Tales from my Head: Writing – Show Not Tell/Essence and Personality

Recently, I took a workshop on Show Not Tell with a group of new writers. In preparing the session, it occurred to me that there are different ways to approach such a core subject, from the easy to reach to the damn near impossible to get hold of, and perhaps it’s a tutor’s duty to try for the latter as much as possible.


My struggle was about how to talk discuss this issue at a more fundamental level than normal. And ‘normal’ means, for example, that instead of Telling the reader your main character is really funny, you Show him doing and saying things that actually make the reader laugh. So the reader doesn’t get peed off that he isn’t laughing despite the author having told him he will be. But I felt there was more to this than being prescriptive about what constitutes a Tell or Show. Besides, great writers have no problem Telling in the most direct manner when it suits their purposes.


I thought about a biography I’d read recently which had been written from tapes made by the man in question in conversation with the author of the book. However, she’d included a prologue in which she repeatedly told the reader how ‘hilarious’ (amongst other qualities) her subject was. Yet, although the book was interesting, I didn’t find myself laughing at all. I suspect he’d been funny in the tape sessions, but the author didn’t have the skill to Show this in prose. Perhaps she felt she’d not succeeded and therefore tried to Tell us up front to fill in the missing Show for her.


About the same time, I bumped into the blog of a writer I knew from having shared a writers’ forum with him some time back. He was promoting his (quite expensive) online tutorial in short fiction writing, declaring that you would be working with a ‘master’ of the art. I didn’t recall him showing much mastership on the forum, so I checked out his latest credentials but all he had by way of short fiction writing credits were a few placings in magazines and journals that don’t pay anything. I then checked out his Writing Tips page and read his entry for short fiction: basically, a long list of Dos and Don’ts.


So, I found myself thinking that the first absurdity in creative writing tutoring is writers who haven’t really written anything creditable advising new writers on how to write. This, of course is a form of Telling rather than Showing in itself. And the next absurdity is the same people making lists of Dos and Don’ts. In short, a lot of writing advice is prescriptive on the one hand, and only deals with obvious issues on the other. Together, this constitutes a barrier to progression, I believe. Or to put it another way, and to use that old adage about polishing poo, what’s the point in perfectly Showing a turd? It’s still a turd and would probably be better vacated with a quick bit of Telling.


This led me to figure that the heart of this subject (and probably many others) might lie in how much a writer is willing to be both honest about himself and to take risks. At which point, I found myself thinking about the concept of Essence and Personality as taught by Gurdjieff, e.g.:


“Essence is the truth in man; personality is the false. But in proportion as personality grows, essence manifests itself more and more rarely and more and more feebly and it very often happens that essence stops in its growth at a very early age and grows no further. It happens very often that the essence of a grown-up man, even that of a very intellectual and, in the accepted meaning of the word, highly ‘educated’ man, stops on the level of a child of five or six. This means that everything we see in this man is in reality ‘not his own.’ What is his own in man, that is, his essence, is usually only manifested in his instincts and in his simplest emotions. There are cases, however, when a man’s essence grows in parallel with his personality. Such cases represent very rare exceptions especially in the circumstances of cultured life.”


(From ‘In Search of the Miraculous’ by P. D. Ouspensky, a book about the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff.)


The personality, then, is constantly Telling all about itself to other personalities. But everything it says is predictable, safe and conventionally detailed. Personality/Telling builds a self-satisfied protective shell around the essence, ensuring it rarely emerges to embarrass the host. So, I think the key to true Showing is for the author to force a way past his well-developed protective opinions, to retrieve some raw essence, cram it directly into his front brain, then do his utmost best to find the words it needs – so a reader can feel the same essence when reading them.


Which isn’t to say we don’t need a personality. Clearly, you’d not get through a working day if you couldn’t just say “Fine!” when your boss asks how you are, instead of providing him with a one-hour description of the multi-layered state of your essence. Similarly, your reader won’t get through a story that doesn’t have sufficient and comfortable personality props. But I also don’t believe your story will be memorable if it lacks essence altogether.


If Gurdjieff is right, then Show Not Tell becomes a matter of life or death for the writer. If he can’t Show essence in his writing, if he’s restricted to dead and derivative Telling, then how can he possibly teach anything?


What I said to the group was that Show not Tell is a quest, not a set of Dos and Don’ts. As a writer, you’re committed to fight for the essence of your story and characters, which means having the courage to search your own essence first. And the key to that search is in saying no – because the personality always wants it easy. So you say no to the first, second and probably a few more words that your personality fetches from its mental smartphone to ‘solve’ your story issues. There is an element of sheer forcing about this, a battle with the surface of yourself, the one you use most of the time just to survive. No wonder writers are strange. Why through choice would you want to fight yourself?


Because when you make those rare breakthroughs, all the years of practice and effort you’ve put in magically energise and make exciting and meaningful connections to the truth of character, story and uplifting prose.

Tales from My Street: Self-Published Steak and Chips Beats Traditionally Published Bread and Cheese Any Day

I’m in the Mr Morris wine bar in Brockley with Ben from Number Eight.

Nige isn’t here but he also comes in quite a lot, mainly because it’s downhill, literally, to our street. Which means he can have a bucket or two of larger, just point himself in the right direction then stumble on down without too much thought.

One night, there was a knock on my door. It was Nige who’d yet again lost his keys and needed the spare set he leaves with me.

Despite this, he looked very pleased with himself, swaying gently in the midnight breeze.

“Tel: guess where I’ve walked back from, full of ale, with no problems at all, no bleedin’ satnav necessary, thank you very much?”

“An interview to join the Ku Klux Klan?”

He frowned. “I may be a conspiracist, Tel, but I ain’t no Nazi sheet-lifter.”

I went to fetch his keys and a mirror. “Take a look,” I said.


Nige was covered in white powder: jeans, jacket, hair and face. Turns out, his stumble downhill wasn’t as smooth as his lager-swamped brain had believed.

“I must have bounced off every soddin’ white-washed garden wall in town . . . ”

Ben runs an independent bookshop near Brockley, which has managed to survive mainly because he and his wife, Sue, know their customers and their books, and which go best with which. But it’s increasingly difficult for them to hold out against cheap books in the major chains and from Amazon and the like.

We’ve come to Mr Morris to moan about the state of publishing and eat some good home cooked food. Unfortunately, the menu’s changed since we were last here.

“All they’re doing is bread, cheese and olives,” says Ben reading the tiny menu card and sounding as disappointed as if his daughter had announced she’s marrying a Waterstone. “I was looking forward to a nice juicy steak and big fat home-made chips.”

“I’ll ask Robert,” I say, heading for the bar.

Mr Morris is all dark wood and I fleetingly wonder why it is that such lighting in a working class pub would make me suspect they were hiding dirt. Whereas here, well, it all adds to the ambience. Which always sounds to me like an emergency vehicle for bees; then again–

“What can I get you, Terry?” says Robert, who manages somehow to look as if he’s occupying the entire other side of the counter. Maybe this is because he actually owns the place, isn’t just managing it. I’ve seen him before now run outside to berate and even bash yobs mucking about in the bus shelter nearby, because I guess they’re inside Robert’s ambient reach. I wonder if I should risk a joke about atmosphere and buzzing insects. Probably not.

“Well, I would have said steak and chips, except you aren’t doing it any more?”

At the last moment, I turn ‘more’ into a question, thus avoiding what might have been taken as a challenge.

Robert’s bald head wrinkles slightly with his thoughts. “Caroline and I decided . . . ” he begins, and I lean on the counter, settling into that strange condition I seem to spend too much time in, which is doing a lot of listening, even when I’m the customer. Who’s supposed to be always right. Or at least served.

Ten minutes later, I put down the wine bottle and two glasses on our table.

“I’m still hungry,” says Ben.

“It’s quite interesting, actually,” I say, pouring the wine. “What Caroline and Robert have decided to do with the food here is similar to what I’ve been trying to tell my writing group.”

“Is there anything that isn’t?”

“Before, they had to hire two chefs and a washer-upper, and were constantly run off their feet getting in supplies, and so on, which also meant the drinks side began to suffer.”

“I remember the supplies,” he says. “Yum, yum.”

“Anyway, when the chefs quit, they decided not to replace them. Instead, they thought ‘less is more’ and cut the menu down. It’s now pretty basic but they only use good ingredients that they prepare themselves. Which means they can bring the same level of care to everything, drinks too. It’s like with writing–”

He groans and rather over-does his point, I think, by banging his head softly on the table.

“–if you stick to the stuff you’re really good at, the magic will take care of itself.”

He frowns, takes a long swallow of wine. “You’re forgetting something. Caroline and Robert aren’t providing what their customers really want. They’re just dishing up cheese and bread instead of pies and roasts and custard, you know, the magic stuff.”

Hmmm. Looks as if this lesson might need some tweaking.

But before I can, Ben is hammering home his point. “If me and Sue,” he says, “decided to stock only a few classics–couple of Shakespeares, one or two Dickens and a Jane Austen for light relief, say, and don’t worry because we’d print them off ourselves, using only the best paper available, stuck together with glue made from organic free-range horse hooves–do you think our customers would be happy?”

“Well, I–”

“The great thing about places that provide hot food is that bloody Amazon can’t get into the market. Not yet, anyway. I suppose it won’t be long before you can sit at your kitchen table, dial into Amazon and in seconds there’ll be a plate of steaming hot spag bog in front of you and a Virtual Reality butler to tickle your balls while he pours you a nice cold glass of Pinot Grigio.”

“Clearly, hunger’s affecting your normally optimistic nature.”

He swallows the rest of his glass, fills it again. “You want to know how this is like writing, Terry?”

“Do I need my notebook for this?”

“I’ve spent most of my life selling books because I love them. I used to love them, I should say. But for years now publishers have been putting out mostly crap. Stripping everything down to bread and cheese genre basics. And because they control the distribution, authors have had to follow suit. Oh, they promise steak and chips and spag bog–they sure can write tasty blurbs. But what they’ve actually done is the same as what’s happened here: Caroline and Robert turning out what suits them, not their customers.”

“But they still have an extensive wine list.”

“Yeah, but I came here for steak tonight. You want to know why I’m finally thinking of closing the shop? Because I see more hope for books in self-publishing. Yes, most of it is utter shite at the moment. But the important thing is, it’s not restricting the artist in any way. It hasn’t sacked them because it’s more costly to produce steak than bloody olives and a dip. God, I am hungry . . . ”

In the event, we decide that wine is more essential than food, and by the end of the evening Ben is congratulating Robert on doing things his way and to hell with bloody Cafe Rouge, All Bar One and all those other faux family wine bars.

We do a bit of a Nige on the way back down to our street, and I remind myself to brush down my clothes before bumbling through the door. As I watch Ben swaying up to his front door, fumbling in his pocket for keys, his shoulders seem a little more bent than normal but maybe that’s just the wine and lack of food affecting my perceptions.

Tales from My Street – Is a Tent Made from Ex-lovers’ Y-fronts Crossing the Line?

I wake up at around three in the morning to the sound of voices from behind the house. I go to the study where the window’s open, it being a warm summer night. Tom, Nige and Kath are sitting out on Kath’s decking, facing the dark row of trees at the back of our houses.

Tom is singing the praises of brain implants. “I can’t wait to have one of ’em stuck in me ‘ead on the NHS. They’re designed so they sit right next to the pleasure centre in your brain. They give you this little control box and anytime you want a religious experience or an orgasm, you just press a button and it’s like the real thing: you don’t even have to leave your armchair.”

Nige laughs. “So, how’s that going to change your life, Tom? You spend most of the day in your armchair already, and you just press a little button on your TV remote control whenever you want vicarious experiences.”

“You’ve missed the point, pillock: these are real, virtual experiences not vicarious ones.”

“So, why stop there? You could have an implant that makes you think you’re virtually doing your garden or finishing the decorating you virtually started three years ago. It’ll be real to you but virtual to the rest of us.”

“I ain’t listening, Nige, because I know that you’re really a figment of my implant.”

Kath says, “Boys, let me get you another drink.”

“Tom doesn’t need one,” says Nige, “he can just activate his beer implant. So I’ll have his.”

I imagine that in Mediterranean countries, such late night neighbourly intercourse is fairly common, but not really in South East London, even in summer. We all get on pretty well here but mostly keep to ourselves. Usually, we stop short of a certain line which demarks the zone of family-like involvement. Which I think is interesting, because authors are almost duty bound to get their characters to step over that line.

Stepping over the line in real life can be painful. Kath, for instance, is a naturally kind-hearted woman, and probably stepped over the line a while back with old Bill, her neighbour on the other side.

Bill had lived in our street since moving there with his wife when still a young man. His house was actually two flats, above and below. After his wife’s death in the early eighties, he continued to live alone in the bottom flat, never even entering the one upstairs.

Bill’s survival was based on cheery stoicism, mixed with downright stubbornness. Basically, he resisted almost any offers of help. The day before he died at the age of ninety-two, he’d walked to the corner shop as usual to buy the day’s food. He didn’t believe in refrigerators and perhaps he was right not to, since the daily walk probably kept him fit and alive.

Several times Nige had offered to repair and decorate the upstairs flat for free, so that Bill could rent or sell it. But Bill always said no, that he didn’t need the money and especially didn’t want any stranger buggers living over his head.

Perhaps the peak example of Bill’s resistance occurred about five years back. Kath received a call from the hospital one evening to say they had Bill. Fearing the worst, she rushed there to find him recovering but confused as to what had happened. After speaking to doctors, it transpired that Bill had fallen into the Thames and rapidly been swept into mid-stream. Two young men drinking outside the Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich saw an old man thrashing in the churning brown waters. They dived in and swam out to him where he tried to fight them off, insisting that he was all right and didn’t need their help.

Who knows, maybe Bill was resisting more life, too.

Bill did allow Kath to visit him most days, to check he was all right; and in later years she’d done quite a bit of cleaning and washing for him, too. Then one day she discovered what she’d always feared.

She told us Bill had quite a lot of money saved up, in addition to the value of the two flats. However, he hadn’t left a will. She’d tried to encourage him to make one on a few occasions, pointing out that since he didn’t have any family, the state would take everything when he died. Of course, he refused. Now, his flats have been empty for a year while solicitors work out the legal aspects of selling his estate. Apparently, the proceeds won’t go to the state, however, since a distant cousin has been traced.

Kath has never complained about Bill’s legacy. And I guess that says something about her and maybe something about the kind of person and the kind of community which exists in this part of the world, and about the various prices involved in crossing lines.

If Bill and Kath’s story was made into a novel or movie, I guess the author would have to make Kath bitter and plot to murder the distant relative when they turned up. Or go mad at what might have been. Plots have to contain a main character with a problem/issue that goes through a climax before it’s resolved. But, I don’t know, I sometimes wish we could write stories about decent folk who stumble about more or less doing the right thing without wanting anything back.

“I will finish the decorating,” says Tom, “I just ain’t got anyone to share the results of it with at the moment.”

Nige laughs. “Why don’t you ask out that Tracy Emin. I hear she’s pretty handy with a brush.”

“Nah,” says Tom, “she’s even lazier than me. Can’t even be bothered to make her bleedin’ bed.”

“Good at the old make do and mend, though,” says Nige. “Did you hear about the tent she made out of a load of her old boyfriends’ Y-fronts?”

I go back to bed, just as Kath says, “Is that because she needed a fly sheet . . . ”

Before sleeping, I wonder if Emin crossed a line, in putting her lovers’ names on public display like that. Well, of course she did. That’s what artists do. And writers. ‘Never tell a writer your secrets’, someone once said, who obviously had.