Whenever I’m stuck writing abstracts and long confessional passages that bore my reader, I pull my fingers back from my keyboard. How to get back into the present? How to touch, smell, see and maneuver through the mundane minutiae of life?…Say that ten times fast. I usually pull Raymond Carver off the shelf and remind myself how a room full of dysfunction looks. What objects give the reader hints and what actions build to a story?
The recent Sun Magazine’s short story Marvel Sands did the trick. Emma Duffy-Comparone must have channeled Carver for this tactile world she created. There are times while reading this story where I thought, “This is real life.” I don’t think that a lot, and in fact, stories like this one make it hard to read others that aren’t as well rendered.
In this whole short story of the main character’s first job, there’s not a lot of telling going on. But I did find a show and tell example. It’s during a conversation with her boss:
I felt a vague flutter of laughter in my chest and swallowed it. I watched him pick bits of garden detritus from his green state-issue shirt and flick them out the window. One of the front pockets had an iron-on state park patch that looked like a kid’s police-badge.
“And tell them they have to park in a normal spot,” he continued. “Unless they really don’t have legs or something. Obviously, show those people where the handicapped spots are. And don’t argue with folks about whether they have working legs or not. I already made that mistake.” He scratched his chin for a moment. “I mean, how the fuck was I supposed to know some cars have pedals for your hands?”
I didn’t know what to say. I felt like I was dealing with an insane person. I watched a sea gull peck under its wing. Two feathers sprang loose and floated to the pavement. He was the fattest one of the bunch. I decided to name him Gus, like the mouse in Cinderella.
This last description reflects back on the main character’s innocence, which we need because near the end, her boss opens the shower door on her naked body. I bolded the parts in the above passage that could be categorized as “telling,” but they are amidst so much “showing,” we don’t even notice the word “felt.” The whole story could have been told in a few sentences: “One time my boss opened the shower door and saw me naked. It was embarrassing and enthralling at the same time.”
Instead, the whole story takes us by the hand, through her first job so we experience her follies of leaving sand on the floor and not putting the bills all the same way in the till. The backdrop of seagulls and silence reveals her maturing view and reflects her world that she’s still learning.
It’s times like these, when I read something so great, that I wish I had access to writing help earlier on, in my teens so that I could have been writing this way for years. I feel, though, that I emerge to sand every day, and have to feel each grain anew, or I’ll never get past the telling to really show.