Tag Archives: Margaret Atwood

Don’t just tell your story. Make it come alive.

I’ll be honest, my first attempts at writing short stories or essays turned out to be a series of rants and confessions — experiences that needed clearing before any real writing could take place. In those first few weeks of purging, I learned the difference between telling a story and writing a story. As Margaret Atwood says in her book, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing:

A lot of people do have a book in them – that is, they have had an experience that other people might want to read about. But this is not the same as “being a writer.” Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger.

I wanted to be a writer, so I signed up for an online course.

I forget the exact writing assignment from our instructor that first week (something about a lie you’d been told or a person who betrayed you), but, oh, was I itching to write it. My fingers were on fire. What’s funny is that my burning assignment ended up being very little “story.” It finished out at less than one thousand words, and I managed to fill many of those sentences with the word “irritating,” or some derivation thereof. That could be an exaggeration, but I doubt it, since one of the other writers in class commented that “We get that your character is irritated.”

In other words, show us, don’t tell us. Please.

“Show don’t tell.” That phrase sounded familiar, but my newbie writer’s mind thought it vague. Being a compare and contrast kind of girl, I needed concrete examples. Show me, I whined! One of the other writers must have heard me, and she sent a quick note to the message board with a few snippets of telling vs. showing. One particular example made all the difference for me. She wrote:

Telling: Louie drank a lot.

Showing: Louie shoved last night’s collection of empty beer bottles aside and poured the morning’s pick-me-up into a glass. He considered topping it off with orange juice, but the sweet smell turned his stomach. Instead, he downed the vodka straight. “Ah, that’s a better color on the day,” he said. He said that every day. *

Show, don’t tell.

The February 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest also talks about the same issue in an article called, “25 Ways to Improve Your Writing in 30 Minutes a Day.” Jack Heffron and Sage Cohen call it Precision and Imagery, but the meaning is the same.

On precision, Jack Heffron says, “The key to successfully creating or conveying worlds for our readers is painstakingly observing those worlds, and then scribbling down the precise details that tell the story. On imagery, Sage Cohen says “A successful image can plug right into your reader’s nervous system at times when explanation falls flat.”

A well-formed image appears when the writer uses tiny, often overlooked details, from a scene. Sometimes those details emerge through other senses, sometimes they are just visual notes. Either way, a sentence or a scene comes alive in the end.

To be fair, telling in writing has its own purpose as well. In the Writer’s Digest article, Sage Cohen also says that “sometimes a simple, unembellished statement will be the most powerful choice. But you won’t know until you try.”

What’s your favorite example of showing, not telling? Or, maybe you have an example where telling is the better choice?

* Used with permission from Jennifer Savage.


A Mother and A Writer

I love writing contests.

If I’m not using the opportunity to tighten up a old story, then I’m off creating something new.

And, once in a while, a contest sharpens my focus; it turns my perspective from outward to in. A contest I recently entered did exactly that. It gave me reason to examine – again – why I continue to write, despite the obstacles in life that could easily sway me.

In celebration of She Writes‘s first year anniversary, E. Victoria Flynn hosted a Mother Writing contest. We were asked to write, in 500 words or less, an essay on being a mother writer. The deadline for the contest came during the early days of summer vacation, and my first thought was: Mother Writer? Impossible. Still, I wrote.

Though I didn’t win the contest, I’ve posted my essay below. And, you can read the lovely winning Mother Writing essay by Diana Duke here.

Nothing was lost by thinking back on my Writerly beginnings: blogging about my children. From those short posts, I moved on to my first writing class, my first published piece, and my first attempts at writing fiction.

Thanks, Victoria, for hosting a contest that put Mother Writers in the limelight and gave me a reason to look inward for my own affirmation.


The Whole of Me

Mother and Writer. There are days when, like opposing forces, these two sides of me sit miles apart. They each refuse to accept the presence of the other. When I turn to write, I feel the pull of my children; when I go back to my children, I feel an unyielding persuasion to write.

“What’s the point?” I ask myself, exhausted from the struggle of trying to keep both identities in balance. Still, despite my frustration, I refuse to give up on either: as a mother I can’t, as a writer I won’t.

In Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Margaret Atwood lists several reasons that answer the compelling question: why do it? The answers that resonate with me trace my own journey to becoming a Mother Writer.

“To set down the past before it is forgotten.”

As a new mother, I recorded details: of birth, the first day of school, and the first tooth lost. Details alone, though, never conveyed the rise and fall of my emotions. A date stamp would not remind me of the out of body experience I had when my daughter was born. A picture alone wouldn’t express my own anxieties about sending my son to school. And marking the day the tooth finally fell out wouldn’t hint at the number of days prior when repeated negotiations to “let mommy pull the tooth” failed.

I wove details into stories, so that I might remember the power behind each moment.

“To justify my own view of myself and my life, because I couldn’t be ‘a writer’ unless I actually did some writing.”

Writing about life with my children reignited my love of storytelling. I looked back at my stack of old journals and a well-worn spiral notebook filled – when I was fifteen years old – with stories of girl meets boy.

I always wanted to be a writer, and I realized that to become one meant I had to take action. So, I started a blog, I submitted stories to journals, I shared my secret with others. I became a Writer.

“To cope with my depression.”

Lord Byron said, “If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.”

My bouts with depression, though never debilitating, distract me from life. Being a mother pulls me back into the moment. Writing helps me stay there.

“To bear witness….”

To bear witness to my children that in the midst of life, of being whoever we are that day – mother, daughter, wife, sister, friend – we do not have to suppress our creative selves. In fact, embracing my creativity enhances every aspect of my life.

I don’t earn money as a writer or a mother, but each of those daily experiences makes up the whole of who I am.


*Atwood, Margaret. Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. New York: Anchor Books, 2002, p. xx. Print.


Cut, Paste, Sigh. And, Repeat.

Since last Friday, I’ve done a lot of reading and reflecting on the novel that I am trying to write. This novel writing business isn’t easy.

During the last week, I flipped through – and clicked through – several great articles on theme and irony, character goals, and ways to breathe life into your story. My recent post on theme and irony stirred up a flurry of comments and more great information from Lydia Sharp. As well, the March issue of The Writer has turned out to be a wealth of information for a fledgling novelist like myself.

I say “fledgling,” because I wavered back and forth between thoughts that “this thing will never fly” to the word that pops up almost every other day in conversations on writing: persistence.

I highlighted the title of my novel and marked it as “temporary.” And (almost kicking and screaming), I went back to the beginning of the draft. I dropped in a brand new opening scene. Then, today, instead of diving into a rewrite of the next chapter, I took out chunks of the story that suddenly switched up the plot (like when the main character’s mom died, no she didn’t, yes she did…CUT). And, I started making an outline.

Starting with an outline would likely make for a smoother rewrite in the future. Now, I know. As a writer, I feel myself growing in all directions. I am reminded again of a quote from one of my favorite writers, Margaret Atwood:

A lot of people do have a book in them – that is, they have had an experience that other people might want to read about. But this is not the same as “being a writer.” Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. The latter takes a good deal more stamina and persistence (26).

There’s that word again. Anyone can find inspiration for a story, but it takes perseverance (and a willingness to go back to the beginning) for that story to take root and flourish.

This novel continues to be my exercise in developing plot, character, and structure, as well as in sticking with a project until the end. Even if the story never gets published, I will be a different writer once I put the manuscript down for good.


Atwood, Margaret. Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. New York: Anchor Books, 2002. Print.