Show Don’t Tell: Not Just For Poetry

Show. Don’t tell. That was hammered into my head so many times this week, and I still feel like I could stand to hear it a few more times.

I was at the IU Writer’s conference which was wonderful for so many reason, but for 1) being local and accessible, and 2) being affordable with a scholarship. I can only guess that they saw my manuscript and took pity on me. Because I discovered that I am a bad writer. A. TERRIBLE. WRITER. And, I’m seriously not trying to be modest.

We went through all sorts of writing exercises that not only massaged my brain but sparked so many connections. Here are a few examples:

Jenny Browne taught a poetry class called “Love Letter to a Stranger.” We toyed with notions of familiarity and unfamiliarity, and the tensions in various levels of intimacy.
1. On the last day she gave us something called the Bermuda Triangle. Write three lists: Fears, Desires, Images, and take 2 from each and write a love letter to stranger.
2. Some free writing we did was in response to questions like “What do you smell like?” and “What have you lost?”
3. She also had us write a postcard from an emotion – short, 5-10 lines.
4. There were some great form suggestions like writing a pantoum, which basically you write a 4 line stanze and take lines 1 and 3, and make them 2 and 4 in the 2nd stanza, and then keep going.

Jenny was a wonderful teacher – she was incredibly encouraging, and made it seem like everything anyone said in class was genius.

My workshop teacher, Erin Belieu encouraged exercises that were contemplative:
1. Stare at something for an hour. Don’t bring paper. Don’t look away. Don’t think.
2. For a more practical revision-type exercise she suggested taking one line from a poem and writing something completely new from it.
3. Write a poem like Auden’s thesis-example-argument
4. What a rhyme-ish poem and explore the O (not orgasm).

I have to say how much I appreciated Erin – she was honest and genuine, and incredibly kind.

Dan Chaon and Lou Berney were also fabulous – entertaining, insightful, engaging, and just so sharp. Unspeakably amazing writers. And then, in the evenings there were readings from the IUWC faculty as well as some other folks like Jean Thompson, and Susan Gubar, who is a professor emerita at IU.

All this is to say that I realized I could stand to be much more vigorous, thoughtful, and intentional about my writing. The way I run everyday, the way I tinker on the piano everyday…I should be doing these kind of exercises for writing, too, and not just word vomit all over this blog. It’s pretty obvious that this kind of writing will infect everything else I do – in a good way, of course – whether it’s writing thank you notes or sermons, reading newspaper articles or blogs or short stories, and even going about my day with the babies.

I’m so thankful for the chance to meet some locals, and hopefully connect more with the writing community here. And even more grateful to the writing group I’ve been a part of this past year (who I’ve subjected my awful poetry to twice a month!). I would highly recommend to pastors to do a writer’s conference for your study leave!!! It’s rich, and I’m surely going to be mining this experience for a while.

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