Life-Writing 101: How to “Show, Don’t Tell”

Life-Writing is 8 weeks of deeply engaging written and oral life review. Participants are given a series of prompts that guide them through their life story in a specialized manner, integrating unresolved parts of their life experience. In the process of learning to Life-Write, they are taught to Show, don’t tell. To glimpse the process, read the following narrative:

I am in the spacious den of a warm, affluent, married couple – a tall, dark, healthy African man of about 70 or so years and his same-age wife, an elegant and sophisticated European woman. They are equals. I am at their home and they are relaxing – dressed in comfortable lounging clothes. We are new to each other, but we know each other somehow as we move easily about the space. I am in their home with free access and a sense of their complete and open generosity toward me. Then we are in a car and hungry. I have some unshucked corn on the cob. We all have some. I have a few ears left – put back and away, because I have no idea where I will get my next meal. The wife asks for more. I look through what I have, three ears, I believe, and select the best for her, which in the end are the last two ears, because one is no good while the two selected still have a few good kernels on them, the rest not properly formed. Living in the moment, I let the last two ears of corn go to where they are needed. Then I sense the older man paying attention to this, and that it was a test to see whether I would share my last.   The woman is enjoying the corn, as the man’s hand comes to rest on my right knee. His hand is warm and reassuring – resting completely there as if we are one. We are being chauffeured. I am flanked by them. She is sitting to my left and he is sitting to my right. She is wearing a cream colored dress made of a lined sheer flowing fabric that falls in soft layers comfortably toward her body. She rests comfortably in the seat with her legs together and touching mine. She is subtly and beautifully jeweled, unpretentious. I feel these are the most genuine people, as rich in their shared level of human development as in their material life. Spirits in bodies. Alive. Everything about them is elegant. He is wearing the finest black suit – the rich black wool lays against him begging to be touched – a gleaming white shirt and a narrow black tie. He is a strong, healthy, comfortably elegant, uninhibited, warm older man – an absolute match to his wife, clearly of many years. They are a couple, easy with each other, unhurried. We are all sitting comfortably close together in the back seat of this car, as if we are deeply connected friends. They are larger than I am, but not so much. I never quite see the white woman’s face, but his is dark and smooth and just a little largish. I watch his mouth move as he talks with his wife, responding to something she must have said. My face is right next to his, and I just let my eyes take him in, the pink lining of his dark lips as they move, his glistening teeth, his clear white eyes, the absolute health in his face. I let my eyes rest on him, taking him in.

What is your interpretation of the narrative (a dream)? Stop and think about it before you read the next line.

Now that you have considered what this dream may have meant, I ask you, “Did I tell you that?” No, I simply showed you the dream by narrating it. Nothing offers up the nuances of meaning as well as a story does, thus we rely heavily on story in the Life-Writing process. If Life-Writers do this – show, don’t tell – they find themselves inside the experience again as they write, and in touch again with the corresponding emotions they must transfer to the page.

Myra Sabir, Ph.D., Assistant Professor
Department of Human Development

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