Alice McDermott on Writing: “She took the ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim and turned it on its head.”

From a story in Baltimore magazine by Matthew Thomas titled “Alice McDermott as an instructor, writer, and mentor.” From the story:

The lessons Alice taught us were extraordinarily useful and specific. She told us she wrote by hand, on legal pads, and some of us, freed from the burden of editing as we wrote, found a new fluency by following her example. I never forgot her lesson in the proper placement of dialogue tags, which she boiled down to the pithy, “After the first natural pause.” I could have felt around in the dark for years without seeing that bit of truth on my own as lucidly as she’d put it. A minute of her time cleared away every error in that category forever, and it strikes me now that a good portion of her pedagogical philosophy involves demystifying the writing process in order to allow room for the deeper mystery of creation, namely how a work gets imbued with individuality, personality, soul.

Alice taught us never to populate a story with disembodied heads, brains in a jar. Fiction, she argued, must evoke a world outside the limited confines of an individual character’s consciousness. To Alice, a writer was responsible for giving readers clues about the world a story’s characters inhabit. Verisimilitude didn’t have to be achieved in the first draft, if one wasn’t gifted at instantly rendering the three-dimensional world. It was possible to write a scene and then circle back and layer in details that provided a visceral sense of reality. This is best accomplished, perhaps only accomplished, she taught, by availing oneself of senses other than those two most overused by beginning writers, sight and sound. Only when we write with all the senses are our characters allowed to come fully to life.

A startling amount of the practical writing advice she gave us stays with me to this day. I’ll never forget when she said, “You can’t say of a character, ‘He lifted five rabbits out of a hat, one at a time.’ You can’t see someone pick up five rabbits, one at a time. You see one rabbit, then another, then another.”

It mattered, too, how many times the rabbit came out of the hat. Alice was adamant that details had to be chosen for a reason. Every detail had to be significant for it to remain in a given story. “If you have a story where the character is an aspiring architect,” she once said, “and he builds models of cathedrals at home out of paper, and he has a cat, then the cat must crush the model, or else his being an architect is inessential, does not advance the plot. Don’t pick something at random. He must be an architect for a reason, not just to add a layer of brushstrokes to the character.”

Moments in time rigorously observed mattered to her. She insisted that we avoid resorting to invocations of habitual actions, like “He would often go to the store.” To Alice, it blurred a scene to talk about what “always” happened. What someone did in a specific moment was inevitably far more compelling.

One of the most useful things Alice ever taught us ostensibly flies in the face of one of the central tenets of much creative writing instruction. She took the “show, don’t tell” maxim and turned it on its head. Don’t be afraid of exposition, she urged; exposition is always ready at hand as a tool to be used, and a narrator must be allowed to advance the plot, explicate a situation, develop a character. At the same time, she insisted, exposition can’t be workaday or obligatory. The writer’s paramount task, at all times, is to create a continuous fictive dream. When the work is done right, she suggested, the reader forgets that there’s an author. It’s not that she taught us not to “show” things; there is no writer alive more gifted than Alice at constructing scenes, choosing resonant details, and allowing a dialogic exchange, even a silent room, to come alive based on the people and objects in it. Rather, she gave us permission, even urged us, to lean on exposition to do a good deal of interesting work. What this insistence of hers actually had the effect of doing was enabling us to write more compelling scenes. That was true, in part, because if one holds the note of exposition longer, when one delves into a particular scene it will be a crucial one. One directive I’ll never forget: Withhold dialogue until a character absolutely has to speak. That will make everything he or she says relevant and necessary. Relevance and necessity were the bellweathers for Alice. Invoking the famous last line of Frank O’Connor’s great story, “Guests of the Nation,” she taught that a good short story captures the moment after which nothing will ever be the same. If everything has happened a certain way for a hundred days in a row, she urged, a story is when things change on the hundred and first day.

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