A German friend, Monika, an amateur (that is, self-published) poet, visited a while ago, and we went to a poetry reading of another friend of mine, a Swiss cultural journo and well-respected published poet. After the reading, Monika approached the reader and said, "You break every rule they taught us in poetry-writing class." Madeleine charmingly answered, "Oh, they teach it, do they?"
Song lyrics often are poetic, but I doubt there is a school for lyric writers of rap songs. Creative writing is a talent, not a skill – nurtured but not taught. In my West Berlin days (1982-1988), I started the novel that still occupies my spare writing time now. I also co-wrote German radio plays in which I acted, and I co-wrote a rap song which I performed with my studio collaborator. It was taped, and it aired in 1987 on Radio 100. It lingers, long forgotten to this day, perhaps, in the sound archives of Schamoni Radio Eins, silent testimony to the belief that anyone can write a rap song – but no one does emo rap better than Gustav Elijah Åhr aka Lil Peep, or Malcolm James McCormick aka Mac Miller. RIP.
SHOW and TELL, Round 2
I said before that 'neither show nor tell' is my motto. Rather, one should engage the reader's mind to relate action and setting, and even emotions (although I would argue that a character's emotions are usually not worth the waste of words). And even when you show, you must still tell. If you tell first, you are at leisure to show or not. Relying on show alone is risky, given the unpredictable nature of readers. Consider this scenario:
Susan is a student at a famous acting academy. She is practising Lesson 34: Impatience and Anger. Her mother has little interest in her daughter's future career, wishing she'd marry the Dunstan boy. 'Sue' is running late. As she grabs an apple, her mum says, "You need a proper lunch." "I'm fine, Mother dear." "Don't get upset, Sue. And don't slam the door." "Goodbye, Mother." The door slams.
Poor Susan! Should she go back inside to tell her mother it was the wind that caught the door? But what if she misses the bus into town? Her mother, lighting another cigarette, decides to have an early drink. One more sorrow to bear. No matter how much emotion she shows, Susan must still tell her mother about the wind.
An even better example is gleaned from one of those "Writer's Guide to Success!" sites:
Showing: "As his mother turned off the lights and left his bedroom, Arthur stiffened. He cowered under the covers, the sheets smothering his breath, the dark night lit only by the lightning."
Telling: "Arthur is frightened of the dark and the lightning."
In your dreams, Arthur. No! Nonsense. Arthur is afraid of getting caught looking at Naughty Nuns, that porn magazine that Billy Jenkins lent him. He's got it and a flashlight [sic] under the covers.
Again, no matter how much Showing you write, you must still Tell the reader what s/he needs to know. Unless your aim is to lead the reader into thinking that Arthur is afraid of the dark. Then – plot twist! He whips out Naughty Nuns. Fool the reader? Of course. Engage the reader in the creative process of writing. Don't be shy.
HOW DO YOU DISPOSE OF A BODY? Dissolve it in acid? Feed it to the pigs? G.K. Chesterton had an answer for that. In his most chilling Father Brown story, "The Sign of the Broken Sword", the great author poses riddles of sorts. Where do you hide a pebble? On the beach. Where do you hide a leaf? In the forest. Where do you hide a body? On the battlefield.
In one of my detective stories I write for KOLT, the local cultural magazine here in Olten, my detective, Boxer, is assessing the likely hiding spot of buried treasure at a neighbour's house. It is a row house in the middle of the row, with small gardens front and back, on a fairly busy street, overlooked on all sides by the residents of the surrounding houses. "There are two possibilities – front or rear garden. The rear garden is overlooked on three sides. He could have buried it at night. But the front garden is even less likely, what with the pedestrian and motor traffic. It is too obvious. Less likely + too obvious = Bingo!" Except, someone had got there before him and stole the treasure.
SOFT BIGOTRY – Much has been written about telling 'your' story, 'your' truth. I suppose this must be told in 'your' language, too. Many universities are proud of the fact that they no longer place emphasis on correct grammar, spelling, or punctuation when evaluating a student's written work. Of course, they're proud! They are taking the students' money and not teaching them anything. It is far easier to ignore errors than to correct them and teach the proper way to write. Never mind that prospective employers have already figured out the scam and promptly throw away job applications with such errors on them. Makes their job easier, to boot.
This negligent attitude of universities and colleges is a blatant form of bigotry – lowering the expectations one has of certain people, no matter what demographics one chooses to indulge. These stereotypes need to be challenged, and all people need to be held equally accountable for learning the rules and skills of any discipline. Any rule can be broken effectively, but first one must learn it, and learn it well, to know its exceptions.
As writers, we will not always have sub-editors or proofreaders to clean up our dirty work for us. We need to take full responsibility for our words, how we use them, and the effect they have on others. We need smartening up, not dumbing down.