Note:  John Rechy has conducted creative writing courses as guest author at Occidental College and UCLA.  He currently teaches in the Masters in Professional Writing Program at USC.  He also holds private workshops for professional-level writers.  He has lectured on writing and other subjects at Harvard, Yale, and Duke Universities.  From time to time, he will contribute short essays on writing.  This is the first.  

A condensed version of this full-length essay has appeared in the Sunday Los Angels Times Book Review.

     The three most often repeated "Rules of Writing," recited by rote and left uninvestigated and unchallenged in virtually every writing workshop, English course, and composition class, are capable of doing terrible damage to good writing.  The Terrible Three are:

1.  SHOW, DON'T TELL.  Major nonsense.  Good writing involves "showing"--that is, dramatizing--as well as "telling"--that is, employing exposition.  An avoidance of "telling" may convolute and interfere with providing clear motivation (to be exemplified by "showing").  It disallows setting.  It obfuscates situation.  "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."  In that line Dickens immediately identifies the situation he is now free to develop in "A Tale of Two Cities."  Soon after, dual settings are established.  Through exposition:  "There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face on the throne of France." 

     Do we speak of "story-showing"?  No.  We speak of "story-telling."  Many great works of literature are largely expositional, including Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," Cervantes's "Don Quixote," and--try this one--Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" ("In Search of Lost Time").  In the latter, Proust roams, in exposition, through the inner landscape of the child Marcel's need for his mother's nightly bed-time kiss.  Now he can move on to exemplify--"show"--the drama of his foiled attempts.  Later, in a passage of sweeping exposition he explores Swann's complex love for Odette and by closely observing its vagaries, renders it universal.  Thomas Bernhard's masterpiece, "Concrete," is all gasping exposition until at the end he opens his narrative into eerie dramatization. 

     The effect of "scenes"--showing--may be created through refined "telling," as in Garcia Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude," which is in major part exposition, with very little dialogue, often used as dramatic punctuation:  "The earth is round, like an orange."   Try to "show" this line of blunt exposition:  "Call me Ishmael!"  (Still, the famous line that opens Melville's "Moby Dick" is memorable only because of the name Ishmael.  Call me Tommy?  Call me Sally?  Not nearly stirring.) 

     A good way to add life to exposition, especially to long passages of it, is to pause to capture a dramatic moment, to allow the reader to hear someone speak, see someone move, act--yes, show--since time is the accumulation of moments.

     Even in film, the quintessential art of "showing," Ingmar Bergman and other great directors (Kurosawa, Billy Wilder) often use bold exposition.  Alma, the nurse, in "Persona"  announces, "I am a 24 year old nurse--" etc.  The psychiatrist involved informs us that an older actress went silent during a performance of "Electra" as we see the actress's anguished face.   A mysterious male voice tells us that the nurse and the actress were advised by the psychiatrist to go into the country, as we see them moving along a jagged landscape that visually projects (á la Robbe-Grillet) the emotional entanglement they are moving into.  In one of the most erotic scenes in literature or film, in a long monologue Alma tells the actress--no flashback, no "showing"-- about a sexual encounter on the beach. 

2.  WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW.  The moody spinster who left the English moors to travel to London only once in her lifetime fled back to her seclusion to write one of the most passionate love stories of all time.  Emily Brontë's "Wuthering Heights" illuminates a love so spectacular that it finds its only safe place within hell, not possible to be contained in a bland heaven. 

     Many great works of art would be cancelled if the author had restricted himself to what he "knows."  Think about crime novels--Raymond Chandler, James Cain, Dashiell Hammett.  What about Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment"?   Stephen Crane never saw war, but he wrote "The Red Badge of Courage."  Purportedly, Vladimir Nabokov was outraged when little girls started popping up at his door one Halloween, inferring that he wrote in "Lolita" about what he knew.  Flaubert, asked how he came to understand Emma so well, answered, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi."  The good fiction writer relies primarily on imagination, not information, not investigation.  Certainly intimate knowledge--plus imagination--have produced many works of grand literature.

     The writer doesn't deal with "reality."  He deals with verisimilitude.  He conjures his own "reality."  We would be just as jarred if, along the weary way to California, Ma and Tom Joad encountered crazy old Dorothy skipping along the water-starved earth of Oklahoma as we would be if crazy old Dorothy encountered Ma and Tom Joad trudging along her yellow brick road.  In both instances--Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" and Frank L. Baum's "The Wonderful World of Oz"--it is not, respectively, reality, nor fantasy, but verisimilitude that would be jarred

     A better admonition might be:  Write about what you feel.  Too lofty.  Write about what you feel you know.  Too elevated.  This is it:  Write about whatever the hell you want to write about.

3.  ALWAYS HAVE A SYMPATHETIC CHARACTER FOR THE READER TO RELATE TO.  Shakespeare's Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, King Lear, the annoying Hamlet--none grasps our sympathy entirely, at best sporadically; nor does Othello, even if he is black.  Albert Camus's "The Stranger" is no lover of humanity to relate with.  In Greek tragedy, just as in popular bestsellers, the most villainous and unsympathetic characters are the ones we remember, including Medea (about whom this writer, however, wrote sympathetically in a novel, proving that Jason was the villain).  Ellen Berent in that magnificent underrated "popular novel" "Leave her to Heaven," by Ben Ames Williams--no snobbery here--is chilling and unforgettable; she blithely kills everyone who comes close to her husband, including, finally--grasp this!--herself.    Blanche DuBois is sympathetic until we imagine her taking up quarters in one's own home (covering all the lights with Chinese lanterns, steaming up the bathroom on a hot day, singing sappy songs as she sprays her assertive perfume everywhere, dousing the air with stray feathers from her boa).  Then surely, our sympathy might transfer to villainous Stanley.  Willy Loman is often irritating.  Lolita is dumb but cunning, and Humbert Humbert is a pervert.

     We love hateful, selfish, manipulative characters--Scarlett O'Hara, Rhett Butler, Lago--yes, Dracula.  Catherine and Heathcliff are horrors (and still manage--at times--to tear our hearts out).  Whom do you sympathize with in any of Kafka's books?  Henry James's governess in "The Turn of the Screw" is a driven demon.  In Carson McCullers's perfect novel, "Reflections in a Golden Eye," it is instantly apparent that the author despises every one of her characters, with the possible exception of the horse involved--although she does give him a severe flogging; and so the reader despises them, too, but one reads on. 

     Despicable, awful, frightening, wicked--but fascinating.  That's the key:  Fascinating.  Write about characters, good or evil, who fascinate.

© 1999-2006 John Rechy
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