Inhabiting Our Scenes: Information Versus Experience

Today’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress. Learn more about getting a first-page critique.

First Page [memoir]

I don’t recall the day my mother died. I wasn’t there.

I do remember what happened shortly before she died.

We live in Brooklyn. A small apartment on the third floor of a brick building. I just turned six; my brother, three.

My mother is in bed. A white canopy hangs partially down from the top. It is difficult to see her. I feel like a peeping tom. Mommy, are you feeling better?” She touches my cheek and smiles. She doesn’t talk much. I cuddle into her right arm. Smell her warmth. It is a scent of lilac I still experience when I think of her.

Dad’s face is haggard. His eyes sad. He hovers by the bed, concerned that I might upset her.

Her birth name is Evelyn. Family call her Eva. Dad calls her Honey. I call her mommy.

A week before she dies I hear my parents quietly disagreeing, not realizing their curious daughter hears them. Dad wants her to go into the hospital. She doesn’t want to. She has incurable cancer.

“They can manage the pain. I don’t know what I can do to help you feel better. You’ll be well taken care of there.”

Her voice is soft, “I don’t want to go back. They can’t cure me.”

She no longer sounds like the mother who danced with me in the living room; the mother who rubbed me dry after a bath; the mother who tickled my ears and tummy.

She does go to the hospital. I never see her again.

First-Page Critique

“Show, don’t tell.” So goes the creative writing chestnut. And like most conventional wisdom it has something to recommend it. Dramatic writing (“showing”) does more that merely tell us about an experience; it puts us right there inside the experience with a character or characters, so that we share the experience along with them. And sharing experiences—putting us into a character’s shoes, so to speak, having us see what they see and feel what they feel through their nerves and sensory organs—is what fiction, and any form of narrative writing, does best.

Which isn’t to say there’s no place for telling in good narrative writing. On the contrary, telling is no less important than showing. If showing is more dramatic, more cinematic, telling is more expedient. Telling cuts to the heart; it sums up, reflects, adds perspective, and contextualizes. It bridges the gaps between scenes. If scenes are the bricks of good storytelling, exposition (“telling”) is the mortar that binds the bricks together. To build a good story, fiction or nonfiction, you need bricks and mortar.

One reason behind the supremacy of “show, don’t tell” is that telling is, frankly, harder. To gain and hold a reader’s attention through action and dialogue is one thing. To do so through exposition is another. Intrinsically, there’s nothing sexy about cement. It’s the difference between showing someone a movie and asking them to read the screenplay. Good telling—telling that in its way is as entertaining as a dramatic scene—makes far greater demands on our rhetorical strengths, on the quality of insights and ideas and the language by which they are conveyed. With showing, on the other hand, our characters entertain our readers for us. We merely have to report what they do.

In this opening, in which the narrator recalls the days leading up to her mother’s death, we get a murky mixture of showing and telling, of experience and information, so that, while we’re not clearly lodged inside the mind of a narrator looking back and reflecting on certain events in his or her past, neither are we ensconced in the events themselves. We’re presented with dramatic scenes, but we never inhabit them—or we do, but not vividly or deeply.

Before discussing why this is so, I want to digress for a moment and talk about the title of this memoir (Loss … But Not Lost) and titles in general. Whatever stage they’re in in their drafting process, I encourage my students to at least have a working title for their stories; in fact I insist on it. The search for a good title helps them learn about their own stories, what lies at their hearts, what they are ultimately about. Is there a strong central metaphor or image, something concrete that, symbolically, may stand for the story as a whole?

One good test for a working title: if it can be applied to many if not most or all stories, then it’s probably too general, too “one size fits all.” Unless it has something to do with a song by the Beatles, “A Day in the Life” is probably an example of a too-generic title. So is “When Things Go Wrong.” And so, alas, is “Loss … But Not Lost,” the title of the work-in-question. It casts its thematic net too wide. Isn’t every story, to some extent, in one way or another, a story of loss turned into gain, and/or vice-versa? Aren’t “life” and “loss” synonymous? If an author’s best effort to arrive at a good title for her or his work results in something generic, it’s a safe if not a sure bet that the work itself suffers from a lack of thematic focus.

Now let’s go on with this first page, starting with the first two sentences: I don’t recall the day my mother died. I wasn’t there. As openings go, in more than one sense this is a non-starter, since it merely conveys in negative terms what will be obvious by the end of the page. For those who will argue that Camus’ most famous novel begins similarly (“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure”), the justification for this approach with Camus’ novel lies in the fact that the narrator doesn’t remember; that is the point of the opening, one that not only foreshadows the narrator’s death, but will cause it.

The second paragraph of this first page will also be obviated by what follows, making it dispensable. As for Paragraph #3 (“We live in Brooklyn. A small apartment on the third floor of a brick building. I just turned six; my brother, three.”), it’s purely informational, providing us with answers to questions yet to be raised by the material—which, so far, has offered us nothing in the way of an experience.

Only with Paragraph #4 do we arrive at and enter an actual experience, the scene that each of the three previous paragraphs has been pointing toward: the moment when, as a child, the narrator visits her mother in her sick bed. I would be tempted to begin here, with an experience (“My mother is in bed”), rather than with information (“We live in Brooklyn”). In due time we may learn that the bedroom is in a brick apartment building in Brooklyn, but not before having any reason to care.

But even in putting us into an experience, this opening could be stronger. Take the first experiential sentence: “My mother is in bed.” Nothing wrong with it, at first glance. Yet it misses the mark in several ways. First, instead of giving us a definitive action through use of a strong verb (“My mother lies in bed”), we get a conjugation of the verb “to be,” the least active of all verbs—the existential verb. Our sense of experience is weakened accordingly. But a larger problem here is the sentence’s failure to engage point-of-view. That this mother is lying in bed isn’t the point; the point is that the child sees her lying there. That’s the action of this scene, what’s really happening.

That the narrator doesn’t position herself (or us) in the scene doesn’t help. Is she standing, watching from the doorway, or seated by her mother’s bed? As we read on, we learn not only that she is close to her mother (close enough to cuddle with her and smell her lilac scent), but that the father is there in the bedroom with her, something we didn’t realize at first because we weren’t told—or rather because we weren’t shown the father standing (sitting?) there through the eyes of the little girl who sees him for us. When dying mother and child cuddle, as we smell the mother’s warmth and traces of her lilac perfume, we may wonder why, apart from its intrinsic warmth and sweetness, this moment comforts us so. I say because it invests us deeply, sensuously, and for the first time properly in this scene. Then the author destroys the effect by adding, “I still experience when I think of her,” wrenching us out of the moment.

As I read on, other things interfere with my ability to fully inhabit this opening scene. In the sixth paragraph, I am told that the mother’s “birth name is Evelyn.” Yet it’s not at all clear whether this knowledge belongs to the child whose perspective we share in the moment or to the older narrator looking back through memory. That the scene is written in the present tense suggests the former. But what is the likelihood that a six-year-old knows this about her mother’s birth name?

From there things move to “a week before [the mother] dies,” yet it isn’t clear whether this week follows or precedes the previous scene, nor do we know where the present scene of the parents “quietly disagreeing” occurs, in what part of the home, at what time of day. Is the mother still in bed? And where is the narrator who “hears them” disagree? The scene isn’t properly grounded; it isn’t grounded at all. Because it’s not grounded, it exists in an unstable zone between experience and information. When, at the bottom of the same paragraph, we read that the mother “has incurable cancer,” there again we are forced to wonder whose experience those words convey. True, some sentences later the child overhears her mother say, “They can’t cure me.” Yet the words “incurable cancer” are better suited to an awareness on the part of the grown narrator looking back than to a child’s awareness then.

For our readers to fully inhabit and invest deeply in our scenes, we must first, whether through a fictional narrator or through memory, inhabit them thoroughly ourselves, as Charlotte Bronte does in Jane Eyre:

Close by Miss Temple’s bed, and half covered with its white curtains, there stood a little crib. I saw the outline of a form under the clothes, but the face was hid by the hangings: the nurse I had spoken to in the garden sat in an easy-chair asleep; an unsnuffed candle burnt dimly on the table. Miss Temple was not to be seen: I knew afterwards that she had been called to a delirious patient in the fever-room. I advanced; then paused by the crib side: my hand was on the curtain, but I preferred speaking before I withdrew it. I still recoiled at the dread of seeing a corpse.

“Helen!” I whispered softly, “are you awake?”

She stirred herself, put back the curtain, and I saw her face, pale, wasted, but quite composed: she looked so little changed that my fear was instantly dissipated.

“Can it be you, Jane?” she asked, in her own gentle voice.

“Oh!” I thought, “she is not going to die; they are mistaken: she could not speak and look so calmly if she were.”

I got on to her crib and kissed her: her forehead was cold, and her cheek both cold and thin, and so were her hand and wrist; but she smiled as of old.

“Why are you come here, Jane? It is past eleven o’clock: I heard it strike some minutes since.”

Your First Page Selgin“I came to see you, Helen: I heard you were very ill, and I could not sleep till I had spoken to you.”

“You came to bid me good-bye, then: you are just in time probably.”

“Are you going somewhere, Helen? Are you going home?”

“Yes; to my long home—my last home.”

Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)

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