Show, Don’t Tell

The book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, always seemed to me to be a Showperfect example of “Show, Don’t Tell.” Ivan goes thru his day in the Gulag in Siberia. He’s cold, he’s hungry, and he’s tired. The book is not filled with invective against the guards – it’s a simple telling of what happened on this day.

My students in prison are often the opposite. They have many creative adjectives, nouns and verbs to describe the system and the guards. So one day I did an experiment. I told them I was going to give them two words to write about, but they couldn’t use any negative nouns, verbs or adjectives. Nobody was “an asshole,” nothing was ‘stupid’ and no one was that worst of all local prison invectives, “a goof.”

I got everyone ready, made sure the instructions were clear, and then announced my two words: PRISON SUCKS. Normally this would be the chancefor lots of creative swears and much worse.

This was in a women’s prison. The women wrote furiously and produced wonderful documents, SHOWING why prison was bad and not TELLING.  One woman described the crisis in her family and how her absence had aggravated the situation. Another described in great detail the process involved in getting to take a shower. On and on, wonderful stories – and no telling. We ran out of time to hear all the stories.

Show, don’t tell.Show

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