I posted a while ago about many of the ways that the cliched advice of ‘show don’t tell’ is actually bad advice. A lot of people take it to mean that all exposition is bad. The usual ways of implementing it creates fiction that is only accessible to people who—because of the culture of their upbringing or through study—are privy to a specific set of presuppositions. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a nugget of truth in the advice, rather that the advice itself is an oversimplification and many of its proponents are pushing (whether they mean to or not) an agenda that excludes many people and cultures. The nugget is worth digging into.
There is no clear consensus of who first used the specific phrase “show don’t tell,” but it is possible that it is a reduction of a longer piece of advice from Russian author Anton Chekov: “Don’t tell me the moon was shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Of course, in this longer form, it is a bit more obvious that the problem isn’t exposition of all sorts, but rather flat or boring exposition. If you merely tell the reader, “the moon was shining” and nothing else, that’s a pretty generic image, and doesn’t set much of a scene. But if instead you say something like, “moonlight glinted off the broken glass on the floor” that gives a more specific image—and raises some questions. Why is there broken glass on the floor? What happened?
You show the reader that the moon is shining by telling them that moonlight is glinting off broken glass. And you’re going to show the reader what happened by telling them more. As I said in the previous post, being a storyteller requires one to tell stories.
Anton Chekhov is more famous in English-speaking writer communities for another piece of advice: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” The idea is that when certain objects, events, or utterances occur in your story, you raise expectations in the audience that this thing is going to be important. Another way to look at it is, if you’ve shown your reader something that seems important, you should eventually tell the reader what happens to that thing.
Anton Chekhov knew a lot about writing. He’s best known now for a few significant plays, but he wrote an unbelievable number of short stories, short-shorts, vignettes, and other tales. When Chekhov was a young medical student, his father got severely into debt, and Chekhov started writing and selling short, comedic stories and sketches of Russian street life in order to pay for his own tuition and to assist his parents. Eventually, his writing output was so prodigious, that he paid off his parents’ debts, was supporting several of his adult siblings, his own wife, at least one kept mistress, and he was treating medical patients for free. He considered his important life work to be the medical care, and the writing was just to pay all of those bills.
To get back to his advice about showing the reader things: while it is important that your telling of your story paints vivid pictures in your reader’s mind, it is equally important that everything you show the reader serves a purpose within your story. It’s a balancing act.
Many years ago I was asked to give a critique of a draft story by someone in one of the writers’ groups. The story was set in the late 1800s in a “wild west” town, and it had a sex scene. The scene included several pages of beautifully worded and painstakingly specific description of the layers of cloths the woman was wearing and just how much work was involved. There were more than a dozen paragraphs dealing with the unfastening of a set of buttons on a single garment. It was excruciatingly clear that the author had spent many hours researching period fabrics and design and construction of women’s garments in the period. And the author was determined that the reams of information gathered in the hundreds of hours of research would all explained to the reader.
The author claimed, during discussion, that the plot was her protagonist needed to get a piece of information from this guy, so she seduced him. Unfortunately that was completely lost in the very elaborate description of the clearly frustrating undressing process. A case could be made for a humorous story answering the question “can the protagonist get herself undressed and have sex with this guy before they both die of old age?” but that wasn’t what the author was going for—and even then, there was too much detail to support such a punchline. As it was, neither the difficulty of the undressing process nor any of the details of the clothing had anything to do with the author’s intended plot.
It should also be noted, there was no description of the man’s process of undressing. He got his clothes off in less than a sentence at the beginning of the scene. Which is why more than one person in the group thought that the story was meant to be a humorous parody of a bodice-ripper.
I usually have the opposite problem—I don’t describe things enough. So an important part of my revision process (once I get the first draft done) is look for places where painting the picture will make the plot, character motivations, and so on more obvious to the reader.
If you tend toward the more elaborate form of description, than you will need to pay attention to the other side of things during your edit and revision passes: look for abandoned guns. If you’ve described someone’s clothing in detail, ask yourself why? Is the scalloping on the hem of his cloak important to the story? Sure, if you need to establish that this character is well off, and has a flare for fashion, give some details. But maybe that little digression about the type of stitching should be trimmed. If at a later point some property of the cloak is going to be important to a plot point, yeah, show us a detail that at least hints at that possibility.
Similarly with the way a character looks, or the visual details of her home, or the contents of her desk, or the design of any weapons she carries. Show enough for the reader to imagine the character. Show enough to get the reader an outline of the way the character does things. Show the reader things important to the plot without drawing a bullseye on things that will telegraph plot twists.
Paint the picture, but only the picture that is relevant to the story.
I’ve been listening to the NPR show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” since, I think, the very first broadcast. And it was while walking home from work one day many years ago, that I first heard a particular use of a word when a listener contestant described herself as a “gruntled postal worker.” She was a mail delivery person, driving a small mail truck around a rural community, and she said he loved her work. That self-description elicted laugher from the panel for a couple of reasons. First, a series of unfortunate workplace violence incidents beginning in the mid-80s in which angry post office employees violently attacked supervisors, co-workers and so forth, the phrase “disgruntled postal worker” and “going postal” had become colloquialisms used in describing workplace violence issues. Second, it sounded like a back-formation of an existing word. Disgruntled describes a state of ill-humor, moody dissatisfaction, or sulky discontent. And since the prefix dis– usually indicates a negation, then removing the syllable ought to reverse the meaning of the word, right?
Just look at that definition of disgruntled: dissatisfaction is the opposite of satisfaction and discontent is the opposite of content. It seems obvious.
But it’s not that simple.
Because discontent and dissatisfaction come to us from Latin and Latin-derived languages. In Latin dis- is, indeed a synonym for “not” or “bad” or “separate.” But disgruntled does not come to English by way of Latin. Disgruntled is based on an Old English word which in turn came from the Old Saxon word grunt meaning literally a low, short, gutteral sound. And the dis- in disgruntled also comes from Old Saxon, where it means “very or a large amount.” The Old English word that I alluded to above is gruntle, which was a verb meaning to make those gutteral sounds–literally to moan and groan. To be gruntled, then, meant to be in a mood or state that causes you to moan and groan with dissatisfaction, while to be disgruntled meant not just a little bit unhappy and cranky, but to be extremely unhappy.
It’s not surprising that modern English speakers aren’t familiar with the Old Saxon prefix, dis– , because digruntled is the only common English word in which that prefix still appears. Nearly every other English word beginning with the letters d i and s Derive from Latin. There are a few rare words we’ve swiped from Dutch and Turkish and the like which begin with those three letters and don’t mean “not-” something.
Disgruntled, then, can be thought of as an orphaned Saxon word—a sort of living fossil in the language, if you will. And there is one other such fossil word hiding in modern English among the dis-es. Distaff, meaning the female branch or side of a family, has also survived intact from Old English. However, the dis– in distaff has almost no relationship to the dis– in disgruntled. Because the Old English distaff didn’t come from Old Saxon, but rather from Middle Low German. In Middle Low German dise meant a bundle of flax. And the disestaff was a specially shaped stick that was used to wind lengths of flax or wool or similar fibers to keep them from tangling until they could be woven or knitted into a cloth or garment.
The rather sexist reason that the English word distaff now refers to the female side of a family or to the female realm is because winding thread or yarn and turning it into garments was considered women’s work. The word isn’t considered completely archaic at this point, but fortunately it isn’t a terrbbly common word, any longer. We could do with a bit less of the dominance of the patriarchy in our language.
Despite my explanation above about the original meaning of gruntle, you will not find me angrily lecturing people for misusing the word. Gruntled is a perfectly servicable colloquialism to refer to a feeling of happiness. And I strongly suspect that the humorous way people tend to use it means that it’s going to stick around for a while. And that’s a good thing. Because if gruntled continues to catch on, that increases the likelihood that the fossil disgruntled will avoid linguistic extinction for a while longer.
And I’ve always had a soft spot for fossils.
Even so, I was a bit surprised at my reaction to the news that the 99-year-old Billy Graham, oft described as “America’s Pastor,” died yesterday. Let’s make no mistake: while Graham was unusual among Southern Baptist ministers in the 1950s to embrace desegregation (“there is no segregation at the foot of the cross”) and at least gave lip service to decrying racism, he was an unrepentant homophobe. Statements he made over the years included: “Let me say this loud and clear, we traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual welfare.” Or: “Is AIDS a judgment of God? I could not be sure, but I think so.” Graham claimed to be non-partisan, but often came down on the Republican side of many issues. “At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage. The Bible is clear — God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman.” And it’s really hard to justify some of the comments he made while discussing Jews and the media with President Nixon in the 1960s.
But Billy could preach! Oh, how he could preach! It’s difficult to explain to someone who didn’t grow up in an evangelical community in the 50s, 60s, or 70s the cherished place Graham inhabited in the hearts of the faithful, semi-faithful, and faithful-adjacent. Graham wasn’t just held up as an example of a good man and great preacher, people were so certain he was inspired by god, that quoting him sometimes had a stronger effect than quoting from the scripture.
As a teenaged Southern Baptist (very closeted) queer boy in the 70s, I was perhaps more acutely aware of how much Graham was revered than most. While many saw my flare for the dramatic as a troubling hint of queerness, others saw it as a calling from god to become a preacher. The combination of that theatricality with my ability to memorize and recall huge sections of the Bible, as well as a facility with language, and being quick-thinking on my feet had people talking about what a great preacher I would make when I was still in grade school. Once I was older, and had more experience thanks to musical groups, drama club, and the debate team, well, it surprised no one when elders of the church started trying to convince me to get ordained in my late teens.
At the same time, completely unbeknownst to me, Mom and several women in our church were meeting once a week to pray that god would “rescue” me from the temptation of homosexuality. I hadn’t come out to anyone, at all, at the time. And while there are been some very furtive sexual relationships with a few boys my age during middle school, by the time people’s suspicions had risen to that point I was celibate, secretly praying even more fervently than they were, and doing everything I possibly could to be straight.
Which is precisely why, when I was approached about ordination, I started meeting with one of the associate pastors and studying to become a minister. Like millions of religious queers before me, for some time I thought that embracing “full-time Christian service” might be the only way to make my feelings for other guys go away.
I should mention that in Southern Baptist churches at the time, ordination was something that happened usually at your local church before you went off to Bible college. Which is the reverse of the way most other denominations do it. So I was still a teen in my first year attending community college while meeting with the pastors and deacons of our church several times a week to study and pray about my future.
I wish I could say that what caused me to back out was an epiphany about my sexual orientation resulting in self-acceptance replacing the self-loathing I had been taught all my life. That tipping point wouldn’t come for a few more years, yet. I also wish I could say that it was learning that the origins of the Southern Baptist denomination were much more racist and pro-slavery than I had been taught. That shocked me a little bit, but I was already quite familiar with the fact that only a few years before this the Southern Baptist Convention had finally denounced segregation of the races.
What did bring me to my senses were two conversations that happened close together, each with a different deacon in our church.
In the first, the elder in question took issue with my continued interest in science, particularly my interest in astronomy and evolution. He was quite unimpressed by my argument that a god who could plan and carry out a plan involved 15 billions years of stellar evolution eventually leading to humans was a far more impressive feat then simply waving a magic wand and making everything at once. While he referenced the Baptist principle that interpreting the scripture was something each person must do on their own, he also made it clear that my adherence to scientific fact was not an asset for a pastor.
In the conversation with another deacon, I mentioned an article I had read recently in which I learned that Fred Rogers, famous as Mister Rogers on PBS stations, was an ordained Presbyterian minister, who considered his work producing the children’s show his ministry. I thought it was a great example of how doing god’s work could take many forms The deacon had a very different view. First, he pointed out that (in the opinion of typical Southern Baptists), Presbyterians were “soft” on Biblical inerrancy. Further, if Rogers was actually doing god’s work, he would use that daily television show to tell children directly the story of Jesus. Since he didn’t do that, he wasn’t doing god’s work, according to this deacon. Finally, he said, “You know that Billy Graham was raised Presbyterian? He joined the Baptists because we’re actually doing god’s work.”
And those two conversations were the final nails in the coffin of me becoming a Baptist minister. The epiphany I had after those conversations was that all of the church leaders who had been urging me to become a minister didn’t really see the makings of a pastor in me. Instead, they thought that anyone who had Talent, whether it be intelligence, a gift for language, or whatever, who didn’t use that to evangelize wasn’t doing god’s work. That simply being a good person and doing what you can to make the corner of the world you were in a better place and to love your neighbors wasn’t enough.
I didn’t call things off until the end of the Sunday evening Church service where, as part of the process, I delivered a sermon and otherwise conducted the service. I still think that my John 16:33 sermon is an incredible work of art. But even as I was giving it, I knew the whole thing was a mistake. I suspect if I hadn’t called it off, that the deacon who was so concerned about my love of science would have done what he could to derail things. Regardless, there were a few more times over the next couple of years that leaders in that church and related churches came to me and asked me to prayerfully reconsider become a preacher.
I had learned my lesson: if the evangelical faith couldn’t accommodate both scientific fact and Mister Rogers, well, it didn’t have a place for me, either. I didn’t find my real place until several years later, but that’s a story for another day.
Note: The title comes from the hymn “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” by James M. Black, hymn #482 in the 1956 Baptist Hymnal.
Several years ago my employer did a weird re-arrangement of the holiday calendar that results in the office being closed for almost a full week at Christmas, but we no longer observer MLK, Jr Day, Washington’s Birthday, or get a floating holiday. So I had literally forgotten today was even a holiday until after getting on my bus which was far emptier than usual and never filled up, riding on roads that were very empty, finally walking through downtown front the bus to my office through a downtown that is nearly deserted.
If I had remembered, I might have scheduled the post that published this morning for later in the week and written a new post about Washington’s Birthday and the myth of President’s Day. Instead, I’ll repost something I wrote on this line originally three years ago. Enjoy:
That’s not the name of the holidayI’ve written before about the fact that President’s Day is a myth, the official name of the holiday is Washington’s Birthday Observance. Click the link to read about the history of the holiday, the few states that do observe a holiday called President’s Day (though some observe it in completely different months), and so on. Today, I want to talk a little bit about why there has never been a Federal holiday honoring Lincoln’s birthday, and how that contributes to people thinking that today’s holiday is about anyone other than Washington… Read More…
I’ve written about the most recent incident last week, and laid out how all the usual arguments for why we can’t do anything about mass shootings have been trotted out by other industries and proved incorrect a while ago: They used to insist that drunk driving couldn’t be reduced either. I had some more stuff I was going to follow up with, but almost everything I wanted to say is summed up by Emma Gonzalez, one of the survivors of last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida: Teen who survived massacre rips Trump to pieces in emotional takedown. I’m just going to quote a bunch of that article:
[S]he responded directly to Trump’s tweet, which blamed students at the school for not reporting on the shooter’s behavior before the event.
“We did,” Gonzalez said, “time and time again, since he was in middle school.”
“We need to pay attention to the fact that this isn’t just a mental health issue,” she continued. “He wouldn’t have harmed that many students with a knife.”
“How about we stop blaming the victims for something that was the shooter’s fault?” she demanded, and called out those who do deserve to shoulder that blame.
“[The people] who let him buy the guns in the first place. Those at the gun shows. The people who encouraged him to buy accessories for his guns to make them fully automatic. The people who didn’t take them away from him when they knew that he expressed homicidal tendencies. And I am not talking about the FBI. I am talking about the people that he lived with, I’m talking about the neighbors who saw him outside holding guns.”
The NRA gave $30,000,000 dollars to the Trump Presidential campaign alone, not to mention the tens of millions to various senators and congresspeople. Last year, when Congress passed a law making it easier for mentally ill people to buy guns (and Cadet Bonespur signed it), the NRA sent out a bulletin to all of its members bragging about it.
The NRA routinely pours millions into defeating laws that NRA members themselves claim to support. When gun sales plummeted last year after Cadet Bonespur was inaugurated, they spent a bunch of money producing advertisements that portrayed Black Lives Matters protesters and such as dangerous violent people. The ads were blatant calls for white supremacists to buy more guns and prepare for a race war.
The NRA as an organization is demonstrably not promoting responsible gun ownership and hasn’t been for decades. It’s only goals are to protect and increase gun manufacturer profit; and if any of its leaders aren’t racist (a highly difficult proposition to prove), they are all absolutely fine fanning the flames of racial fear to keep the money rolling in.
So, anyone still supporting them is supporting an organization that sees mass murders of children and racial tension as marketing tools. You aren’t nobly defending a moral principle if you support them.
It’s time to end this bloody charade.
I have often found myself in weird discussions/arguments with people who assume that because I favor many extremely liberal policies, I must be one of those evil anti-gun people. So before I get into this tale, let me begin by saying that I used to be a card-carrying member of the NRA. I have owned guns. I have fired guns. I have almost never fired guns on a gun range, because we didn’t have many in the Rocky Mountain towns where I grew up. I was taught how to shoot a gun by being taken out into the wilderness by my father and grandfather and firing it for a couple of hours at various things we set up as targets. Then after the third of fourth weekend of doing that being told I needed to go shoot a rabbit or two if I wanted to eat that night.
Long before we got to that point there had been many, many gun safety lectures, because there were lots of guns (mostly hunting rifles) in the homes of most of my extended family. I knew how to take apart, clean, and put back together a bolt-action rifle and how to re-load bullet cases (by which I mean, measure out gunpowder, put it into a spent casing, align a new bullet and insert it with a hand operated press, and install a primer cap) years before I was allowed to hold a loaded gun and shoot it.
There were winters when the only reason there was enough food on the table for the whole family was because some of us had gotten a deer or elk during the appropriate season (not to mention rabbits, pheasants, and grouse). I should also mention that I was raised to look down my nose in disdain at people who hunted pheasant and other birds with a shotgun. As my Grandpa said, “If you can’t hit a flying grouse or dove or pheasant with a rifle, you have no business pointing a gun at anything.”
I should also mention, in case it isn’t obvious from the part about learning how to turn spent cartridges back into bullets, missing was considered wasteful. We couldn’t afford to waste a lot of bullets getting the food.
But as the title of this post suggests, today I need to tell you the story of Great-grandma’s Gun… Read More…
The truth is that the course of love and romance seldom runs true, as the old saying tells us. Mostly people misunderstand that saying, however. A lot of people operate under the mistaken notion that a relationship ending is the same thing as a relationship failing. Which is crazy. Living in a relationship is a whole series of tasks requiring multiple skills. And the only way to learn how to do a skill well is to try, fail, and try again.
Depending on your viewpoint, I can think of many reasons one could argue I’m a terrible spokesperson for Valentine’s Day or the topic of romance. I’m an out queer man, and there are a lot of people (including the man currently sitting in the office of Vice President of the U.S. not to mention a number of my relatives) who would insist that I don’t understand love because queers can’t love. A related group of people would say that because my first marriage ended in divorce (ignoring the whole orientation thing), that means I obviously suck at relationships. Others might quote Mrs. White from Clue and argue that “Life after death is as improbable as sex after marriage!” and therefore since I and my husband have been together for 20 years now that I have long forgotten what real romance is. And so on.
I feel compelled to point out that in college I was active in Debate and Speech competitions and in 1980 I won a number of awards in the After Dinner Speaking category, including eventually winning the Western Region Championship (beating out every other competitor west of the Mississippi) with a speech entitled, “How To Pick Up Girls.” So, this queer guy may know a thing or two about romance?
Of course, there is that divorce. But it may not mean what you think. You may be surprised to learn that some years after my divorce from Julie, that she asked me to be the Maid of Honor at her second wedding. Just as you may be surprised that we remain friends to this day. There are many reasons for that, not least being that Julie is an incredibly warm, loving person who is able to empathize with others and truly see things from multiple perspectives. I consider myself lucky to know her, and remain endlessly grateful that once we realized that I wasn’t bisexual we were able to stick the dismount.
Now, before she married her second husband (who is an awesome man who is perfect for her in thousands of ways that I was not), she had another relationship. This one with a man that, well, as soon as I met him I realized that he was NOT in her league intellectually and otherwise. But I was the ex-husband, and the queer ex-husband, at that, so at the time my opinion belonged tightly clamped behind my lips. But when that relationship fell apart, as a good friend, I was ready to offer sympathy, support, and to openly hate the ex (which was really easy because he was an idiot who didn’t deserve her).
So one evening she, I, and a bunch of our friends from the (now defunct) Seattle Lesbian & Gay Chorus, were standing around smoking (yes, I used to smoke, it has been 23 years since I quit, if you’re curious), and offering our condolences and so forth. She told a story of a particularly douche-y thing that he did to her during the break up, flaunting one of the women he had been cheating with. We all expressed our low opinion of him, and she equivocated, thinking maybe we were being too hard on him. I jumped in to say, “All men are pigs!”
One of the other friends, an extremely butch bisexual woman, laughed and said, “Oh, honey! He knows! Listen to him!” Several others chimed in all agreeing that I was right, all men are pigs.
And I was sincere. I’m a man who has dated a lot of men, and I can testify to the universal truth that men are pigs. As Mrs. White observed. “Flies are where men are most vulnerable.” She’s right. Sometimes we’re ruled by the wrong head. And when we let that head get us into trouble, we seldom manage to get out of such situations without hurting some of the people around us.
All men are pigs. Really and truly. It’s something I’ve known for many years.
I’m addicted to pork. And I ain’t the only one!
Because some years ago a humorous post misled at least one of our friends to think that my husband and I was breaking up, I feel compelled to add this clarification: I love my husband with all my heart and we are still happy and together and I continue to remain astonished that he stays with me, because I don’t deserve him.