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Building a Life out of Words

Whenever someone asks me to review a book they’ve written, I approach the task with an equal mix of flattery and trepidation–flattered that my opinion of their work means something to them and wary that I won’t be able to write a glowing, positive AND honest review.

After receiving one book a year or so ago and realizing I couldn’t possibly in good conscious write a positive or even passing review, I made a personal decision that I would rather not write anything at all than write a bad review of something a person has devoted so much of their life to. (For the record, the author of this book is not anyone I’ve ever heard of or had any personal interaction with. It was sent to me by a well meaning publicist who probably assumed because I was a Christian I would give an automatic glowing review for a fellow Christian.)

When I received a request from Shawn Smucker to review his latest book, “Building a Life out of Words”, I was again flattered and wary. I’ve not read any of Shawn’s previous books, but based upon what I’ve read from him online, I know him to be a talented writer. But what gave me pause was the title of his book.

What I’m about to say will probably not win me any friends in the writing community, but here goes.

I’m not a big fan of writers writing about writing.

Unless they’re of the caliber of Stephen King, Steven Presswood or E. B. White, I consider (probably unfairly) whether they have the gravitas required to give advice about the craft of writing or a writer’s life. And yes, I know I’ve written several stories about writing, but I’m just a blogger. Furthermore, my writing posts are primarily from the viewpoint of the reader, not from that of someone who claims to be an expert in the field.

However, a few pages into Shawn’s book I realized that I had been wringing my hands for naught, because Building a Life out of Words succeeded in accomplishing one of the most important goals (for me, anyway) of compelling writing:

Show, don’t tell.

Shawn doesn’t tell you that you will fail and be rejected, he shows you his own failures and rejections with a raw honesty and humility that I rarely ever see in the written word.

He doesn’t tell you the importance of a supportive wife and family, he shows you how his wife Maile believed in what most spouses might consider a silly pipe dream with stories of sacrifice, loyalty, love and understanding that, even now as I think of them make me want to give that woman a giant hug.

But I don’t want to give the impressions that this book is just about the difficulties of life as a full time writer. Shawn also shares his victories–big and small–and reminds us that perseverance is every bit as important as passion, regardless of whether you aspire to write, paint, perform, run your own business or (insert dream job here).

Using first person narrative, personal journal entries and stories contributed by other writers and bloggers, Building a Life out of Words is less of a blueprint of how to write full time and more a reflective and encouraging handbook for anyone who feels like the life they long for is beyond their grasp.

The book is peppered with encouraging quotes from Shawn, all worthy of clipping and pasting onto your refrigerator, but it was his closing words that I found most encouraging:

This is what I hope for you. Not that you would be known as “that person who gave up their job to do what they loved to do.” As good as that sounds, and as exciting as that would be, that step is just the beginning of a wider, deeper, richer story.

I hope that you will be known as a person who lives. Really lives. Someone who makes decisions, not based on what’s expected, but on what’s possible. Someone who does things, not because everyone else is doing them, but because it’s what you want to do more than anything else in the world.

Now that would be a life worth living.

– Shawn Smucker

Got a dream life waiting?

I dare you to move.

Shawn Smucker is the author of several books, and is currently living out of a forty-five foot trailer, traveling the countryside with his wife Maile and their four children. You can catch up with his comings and going at

You can order Building a Life out of Words here.

Seeking immortality

“Most books, like their authors, are born to die; of only a few books can it be said that death hath no dominion over them; they live, and their influence lives forever.”

~J. Swartz

Harper Lee: The literary one hit wonder. A woman who wrote what many consider the greatest novel of the 20th century and then never published another book.

Pose the question, “Why do you write?” to ten writers and I would venture a guess that eight of them would respond with, “because I can’t not write.”

But writing and having people read what you write isn’t the same thing, is it?

Perhaps the more honest answer to that question would be, “I write to be read. I want people to read what I write and tell me I’ve done it well.”

“I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.”
~Harper Lee, 1964

Ever since the enormous success of To Kill a Mockingbird, millions of people have collectively wondered why Harper Lee never published another book. It’s fairly well documented that Lee was writing a second novel, The Long Goodbye, when according to her agent at the time, “her pen froze”.

I’ve never given much thought to why Harper Lee never published another novel. I suspect she’s written more stories but has chosen not to share them. I have the utmost respect for her disinterest in future publication. There are currently two Harper Lee biographies available on Amazon, neither of them written with the cooperation of Lee or authorized by her.

*In a 2011 interview with the Daily Telegraph, Lee’s close friend Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts said that Lee is in an assisted-living facility, wheelchair bound, partially blind and deaf, and suffering from memory loss. Butts also said that Lee told him why she never wrote again:

“Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill A Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”

Ah, to show that kind of restraint in a world that is constantly telling us what we have attained is never enough. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those rare books which has attained literary immortality. Its author’s recognition of this fact and her acknowledgment of that being enough puts her in the same category.

There is a skill and giftedness involved in saying what needs to be said in just the right way.

But perhaps what’s too often overlooked is the ability to know when you’ve said enough.

Why do you write?

*Source: Wikipedia.

Letting go

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A subtle state of melancholy comes over me as I sense things must soon come to an end.

That spark of excitement which comes with new relationships has deepened into something more; something that while in the throws of the excitement of adventure I temporarily lost myself in.

And while I’m just enough of a romantic to believe that not all good things must come to an end,

I’m enough of a realist to know that most good things do.

While I was at once rushing through with break-neck speed, impatient and excited to know what would happen next,

I’ve slowed down now.

Savoring each moment.

Wanting to glean the depth of everything.

Of what it all means.

For me.

For you.

And as the adventure draws to a close, there is regret.

But there is also gratitude.

For a story well told…


I close the book.

And look forward to the next adventure somewhere in the stack of books on my nightstand.


That’s what good writing does…

Read any good books lately?

Why I hate writing, Part 11: Fighting the Blue Hair Mafia

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“I want to be a Puritan,” my son says.

These are the first words uttered to me when I pick him up from football practice. He’s never been one to ease into a conversation and has a tendency to make extreme, declarative statements as a reaction to something that has upset him or made him uncomfortable. My mind quickly reviews our previous conversations for the week and I remember him suggesting that I not attend his pep rally. “Mom, there is a whole lot of cussing at my school, and I know you don’t want to hear that.” I assured him at the time that none of those kids were going to say anything I haven’t already heard, but him wanting to shield me from it was still admirable.

But back to the Puritan statement.

Me: Why do you want to be a Puritan.

Son: Because they lived good lives. They didn’t cuss or do bad things.

Me: Okay, well you do realize that if you become a Puritan you will have to give up the use of your computer, television viewing, your video games, many of the songs on your iPod as well as many books you may want to read.

Son: I think that’s a small price to pay to live a sinless life.

Me: There’s no such thing as a sinless life. Everyone sins, either through action or thought. Jesus was the only human who lived a sinless life, and He’s God.

Son: Okay, well. Then a life with less sin. I think that would make me happy. Did you know that children who talked back to their parents were subjected to public beatings?

Me: Are you suggesting that I beat you publicly? There’s nothing wrong with wanting to live a life free of sin, as long as you understand that you never really will. Besides, if you go around constantly trying to do right, think right and be right, how do you fit grace into that picture? Grace for yourself as well as grace for others?

He was relatively quiet for the rest of the ride home. I’ve considered sending my kids to private Christian schools in an attempt to shield them from the worldliness of public education, and the transition from elementary to junior high has exposed my son to many things I’d just as soon he not have to deal with. But you can’t live life in a Christian bubble. If you’re going to be salt and light, you have to understand that there is much darkness out there, even at the tender age of 14. I’m praying he makes the right choices because he knows better, but I’m relying on grace and mercy because I understand that knowing better does not always equate to being better. Besides, how can you ever truly understand the gift of grace if you’ve never fallen from it?

Which brings me to Reason 11 why I hate writing…

More specifically, the genre of Christian writing and who defines what that means. For me, any decent work of inspirational fiction will contain at least four key elements: Sacrifice, Trust, Hope and Redemption. But the characters and the narrative have to be real in order to be believable.

There is a large contingent represented in the world of Christian publishing who believe that any book which contains profanity, sexual immorality or perverse behavior of any kind is not worthy of the classification of Christian genre. I refer to them as the Blue Hair Mafia, and I’m not the first one to use this descriptive. They want assurances that anything they read will not offend their delicate Christian sensibilities. They want to live inside their safe, Christian bubble and not have to confront the harsh realities of a fallen world when they open up a book. No, they want to escape to a white-washed fantasy world where people say “shoot” instead of “shit”, where unbelieving husbands become believers because their loving wives prayed them back from the pits of hell, where children are tempted by drugs and alcohol but their faith protects them from ever indulging in such sinful behavior and where Jesus snatches them up before any real damage can be done. Who am I to say whether or not they should read nice, safe, Christian stories if that’s what they want to do?

I only wish they would afford others the luxury of writing books which might actually plant a seed of belief in a person who is either without faith or clinging to their faith by a thread. Someone who, by Blue Hair Mafia standards, is living a life of debauchery, a life so far away from Jesus they feel like He could never take them back. How is a book full of white-washed reality going to relate to them?

I’ll tell you how.

It’s not.

What it will do if they manage to get through the book in the first place is convince them they could never be worthy of grace because they are so much worse than any of the characters in the book. Which is pretty much the opposite of what an author who calls herself a Christian should be writing if she claims she want to draw others to Christ through her writing.

In a now somewhat famous sermon from a few years ago, American Christian preacher Tony Campolo summed up my frustration with the mentality which permeates our churches and all forms of “Christian” entertainment when he addressed a congregation with the following introduction:

“I have three things I’d like to say today.
First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition.
Second, most of you don’t give a shit.
What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”

So what do you think? Am I completely off base with this? Do you think profanity should never be used in Christian books?

The Best of Billy Coffey: Writing Naked

It’s week three of The Best of Billy Coffey! If you’re new here, in Week 1, I shared a snippet of Billy’s second novel Paper Angels along with a few ways you can enter to win a copy of Paper Angels, Week 2 was Billy’s Come to Jesus Moment. As promised, I’m still choosing a winner each week. You may enter as often as you like, and there are several ways to enter:

  • Leave a comment here or on subsequent “Best of Billy Coffey” posts each Monday indicating you would like to be entered into the drawing.
  • Tweet or post to Facebook a link to this post and/or subsequent posts. (Please be sure to let me know you’re doing so by adding @katdish to the end of your tweet or sharing the Facebook link with me.)
  • Tweet or post to Facebook a link to the Paper Angels Amazon page letting people know it is available for pre-order.
  • Ditto Barnes & Noble
  • Ditto Books-a-Million
  • Ditto Indie-Bound

Each of the aforementioned actions will constitute one entry into the drawing. If you don’t win this week, each of your entries will go back into the drawing. Winners will be chosen at random and will be announced the following Monday. Enter early, enter often, and check back here each week for new opportunities to win.

Thanks in advance for helping get the word out about Paper Angels. If you’re not big into contests, I still encourage you to head over to Amazon or another online retailer and pre-order a copy. I know once you read it you will recommend it to a friends and family, and word of mouth advertising is the very best kind.

The winner of Week Two is Annie McMahon. Congrats, Annie! I’ll post next week’s winner next Monday.

And now, another one of my favorites. Billy shares some great writing advice in his unique Coffey-esque style:

Writing Naked

image courtesy of

image courtesy of

I write in terror. I have to talk myself into bravery with every sentence, sometimes every syllable –Cynthia Ozick

I took exactly one class in writing. It was about fifteen years ago at the community college and was taught by a real published author whose name I cannot recall. But she was published, and as far as I was concerned that was all the credentials she needed.

The first class turned out to be the most useful. That’s not to say the instruction given in the proceeding eleven weeks of the course wasn’t useful. It was. But that first night alone was worth the money.

The twenty or so people in the class formed a semi-circle around the professor, who stood in behind a wooden podium that was much more intimidating than she. We sat at attention, notebooks ready, eager to have our heads filled with the hidden secrets of literary success.

“Tell me,” she said, “what does one need to write?”

The more outgoing among the class were quick with suggestions:




“Connections.” (That one was met with a nervous chuckle from the rest of the class.)


Each was met with an approving nod and so was written down by everyone, myself included. But that really wasn’t what she wanted to hear.

“Those are good suggestions,” she said, “but you’re leaving the most important aspect out. Anyone?”

No one.

“Courage,” she said.

I didn’t really understand that and snickered under my breath. Courage? Soldiers needed courage. Cops needed courage. EMTs and stunt men and bullfighters. But writers? Sitting on your butt and typing on a keyboard did not take courage.

“There are some who might disagree with that,” she said—and to this day I swear she looked at me when she said it—“and I understand. You disagree because you’re writing with your clothes on. By the time you leave here, you’ll be writing naked.”

I’ll admit I almost walked out then. I’d heard about kooky writing classes given by kooky professors who did some pretty strange things in the name of “art.” I was afraid if I stuck around I’d end up dressed in a blue tracksuit with a cup of Kool-Aid in my hand because a comet was passing by to take me to heaven.

I stayed in my seat on the whim she was speaking metaphorically.

“There is no greater fear than to face a blank page,” she said. “It mocks and threatens. It challenges you. Give it power, and it will eat you alive. Face it clothed, and you will fail. The only way to beat the blank page is to attack it naked.”

Twelve of the twenty students raised their hands.

“Wait, wait,” she said, moving her hands in a downward motion. “No, I’m not speaking literally. But I’m not joking, either. Let me ask you something else. Why do people write?”

More hands in the air, which she chose to ignore.

“People write because they must. Because there is a story inside them that is meant to be shared with the world. But having that story inside you doesn’t make you a writer. How you tell that story does. And you tell it through honesty.”

She told us to put our pens down and just listen.

“Writers fail because they come to the page fully clothed. They adorn themselves with fanciful plots and layer themselves with complicated character development. They use flowery prose and words you have to look up in the dictionary. They do this not to impress their readers, but to keep their readers at arm’s length. They’re afraid. Afraid to bare their souls and inject themselves into their work. For that they are cowards.

“Don’t simply tell me that faith saves you, tell me how it almost failed you, too. Don’t tell me about love, speak of your passion. Don’t tell me you’re hurt, let me see your heart breaking. I don’t want to see your talent on the page, I want to see your blood. Dare to be naked before your readers. Because that is writing, and everything else is worthless crap.”

I’ll always remember that. In fact, written on an index card taped to my lamp are these two words—Be Naked. Because she was right, that’s what writing is all about. Fiction or non, poetry or devotional, funny or serious, it doesn’t matter. Our calling is still the same:

To bare ourselves so we may be the mirror the world holds to itself.

Why I hate writing, Part 10: writing, reading and ranting

If you’ve read this blog for very long, you know that I prefer Twitter to Facebook. Having said that, I will also say I’ve found some great links and conversations on Facebook which don’t lend themselves to the 140 character limitation on Twitter. Such was the case last Saturday when I found the following quote via Sarah Reck’s Facebook status update:

Found this quote online today. It’s attributed to Stephen King but I haven’t found a source.

“Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.”

Like Sarah, I was unable to find the original source of this quote, but I have found a couple of articles where King has been openly critical of Meyer’s Twilight series, including an interview published in USA Weekend in February, 2009:

“…when (Richard) Matheson started to write about ordinary people and stuff, that was something that I wanted to do. I said, ‘This is the way to do it. He’s showing the way.’ I think that I serve that purpose for some writers, and that’s a good thing. Both Rowling and Meyer, they’re speaking directly to young people. … The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.”

Mr. King’s criticism isn’t just directed at Meyer, however. He goes on to say:

“Somebody who’s a terrific writer who’s been very, very successful is Jodi Picoult. You’ve got Dean Koontz, who can write like hell. And then sometimes he’s just awful. It varies. James Patterson is a terrible writer but he’s very very successful. People are attracted by the stories, by the pace and in the case of Stephenie Meyer, it’s very clear that she’s writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling and it’s not particularly threatening because they’re not overtly sexual. A lot of the physical side of it is conveyed in things like the vampire will touch her forearm or run a hand over skin, and she just flushes all hot and cold. And for girls, that’s a shorthand for all the feelings that they’re not ready to deal with yet.”

I’ll admit I was caught up in the Twilight series when it first came out. Meyer is certainly no Steinbeck, or Rowling for that matter, but I did get caught up in the story. About halfway through the second book however, the story wasn’t enough. I finished the second book and began reading the third but didn’t finish it. Life’s too short to read bad books. I realize what constitutes a good or bad book is subjective, and what compels one reader to keep reading is different from another. I tend to relate to characters in the stories. I found Bella so completely annoying and self-absorbed that I no longer cared what happened to her. I don’t necessarily have to like the main character, but indifference is a real buzz kill for me. I don’t begrudge the millions of readers who loved the Twilight series and cudos to Stephanie Meyer for the incredible success of those books. I’ll save my true book snobbery for autobiographies written by celebrities and quasi-celebrities writing about themselves via a large pool of ghost writers trying to make a living. And I certainly don’t begrudge ghost writers trying to make a living.

What I’m wondering is if you think Stephen King serves the writing community by being openly critical of other writers. King has been the recipient of some of the same kind scathing criticism of his own work, and while I think he’s an incredible writer–probably the best of his generation–he’s written a few dogs himself. My personal opinion is that King’s criticism is less about professional jealousy (as some have suggested) and more about his love of the craft. He takes bad writing personally because he’s done the work, bled on the page and sacrificed so much for the love of the story.

And hey, he’s Stephen King…

What do you think about writers being openly critical of other writers? (I know they’re privately critical of them, because I know how you are, writers.)

What writers have inspired you? (Besides me. Snort!)

Why I hate writing, Part 9: Honesty

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Sometimes I’ll tweet stuff that’s rather cryptic. These tweets are often the result of frustration. They’re incredibly selfish on my part. My way of stomping my feet without stomping on anyone’s feet in particular.

Some writers can take a story about themselves and make it about the reader, some can take just about anything and make it about themselves. I’m not a fan of the latter. Navel gazing does not make for compelling writing.

I often read something almost good and mourn the first draft before the writer worried about offending anyone.

While both tweets may seem somewhat unrelated, they’re really not. Both are about my frustration with lack of honesty in writing. I understand that all writers should consider their audience and what they are hoping to accomplish through their words. Still, I think we spend way too much time worrying about what others think of us; too much effort trying to be a better version of ourselves–or worse–a different version of another person.

I know what a competitive field writing is. I also understand the pressure writers are under to build platforms and broaden their audience, even if much of that pressure is self-induced. But I’m telling you as an avid reader and a big supporter of writing and of writers:  Intelligent readers can sniff out dishonest writing. The last thing you want to do is to insult your reader’s intelligence.

Writers, and fiction writers in particular, have the freedom to express what’s in their hearts; to live lives through their words they most likely will never experience in the real world. Do that well and you’ll do us all the grand favor of allowing us to come along on the journey.

And I for one will be extremely grateful.

Why I hate writing, Part 8: The craft

Stephen King image courtesy of

If you’ve been following along at home, you may have realized by now that I don’t really hate writing. I mostly just hate bad writing, which technically would include much of my own. But I’m not very technical. Or humble. So my writing doesn’t count. Snort!

I guess there are several ways to define what constitutes good writing from bad, and what I consider great writing you might consider very lacking indeed. Stephen King has been poo-pooed in many literary circles. Personally, I think he’s a genius, and I’d be willing to bet that many of his harshest critics have never even bothered to read any of his books or simply suffer from professional jealousy. For those who think he’s sold out and writes formulaic novels and short stories to pad his bank account, again I would encourage you to read at least three of his books, and if you’ve read his books and come away thinking they’re only horror stories, I don’t suppose there’s anything I could say to you to convince you otherwise. You just don’t get it. Despite being taken lightly by the literary world, Mr. King takes the craft of writing very seriously. I love his approach to writing, and I love what he says about the craft in the Afterword of Full Dark, No Stars. The following excerpts are just a few highlights from the Great One:

When people ask me about my work, I have developed a habit of skirting the subject with jokes and humorous personal anecdotes (which you can’t quite trust; never trust anything a fiction writer says about himself). It’s a form of deflection and a little more diplomatic than the way my Yankee forebears might have answered such questions: It’s none of your business, chummy. But beneath the jokes, I take what I do very seriously, and have since I wrote my first novel, The Long Walk, at the age of eighteen.

I have little patience with writers who don’t take the job of writing seriously, and none at all with those who see the art of story-fiction as essentially worn out. It’s not worn out, and it’s not a literary game. It’s one of the vital ways in which we try to make sense of our lives, and the often terrible world we see around us. It’s the way we answer the, How can such things be? Stories that sometimes–not always, but sometimes–there’s a reason.

From the start…I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive. It gets in your face. Sometimes it shouts in your face. I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal…if the tale is good enough and the characters vivid enough, thinking will supplant emotion when the tale has been told and the book set aside (sometimes with relief)…

Here’s something else I believe: if you’re going into a very dark place…then you should take a bright light, and shine it on everything. If you don’t want to see, why in God’s name would you dare the dark at all? The great naturalist writer Frank Norris has always been one of my literary idols, and I’ve kept what he said on this subject in mind for over 40 years: “I never truckled; I never took off my hat to Fashion and held it out for pennies. By God, I told them the truth.”

But Steve, you say, you’ve made a great many pennies during your career, and as for truth…that’s variable, isn’t it? Yes, I’ve made a good amount of money writing my stories, but the money was a side effect, never the goal. Writing fiction for money is a mug’s game. And sure, truth is in the eye of the beholder. But when it comes to fiction, the writer’s only responsibility is to look for the truth inside his own heart. It won’t always be the reader’s truth, or the critic’s truth, but as long as it’s the writer’s truth–as long as he or she doesn’t truckle, or hold out his or her hat to Fashion–all is well. For writers who knowingly lie, for those who substitute unbelievable human behavior for the way people really act, I have nothing but contempt. Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do–to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street.

~ Stephen King, Bangor, Maine, December 23 2009

There is a vunerability in King’s writing which, for me, all great writers must possess. Or as another one of my favorite writers would say, you have to be willing to write naked. Do that and you’ll have at least one loyal fan of your writing, and many more I suspect.

What say you? How do you define great writing? Do you know why you think it’s great, or do you just know?

Editor’s Note: If you haven’t read Full Dark, No Stars and are considering reading it after this post, fair warning: It is very dark. Probably some of the darkest stories I’ve read from King, and that’s saying something. But like he said, “If you don’t want to see, why in God’s name would you dare the dark at all?”

Why I hate writing, Part 7: Show, don’t tell

Show, don’t tell is an admonition to fiction writers to write in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character’s action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator’s exposition, summarization, and description. The advice is not to be heavy-handed, but to allow issues to emerge from the text instead, and applies to non-fiction writing too. Source: Wikipedia

I’ve been an avid reader for most of my life. I always knew whether or not I liked certain authors, I just couldn’t tell you why or why not. It wasn’t until I started working with a real writer, when he began sharing some of the rules he’d learned through research and experience that I started to identify the reasons why certain writing didn’t appeal to me.

One of my biggest pet peeves in writing is the breaking of the “Show, don’t tell rule”. Granted, this rule primarily applies to fiction, but I still think all writers should keep this in mind when addressing their readers. It’s the whole “Give a man a fish versus teach a man to fish” principle.  Okay, maybe not that exactly, but close enough…

For example:

Tell: My daschund  is a jerk because he wakes me up to pee.

Show: Almost every night as my eyelids begin to droop and the book in my hand begins its descent into the space between the pillows, I hear the low, guttural growl coming from the end of the bed. What was moments before a perfectly still mound of black and brown fur is now two beady brown eyes staring down its considerable snout at me. “Outside?”, I ask as the dog bounds off the bed into the night.

For the sake of economy of words, the tell is the best choice. But hopefully you get a clearer picture of why my dog is a jerk from the show.

Got it? Good.

For me, the best thing about the show rather than the tell is the opportunity for the reader to use his or her imagination to fill in the the blanks. It’s not often when a police report via a news story allows the reader that kind of freedom, so when my friend Randy emailed me the following clipping, I had to share it:

I realize the image is probably too small to read, so allow me to transcribe the words of the reporter:

Orville Smith, a store manager for Best Buy in Augusta, Ga., told police he observed a male customer, later identified as Tyrone Jackson of Augusta, Ga., on survellience camera putting a laptop computer under his jacket. When confronted, the man became irate, knocked down an employee, drew a knife and ran for the door.

Outside on the sidewalk were four Marines collecting toys for the Toys for Tots program. Smith said the Marines stopped the man, but he stabbed one of the Marines, Cpl. Phillip Duggan, in the back; the injury did not appear to be severe.

After Police and an ambulance arrived at the scene, Cpl. Duggan was transported for treatment.

“The subject was also transported to a local hospital with two broken arms, a broken ankle, a broken leg, several missing teeth, possible broken ribs, several contusions, assorted lacerations, a broken nose and a broken jaw…injuries he sustained when he slipped and fell off the curb after stabbing the Marine”, according to a police report.

Semper Fi…

(I did not independently verify the accuracy of this clipping, but even if it’s not real, I still think it’s a great example, don’t you?)

In case you missed the first six installments of Why I hate writing, you can find them here:

Why I hate writing, Part 1: Why I hate writers
Why I hate writing, Part 2: Publishing isn’t fair
Why I hate writing, Part 3: When writing hurts
Why I hate writing, Part 4: Critical acclaim vs book sales
Why I hate writing, Part 5: Fighting the Muse
Why I hate writing, Part 6: Metaphorically Speaking

On writing, righting and apathy

image from

The above photo depicts a brutal form of execution known as necklacing, carried out by forcing a rubber tire, filled with petrol, around a victim’s chest and arms, and setting it on fire. The victim may take up to 20 minutes to die, suffering severe burns in the process. The practice became a common method of lethal lynching during disturbances in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s.

Photojournalist Kevin Carter was the first to photograph a public execution by necklacing in South Africa in the mid-1980s. He later spoke of the images:

“I was appalled at what they were doing. I was appalled at what I was doing. But then people started talking about those pictures… then I felt that maybe my actions hadn’t been at all bad. Being a witness to something this horrible wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing to do.”

He went on to say:

“After having seen so many necklacings on the news, it occurs to me that either many others were being performed (off camera as it were) and this was just the tip of the iceberg, or that the presence of the camera completed the last requirement, and acted as a catalyst in this terrible reaction. The strong message that was being sent, was only meaningful if it were carried by the media. It was not more about the warning (others) than about causing one person pain. The question that haunts me is ‘would those people have been necklaced, if there was no media coverage?”

(Source: Wikipedia: Necklacing)

In March 1993 Carter made a trip to Sudan. The sound of soft, high-pitched whimpering near the village of Ayod attracted Carter to an emaciated Sudanese toddler. The girl had stopped to rest while struggling to a feeding center, whereupon a vulture had landed nearby. He said that he waited about 20 minutes, hoping that the vulture would spread its wings. It didn’t. Carter snapped the haunting photograph and chased the vulture away. (Source: Wikipedia: Kevin Carter)

image courtesy of

It is unknown what happened to this young girl after this photo was taken. What is widely known is that Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for this photograph, presented to him on May 23, 1994 at Columbia University.

On July 27, 1994 Carter drove to the Braamfontein Spruit river, near the Field and Study Centre, an area where he used to play as a child, and took his own life by taping one end of a hose to his pickup truck’s exhaust pipe and running the other end to the passenger-side window. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 33. Portions of Carter’s suicide note read:

“I am depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…I have gone to join Ken [recently deceased colleague Ken Oosterbroek] if I am that lucky.”

This is certainly not a new story, but it’s something that’s been on my heart lately. Photographers, journalists and writers give voice to suffering and chaos. Hopefully in an attempt to draw the world’s attention to it, thereby calling others to action. But in that moment and the moments immediately following, what are they doing about it? Would Kevin Carter be alive today if he had set down that camera and come to the aid of that little girl? Would the darkness have consumed him had he chosen to be a light instead of a neutral observer? I just don’t know.

I’ve said before that one of the occupational hazards of being a writer is that you’re always writing. Every situation becomes a potential story. But I never want to come to a place where what I put on paper becomes more important than inserting myself into the bigger story of life. Especially if by abandoning my mental pen and notebook I might have a hand in changing a tragedy into a happily ever after, or at least an after.

“Some people confuse acceptance with apathy, but there’s all the difference in the world. Apathy fails to distinguish between what can and what cannot be helped; acceptance makes that distinction. Apathy paralyzes the will-to-action; acceptance frees it by relieving it of impossible burdens.” – Arthur Gordon

“By far the most dangerous foe we have to fight is apathy – indifference from whatever cause, not from a lack of knowledge, but from carelessness, from absorption in other pursuits, from a contempt bred of self satisfaction” – William Osler

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