Back in 1960s, Fritz Perls, one of the founders of Gestalt Psychotherapy, coined the phrase ‘Lose your mind and come to your senses.’ He thought people were too much ‘in their heads.’ They should pay attention to body sensation; their whole experience. Intellectualism was frowned upon. Later generations of Gestalt Psychotherapists and theorists understand that balance is best – body experience and thinking functions are of equal value.
Writers know that a mix of well-judged ‘showing and telling’ is similarly important. I’m currently interested in how short story writers and novelists create such balance in their work and have been re-reading Antony Doerr’s short story collection ‘Memory Wall’ after finishing his wonderful Pullitzer Prize winning novel, ‘All the Light We Cannot See.’
This week, with Alex Wilson, I led a creative writing group session for Writing Events Bath on the theme of subtexts and showing versus telling. We briefly studied the first paragraph of ‘Memory Wall’, Doerr’s title story, to look at his mix of showing and telling.
Here’s the paragraph with my comments inserted in italics.
Tall Man In The Yard
Seventy-Four year old Alma Konachek lives in Vredehoek, a suburb above Cape Town: a place of warm rains, big-windowed lofts and silent, predatory automobiles.
We’re told Alma’s age, where she lives and shown it’s a rich neighbourhood by the description, ‘big-windowed lofts.’ We are brilliantly shown the menace in this district by two adjectives – ‘silent, predatory’, put with automobiles, not people.
Behind her garden, Table Mountain rises, huge green and corrugated; beyond her kitchen balcony, a thousand city lights wink and gutter behind sheets of fog like candleflames.
Again we are told more about the setting (Table Mountain) and shown the look of the mountain (corrugated). Doerr uses the verbs ‘wink’, ‘gutter’ to show the way lights move and adds a simile, ‘like candleflames’ so we know it’s night-time in a big city.
One night in November, at three in the morning, Alma wakes to hear the rape gate across her front door rattle open and someone enter her house. Her arms jerk: she spills a glass of water across the nightstand. She hears what might be breathing. Water drips onto the floor.
Here we’re told the time of night (three am has a scary feel). Doerr names the ‘rape gate’ as if it is a commonplace term. (A South African woman in the writing class said these outer door frames are more commonly called burglar bars) – but the use of ‘rape gate’ at the beginning of this story is chilling. The verb ‘rattle’ increases apprehension. We are shown Alma’s fear by her actions –’arms jerk’ ,’she spills a glass of water’. Doerr conjures up Alma straining to hear by the short sentence, ‘She hears what might be breathing.’ The detail of water dripping on the floor from the spilled glass of water also evokes fear.
Alma manages a whisper. “Hello?”
A shadow flows across the hall. She hears the scrape of a shoe on the staircase and then nothing. Night air blows into the room – it smells of frangipani and charcoal. Alma presses a fist over her heart.
The use of the verb ‘manages’ suggests Alma’s frightened state – she summons up just enough courage to speak. Doerr now uses all the senses to suggest someone waiting in a state of heightened awareness. We know Alma is seeing the shadow flow. She hears ‘a scrape of a shoe.’ The mixture of smells is sweet yet dark. There’s a great detail to show Alma’s bodily reaction – She ‘presses a fist over her heart.’
Beyond the balcony windows, moonlit pieces of clouds drift over the city. Spilled water creeps towards her bedroom door.
“Who’s there, is someone there?”
The grandfather clock in the living room pounds through the seconds. Alma’s pulse booms in her ears. Her bedroom seems to be rotating very slowly.
“Harold?” Alma remembers that Harold is dead, but she cannot help herself. “Harold?”
The imagery in these sentences increases the sinister atmosphere. ‘Spilled water creeps’ and the grandfather clock in the living room pounds’, again shows Alma’s heightened awareness of things around her. We are then are shown Alma’s inner experience with a strong verb ‘her pulse booms in her ears.’ Her perception is altered by fear: ‘Her bedroom seems to be rotating very slowly.’
The repetition of ‘Harold?’ is poignant and appears to show that she is alone. We are told that Harold is dead.
It’s masterful writing. I recommend you read this story – the opening is a hook, but the events that ensue are entirely unpredicatable.