When I teach creative writing, like everyone else who who’s ever taught it, I constantly remind my students of the old adage “show, don’t tell.”
“Don’t tell us you hate your ex-boyfriend, show us that using scene, and voice, and image, and setting,” I say. “Dramatize!”
I repeat the words of one of my former teachers: “Nothing is less beautiful than beautiful”–the word is so abstract, so entirely subjective, to describe something as simply “beautiful” doesn’t tell us anything concrete.
When we study nonfiction, I tell them they’re allowed to show and tell: I read to them from an essay by Philip Lopate about the importance of reflection and tell them something I learned from a different professor: that the story is not as interesting as the sense the author makes of the story. (Whatever that means–like any platitude, it’s imperfect, and not always true.)
Lately I’ve been thinking about how this applies in life. Because I want people to show me their feelings–love, hate, whatever–but I also want them to tell me. For reasons I can’t explain, I need the reassurance that comes not just from affection, from meaningful actions, but from being told: from the statement “I love you.”
“You need something more detailed,” D observed when we had the conversation. More detailed, he meant, than the gestures and behaviors that signify love: I need the words themselves.
But the thing is that, just as there is nothing less beautiful than beautiful (or something–again, the platitude thing), there is nothing less detailed than the word “love.” I can’t think of a concept more abstract, of a notion more elusive, of an idea that means more things to as many people. Married people say “I love you” and then cheat on their spouses. Parents say “I love you” and neglect their children.
And who are we to say they didn’t mean it? That the way in which they love precludes lusting for others, or allowing selfishness to supercede?
Someone once told me that she still loved her husband even while she had an affair with someone else: that her love for him became different, more like loving a sibling. I believed her. Who am I to argue that you can’t love more than one person at once, in different ways? Even in the same way?
Recently I had a conversation with four women on the subject: to each of us, it meant something different. I’m not sure what, specifically, it means for me when I say “I love you.” I think it means “I care about you a great deal, and I want you to know.” It doesn’t signify any sort of commitment or certainty. I’ve read that love should be a decision, not just a statement of emotion: that to truly love someone means you have committed, that you’ve decided to put that person first. To place their needs above years. I get that.
But I also can’t separate myself from the emotional significance. And it puzzles me to feel so attached to a phrase with such unclear meaning. Isn’t it so much more profound, so much more revealing, to show someone how you feel instead of telling them? Aren’t there specific actions–a kiss of the neck, a squeeze of the thigh, a sincere gaze–more powerful than the abstract words?
They should be. But I’m not sure they are. I tell my students they’re allowed to “tell” in nonfiction because it’s not enough to show readers what happened: you have to tell readers its’ significance–its’ specific significance to you. There are things that readers, that all of us, can infer. But there are also things we can’t–at least not reliably.
And maybe it’s the same in relationships: I think that those gestures of affection mean a certain thing, but I’m not sure they mean the same thing to the person giving them. I want them to tell me.
So the words alone and the gestures alone are both unsatisfying. But together, are they, even? It seems like the desire for both, for either, represents that for something we can’t ever truly find in relationships: certainty.
Amend that: we can’t every, truly, find it. But we can try.