Nabokov himself, whose noticings, though vivid, are always strategic and, I guarantee you, much rarer than you remember. "Showing" is an essential spice: but the meat of storytelling is telling. The human mind loves to put things together and this is why a book, among other things, is a big bag of legos. A generous writer understands that the best stories inevitably leave their readers feeling that the best, or most important, or just most interesting parts have been left unshown.

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