Show & Tell

Some days, in classrooms across the world, young children are asked to bring in something and show it to the class and tell what they know about it. A pet hamster called Fluffy, perhaps. You can imagine the “aww”s and “ooh”s and “can I hold it?”. Or, a seashell;  or an earring from Bangladesh; or a peacock feather. Whatever it is, the child is expected to stand in front of his or her classmates and talk. To say – where they got the object, and perhaps how old it is, and what it’s story is. The seashell, the earring, or the feather can be considered by the children in the here and now and as it was in the past, as the object is shown to the class and the child’s story about the object is listened to. I suppose a similar exercise could be done online.

In the 80’s and early 90’s, I helped to run the Dundee Oral History Project. It was set up by a friend who is now a Professor: Graham Smith. From a base in a school, 20-odd staff recorded the memories of retired jute workers, firefighters, and many others. One section of the project organised reminiscence groups, where elderly people gathered to talk about the past and share memories of work, family, war, and other big and small moments in time. Often,  memories would be sparked by an object which was brought along for that purpose: a grimy, Second World War gas mask; a black and white photograph of a long-gone dance hall; or a  wooden and metal shuttle, used for decades in a clattering loom, whizzing from one end to another of the loom, weaving miles and miles of rough jute-cloth, for sails, carpet-backing, or millions of sandbags, destined for flood-defences or wartime trenches.

I also witnessed a kind of ‘show and tell’  in community-based writers groups I attended and in one I organised in the Hilltown in Dundee. Men and women of all ages were encouraged to use one or a few objects to find ideas for writing a story or a poem. It’s amazing how many different ideas can be sparked by an old glass bottle; a large rusty padlock; or a twig from a 200-year old oak tree.

These ‘show and tell’ exercises can help people in different ways. For children, they can nurture confidence in public speaking. For elderly people, whose memory banks are often packed with hidden treasure, an old street sign can unlock the decades and conjure up a cart piled high with coal, pulled by a horse over a cobbled street. People feel valued: owners of precious parts of history, not just scraps of junk. And, for one nervous-eyed  soul who felt she had no story worth writing, a jar of homemade strawberry jam brought back a summer in a garden 50 years ago, when a much-loved granny brought out a plate of sandwiches saturated with freshly made, warm jam, and the smell of it came alive in memory, along with blinding sunlight and childhood happiness.

In all kinds of writing, there is always some showing and some telling, and it’s important to get the balance right, especially when you don’t have an object to help you tell your story: no smoking gun in your hand to show to people, or you’re not standing beside a shipwreck which you could point to.  Sometimes, all you have to tell your tale are words. So, how is ‘showing’ involved? What can you point to? Or, how?

The difference between showing in words and telling in words is sometimes mentioned in creative writing classes, or by an experienced writer trying to advise a beginner. In a story about anything, we can either tell people to think what we want them to think or feel: “He was ugly”. Or, we can show them what sparked such a thought or feeling: “He had a face like a rhino’s arse.” Here, we’re showing someone an image in words. Our words do the pointing.

The same example however can reveal something else about showing and telling in words: there’s a lot of telling in some of our showing. You don’t need to know exactly what the backside of a rhinocerous looks like, to know – or feel – that you are expected to think unfavourably about this poor guy’s face. In a way, you are being told to think of this guy as ugly. Yet, ‘ugly’ isn’t really a concrete thing: it’s a subjective idea. Here, it’s masquerading as the behind of a large, wrinkly animal. What if we were shown a different image in words? Something like: ‘He had a grey face, as deeply lined as a storm ravaged cliff.’ What’s the first thing we think of if shown this image? Perhaps, we’d still think of the man as ‘ugly’, but I would be more inclined to think of the man as having had a hard life. I feel that’s what I’m being told.

Enough of rhino’s arses and storm-ravaged cliffs. I hope I’ve made the point I wanted to make: showing and telling is mixed together in our use of words. And, here I am again: telling you what to think. Sorry. The problem is, we are always telling people what to think. Some authors do it clunkily and you may feel the writer has shoved you the way he or she wants you to go; other writers do it more subtly, but don’t be fooled, we are still being told what the writer wants us to feel or see or think. Is that a ‘bad’ thing?

I don’t think it is necessarily a bad or a good thing, it’s just the way stories work. It is the content of the stories which matters. It is however a good thing to be aware of the ways showing and telling are mixed together in the stories we hear or read. When propaganda is delivered to us subtly, we can sometimes end up hating good people and liking villains, if we’re not alert. Then, it’s not just a matter of how stories or language works, but also noticing lies and seeing through lies.

In a court in London, as I write these words, a trial is underway. At stake, is the life of a brave journalist who brought to the world’s attention the reality of war in Iraq and in Afghanistan. In partnership with whistle-blowers like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange revealed that recent wars which were sold to us as moral crusades, actually involved mass murder and torture. Those wars were based on lies. The powerful people responsible for the wars and the lies have been trying to destroy Julian Assange ever since. A few journalists, like John Pilger and Craig Murray, have done their best to show the true story to us: the decade of smears against Assange, and the bullying techniques used against him in court. The so-called mainstream media have said little or nothing about this trial. Yet, some were happy to print Assange’s stories and then turned against him and believe smear stories about him, because they were told to. I’ve known quite good people become carried away by lies and smears, especially when the lies and smears are told by others who appear to be quite good people.

In a classroom, when a child brings in an object for ‘show and tell’, the other children can see and perhaps touch or hear or smell the reality of the object. The seashell, with it’s hidden ocean inside. The hamster, with its twitching whiskers and soft fur. The very old book which smells of lost libraries and smuggler’s caves. Apart from a few innocent exaggerations now and again, or flights of the imagination, there are not many serious lies. In our world, that’s adult business.

There is another dimension which holds together all the impressions, facts, and feelings which we show and tell each other: thinking. From childhood to advanced age we are forever trying to make sense of things we are shown or told in our world, and we make sense by thinking. Things. Events. Words. Places. Through thinking, the world opens up to us, in all of it’s scariness, beauty, and wonder.

In RAINSHINE, I will try each week to bring along some issue or idea and show and tell in words. I’ll try to show and tell the truth. Except, of course, for a few exaggerations and flights of imagination from time to time.

Harvey Duke

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