Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Avoid Oversimplified Statements that “Tell.”
Showing and not telling your reader what you feel or what the subject of your poem feels, requires not using over simplified statements, such as,

She was devastated,
He was enraged
I wanted to disappear, I was so embarrassed
She was blinded by tears,
He was so afraid, he was trembling inside,
I was disappointed for days because I found out the gift was for someone else.

She was devastated,” tells the reader the feeling and does not show it, and it is a rather overused phrase.
Suppose instead, “She” reveals or shows the sequence in the first person.

I wanted to disappear, I was so embarrassed,” or “She was blinded by tears,” are too commonly used. “Blinded by tears” is only a slight improvement. “He was trembling inside,” is also commonly used.

These kinds of phrases create a conditioned sentimental response, and instead, the reader begins to apply all the previous associations to your writing. When a phrase becomes cliché, the reader or listener begins to feel numb and to resist the conditioned response. These phrases offer nothing unique or specific to the particular situation.

The following poem fragment leads the reader through unique events to a commonly understood conclusion about the experience of first heartbreak:

In June we rode in the backseat
of his cousin’s car to the free show.
Jack and his girl were chaperones,
the night of our first kiss. It was Electric.
He gave me his garnet ring to wear,
but by fall he moved away, and
asked me to give it back. I cried for
days, my face buried in the parched
autumn field grass, away from the house.

I never expected love could end.

This suggests the intensity of the relationship, and by contrast, the loss felt.

Again, “He was enraged,” tells us an emotion, but does not indicate why.

“Where is your homework? Mr. Shay asked.
“I had to work,” he said for the second time.
Mr. Shay knew his mother was ill.
“You’re just lazy,” boy, he said.

Grabbing his books,
Jeff walked out the door, slamming it shut.
Glass shattered behind him. He didn’t turn,
and broke down the dark hall, escaping into
the pounding rain; hiding tears on his wet face.

In this sequence, we have shared the experience, and we feel emotions with the character.

Let Action Show Feeling.
Give a brief account of what happened or was said to cause the emotion, let the action demonstrate the feeling that caused it, and if possible let the reader draw his or her own conclusions, as in this fragment:

another August day,
my mother cut a lilac switch
from the edge of that bush,
to lay her anger along my spindly legs
with searing bloody welts, which,
not yet healed by September,
were hid beneath long stockings.
She put me on the school bus
to meet the other children
in their anklets and new shoes
and marked their first impression
of me on the first day of school.

Let the Setting Express the Emotion. (This was discussed in the previous post.)

Apple tree,
Compulsively I tend
your arthritic limbs,
looking for blight in your joints
pruning your brittle branches
as they joust in the wind,
clattering like wooden swords
wielded by unseen warriors
battling for yet another season.

Together, we each obey
a drive nature compels;
will rises from our roots.
We claim another spring.

Avoid Sentimentalism Observe without emotional phrasing; even if it is a very emotional subject. Defuse the emotion by telling it as a second person viewer might.

Replace Clichés with Unique Wording. Dare new word use. Be outrageous if you can do so by showing and not telling.

Exercise: Write a simple account about something emotional, and try to apply the above principles to what you write. Revise it, and change the point of view from first to second or third person voice if that helps.

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