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Thursday’s Work-in-Progress: Listening Like a Writer

Spend long enough in writing circles, and you hear (and talk) a lot about “reading like a writer.” You might even write a book on the subject.

But we spend far less time discussing “listening as writer.” But after attending a reading this week at Baruch College of The City University of New York, that’s exactly what’s on my mind.

The reading was given by Jhumpa Lahiri, who is this semester’s Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence. The (large) room was packed. I’ve rarely (ever?) encountered readings this large outside AWP or similar conference settings.

And it was free.

Lahiri read from work old and new. She began with an excerpt from “Hell-Heaven,” one of the stories in her collection Unaccustomed Earth.

As I listened to passages like this one…

He was from a wealthy family in Calcutta and had never had to do so much as pour himself a glass of water before moving to America, to study engineering at M.I.T. Life as a graduate student in Boston was a cruel shock, and in his first month he lost nearly twenty pounds. He had arrived in January, in the middle of a snowstorm, and at the end of a week he had packed his bags and gone to Logan, prepared to abandon the opportunity he’d worked toward all his life, only to change his mind at the last minute. He was living on Trowbridge Street in the home of a divorced woman with two young children who were always screaming and crying. He rented a room in the attic and was permitted to use the kitchen only at specified times of the day, and instructed always to wipe down the stove with Windex and a sponge.

…I was reminded of a feeling that I’d had reading certain Alice Munro stories. In awe, of course. But also thinking back to what I’d been taught by so many writing lessons. And thinking: She is “telling” at least as much as she is “showing”! This is not “in-scene.” There is no dialogue! Exposition is allowed! It can be done, and it can be done beautifully!

This was especially encouraging to me because only two days earlier I had (finally!) submitted my first commissioned  short story.

I’m aware that there is significant telling in that story. There is not-inconsiderable exposition.

I haven’t yet received a response to let me know if it is what the commissioner was looking for. So of course, I’m still worried.

But on Tuesday evening, listening to Jhumpa Lahiri read aloud from a story I’d already read silently more than once, I heard something reassuring. Something important.

And that is because I was listening in a special way: as a writer.

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13 Responses »

  1. Erika,

    This piece gave me a bit of a start. But first let me say this. As a writer of fiction, and only a little fact, I am pretty much self-taught. That is nothing beyond the required classes in high school & college.

    I have no real idea how to diferentiate between “showing” & “telling.” And why the heck would exposition be frowned on, if it serves the story well? Especially if the word count is limited.

    I write mostly action oriented stories, so I am well aware of how a story can get bogged down by extra material.

    I retire in a few years. I’ve thought about taking some writing courses then. But I wonder if I’d only get burdened with meaningless “rules.” Rules that could stiffle creativity.

  2. I agree this gives the lie to the “show don’t tell” cliche. And it also raises the topic of listening-as-a-writer, which is important (given the popularity of readings and festivals) and, as far as I’m aware, unexplored. I’d love to hear more about that!

  3. Such a good reminder to listen, always to listen. I love Lahiri’s work – she shows AND tells so beautifully.

  4. Perfect article for me today as my writing workshop’s next assignment is to write a piece in prose, no dialogue, and I prefer dialogue and showing. Thanks for the example. I am at a point in my memoir where I want to skip over a few years to get to the next plot point, and I suspect telling will be the way to do it.

    Have a blessed day,
    Heather

  5. Really appreciate all of the comments, folks. Thank you.

  6. There’s more showing than telling.

    She’s telling us about not knowing how to get himself a glass of water and the kids’ crying. She’s showing us how much change he’s experiencing, and that he intends to stick it out.

  7. Erika,

    Again, thank you. Exposition and description come naturally for me. By using it I don’t have to use a round-about process to create a setting or reveal a back-story.

    I understand readers prefer ‘white space.’ I think current ‘wisdom’ has moved too far away from a balanced view of writing. Authors of best sellers have not difficulty using these wonderful tools. Problem is the discouragement of their use by those accepting submissions from new writers.

    Dialog is important but it should not be overly used, in my personal opinion.

  8. I recently purchased a Kindle and tried out some freebies before investing in paid books. (I bought Erika’s Quiet Americans for my first paid one.)
    I decided to reread Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, mainly to see if they’d sanitized the text. I read and enjoyed what I’d first encountered as a child, and this time I did it with a writer’s eye.
    Mark Twain broke every rule in the book, but it worked so well.
    I hope to be able to reach a point where I can do it too.

    • Lissa, thank you again for buying QUIET AMERICANS! I think that you are absolutely on to something–before one breaks the rules, one needs to know which rules are there to be broken.

  9. Hello Erika,

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently after realizing a story I was working on had a lot of exposition. I tried to turn it all into ‘showing’ but that changed the whole flavor of the story and now it just doesn’t feel right. Like you, I noticed Alice Munro uses a lot of exposition. I feel sad about noticing this – I know it’s only because I’ve been taught it’s ‘wrong’. But telling stories through exposition is what people do in real life and conversations, so shouldn’t it be included in the stories we write? I think I’m going to go back to my story and rework it to leave in some (a lot?) of the exposition.

    And thanks very much for sending out a Twitter about my story “Arrivals” a couple of Sundays ago.

    Good luck with your story – I’m looking forward to hearing about the outcome.

    Susi

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