The Underrated Magic of “Telling” In Creative Nonfiction

by Meghan Modafferi

Surely you’ve heard the common refrain, “show, don’t tell.” And it’s good advice, I’ll admit, as most of us are awfully used to the telling, and could use some practice with the showing. But in my view, the real magic comes when we sneak the two together like teenagers under the bleachers, interlaced so imperceptibly that even the most persnickety writing teacher couldn’t parse them entirely.

Because if you look closely enough, there are metaphors in the real world. If you observe, for example, that Riker’s Island is the largest jail on the continent yet it’s missing from most New York City maps, that’s an observation, yes. The empty space on the map is something you could show me. But it tells me something, too. There’s symbolic meaning embedded in the geography, in the cartography, of this place. And while perhaps you shouldn’t tell me exactly what to think about it, surely you are telling me something through the carefully selected details you chose to surface. It’s a tell about you, in other words.

We can never represent every detail, after all. So, we show a snapshot of reality — and we show, inadvertently or not, a glimpse into ourselves. And what a gift that is — to be allowed for a moment to see through your eyes.

So please: tell me. Tell me a little about what it feels like back there, behind those eyes, looking at the same thing as me, while inevitably looking at something different. Tell me what it brings up for you. Show me not only the scene in front of us, but the scene from ten years ago when you were there with your dad, who’s since passed away. Tell me the history of this place, and let me in on the questions you’re still mulling over despite weeks of research.

Creative nonfiction, and perhaps all writing to some extent, is about this: generosity with what we choose to show, and tell, about ourselves.

Meghan Modafferi is a writer and multimedia storyteller whose work has been published by National Geographic, Slate, and the NPR affi liate WUNC. She has taught writing and podcasting courses at Georgetown University.

Learn From Sarah: In difficult times, writing about ordinary things that delight us can be a radical act of care. Inspired by poet Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, this class will focus on creative nonfiction writing, grounded in careful observation of the world and its little pleasures. We will explore several examples of the form with special attention to the balance between darkness and light, showing and telling. Participants will be guided through prompts to support the development of their own original work. Register here.