‘Show, Don’t Tell’: A Note To Myself To Stop Moaning And Start Leading
Commonplace Newsletter #53
It was all going so well. It’s just before 10am on Sunday the first of August here in England. I woke up a few hours ago, had coffee, listened to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, had a pleasant chat on the sofa about this and that. The kind of scene you might see in an advert for an out of town furniture warehouse. Interest free for the first year, terms and conditions apply.
So there I sat, contented, comfortable, oblivious. A few minutes ago, feeling motivated, I thought I would give this weeks newsletter essay a final read-through and spellcheck. I wrote it much earlier in the week, the Premium Subscribers who got a preview of it in our secret Discord group seemed to like it. All was well. Or so I thought.
And then I read it back. It was what I claimed to be my final stab at discussing ‘content’. It was angry, this essay, it was amusing in a very cynical way, it carried an undertone of superiority wherein I as author sneeringly look down on contemporary audiences and the ‘content-creators’ who spoon-fed them largely unhelpful, untested truisms. It was good, prose-wise. But it had to go. The bitterness was unbecoming. Ugly.
So I just highlighted it all a moment ago and pressed delete. And then I wrote the above paragraphs. And now, with the coffee starting to wear off, I have under four hours to write something brand new, from scratch. Or else I’ll miss the deadline that I have consistently kept every single Sunday for over a year.
In an instant I am fifteen again, desperately trying to pull a homework assignment out of the bag at the eleventh hour.
Let’s see if I make it…
Talking (And Speaking) About Writing
Moss No. What do you mean? Have I talked to him about this
Aaronow Yes. I mean are you actually talking about this, or are we just...
Moss No, we're just...
Aaronow We're just "talking" about it.
Moss We're just speaking about it. As an idea.
Aaronow As an idea.
Aaronow We're not actually talking about it.
Aaronow Talking about it as a...
Aaronow As a robbery.
Moss As a "robbery?" No.
~David Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross
I quoted the above scene from Glengarry Glen Ross in the original version of this essay. The one I deleted. Which means I’ve already lost precious minutes in having to re-find that quote and then copy and paste it and get it formatted all right. And in truth, I’m not even sure how integral it will be to this piece. I just like it, is all.
And quoting that film provides an opportunity for me to tell you to go and watch Glengarry Glen Ross if you haven’t already. And if you have already seen it then see it again. It stands up to repeat viewing.
So anyway. The scene quoted above- where the two down-on-their-luck salesman are discussing breaking in to their office to steal the good real estate leads- is one I think of often. Especially when I find myself scrolling through online content about writing. I read the tweet, the thread, the mini-essay in question and invariably think ‘Oh this guy is just speaking about writing, as an idea, he’s not actually talking about it.’
Which is the problem with online discourse. About anything. Certain ideas take hold often because they sound right and this then leads to virality which in turn perpetuates said idea. And on and on it goes. But this is a problem if you actually know something about something.
For example, the idea that eating fat makes you fat sounds right. It’s neat and it’s shareable, that idea. But it’s not as simple as that. There is nuance and caveats and research that argues the contrary and real life n=1 self-experimentation that argues the contrary. And so on and so forth.
And this example is something from the (at least ostensibly) more objective and verifiable world of biology. Imagine the chaos that is the ephemeral idea of writing and storytelling. A field wherein even most of it’s all-time greatest practitioners evoke crazy concepts like Muses and Daimons to explain their process. Imagine how easy it is for someone to just speak about writing then, as an idea, speak about it and not talk about it.
And imagine my frustration at encountering such speaking. Encountering it every single time I’m online. It’s enough to make a guy write a 2000 word angry screed which he then deletes hours before publication because it makes him sound half-deranged. Like Daffy Duck when Bugs Bunny finally pushes him beyond the threshold of his tolerance and he snaps and starts bouncing around the place, wide-eyed and making funny yipping noises.
Man, I wouldn’t want to be that guy.
Junk Food For The Mind
Okay. So people online speak about things rather than talk about them. They speak hypothetically and with no skin in the game but the bold certainty of their optimised-for-engagement pronouncements gives what they say the veneer of truth and authority. To those who don’t know any better. Will you grant me that for the sake of argument?
I hope so because to my mind at least it is a big piece of the puzzle. See, in the deleted draft I ranted on about the idiocy of contemporary audiences. ‘Aphorism-addled imbeciles’, I think I said, or words to that effect. Which in the sober light of day reads as being unduly harsh and mean. Although there is just a speck of truth to that. But what I realise now is that the audience is not to blame, or at least they can cite some very credible mitigating circumstances.
Like I said, the online discourse is dominated by speakers. And they optimise for engagement. For palatability. It’s junk food for the mind- moreish, addictive, compelling, but in no way satiating. The body has a seemingly never-ending capacity for junk food because the stuff is devoid of nutrients and so you keep eating and eating because the body never gets what it needs from it. You keep consuming in vain. And I believe the same is true of the mind when it comes to ‘content’ and scrolling. You keep consuming because you never get your fill. You are never satisfied.
But at least with junk food your appearance changes and over time you can visibly see that something has gone awry. With mental junk food, not so much. It’s far more insidious, this consumption of memes and glib viral truisms.
And the thing I realise, is that this is not a new problem. I might moan about atrophying audience sophistication and lack of discernment, about how no one seems to read anything but recently published and bestselling breezy self-help volumes- which is just content in paperback from- but the process has been gradual. The corporate, siloed, centralised social media which is the primary mental junk food delivery system has been mainstream to the point of omnipresence for well over a decade now.
And here I am having the temerity to mock some well-meaning kid because he reads books I consider stupid and has (to my mind) poor taste in literature and cinema. Even though his whole life he has been inundated with the mechanisms of mental junk food and nothing else- algorithms, limited streaming services, a mainstream critical class that seem to have all willingly kowtowed to the Monolithic Mouse.
It’s a sad state of affairs. But moaning is pointless. I know because I’ve tried. This may surprise you, but pointing out the deficiencies of Twitter on Twitter does not make people warm to you. It’s possible to be right in the wrong way. It’s possible to repel the people you are trying to help in the very process of trying to help them. I say this all from personal experience. And this is why, as rapidly as the clock is ticking, that the sneering and finger-pointing prior version of this essay had to be deleted.
‘Show, Don’t Tell’ as the Solution
All of this prompts the obvious question of what should be done. I’ve been pondering it for a while. At times I have- in the spirit of trying to be useful- played the online Fortune Cookie Olympics, the tweeting optimised-for-engagement little nuggets about storytelling into the void game. It was useless, mostly, and if not quite soul-destroying then at least soul-diminishing. In retrospect it’s like producing mental junk food but fortifying it with a few different vitamins in mostly pointless doses.
It does little if anything to help reverse the seemingly ever worsening state of contemporary attention spans and contemporary audience sophistication. You can’t play that game and come away unscathed, is the hard won lesson.
So the solution, if indeed there is one, is to show and don’t tell. That’s a textbook piece of writing advice that is in actuality a great piece of life advice. It’s the same sentiment as ‘be the change’ and ‘walk the walk’ and so forth. There is nothing really to be gained from me telling you how supposedly stunted and moronic the average contemporary consumer of content is. What good does it do? It just polarises between an in-group and an out-group of some supposed Other who are ‘not gonna make it’, as the crypto kids say. We all pat ourselves on the back for ‘getting it’ but nothing actually changes. We achieve nothing. That’s what comes from merely telling.
But showing is different. Showing involves simply creating something better and leading by example. Letting your life be your sermon and having your body of work be your implied argument. Rather than moaning about what is bad (however valid your argument is), you strive to make something better. You define your stance by what you create, not just by what you are against.
And so that’s what I’m going to do in regards to both the discourse around storytelling and also in regard to the nature of what algorithms recommend we watch and read and listen to. I’m going to simply shut up and provide a better alternative.
I’ll end with an analogy. I get meat delivered from a local farm, I have done for a couple of years now. Now, when I open up the box and Tetris the packs of produce into my freezer I do not find any literature moaning about the state of the fast food industry. No polemics on feeding animals grain and filling them full of antibiotics and keeping them in tiny cages and so forth. I’m sure the local farmers I buy from have strong opinions on such things. But they don’t have to tell me. Because the difference in their product speaks for itself.
They focus on what they do, not on what the food ecosystem at large is doing. They haven’t got time to worry about that. They have their own loyal customers to take care of, people who they have taught to expect only the best, only the real thing.
And that, simply put, is what I want to do with fiction, essays, reviews and teachings about the nature of writing.
So there is now a moratorium on moaning about Content and the state of online discourse.
Like I said ‘show, don’t tell.’
Until next time,
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I made the deadline, as you can see. Made it with 17 minutes to spare.
"Showing involves simply creating something better and leading by example." This.
Also resonate with bemoaning the state of our broken culture - I do that too often. Thanks, tom.
Although I liked the previous essay very much, the ideas and the way it was written, I am actually glad you wrote a new one, Tom. Let me explain why.
The new one makes a similar point but in a different way supporting the philosophy I have been trying to employ myself. In one of my recent pieces, ‘The Innermost self’, I wrote about erasing the grumpy self and replacing him with a new one, the visionary self, open-minded about the present and optimistic about the future (and not grumpy). The whole essay was my "showing" attempt (It's my favourite by far). The reason behind the erosion was I found out that bitterness and grumpiness weren't helping me nor potentially anyone else. Even if I stated the problem correctly, the subtle solution or signs of it were missing and, as you wrote, it was more "telling" than "showing".
I like to compare it with preaching vs martyring (potentially dumb analogy from many angles but I like it and will repeat it regardless). A preacher tells you what to believe in while a martyr sacrifices himself in order to demonstrate, to show. It's not only better conceptually but more effective practically. And not because it's more expository but also because of the empathy. It’s easier to empathise with the martyr because you can see what was and is at stake and can project it on yourself much easier.
To wrap up my train of thoughts here... I still think the deleted essay was a brilliantly written piece on an important topic. But I realised one thing after reading its new incarnation. Why I like today's essay much more is it keeps the spirit of what I truly believe in. It is about the Soaring Twenties and not about the Moaning Twenties (pardon). Nevertheless, you did everything right, this essay couldn't exist without the previous one and now it is better and more inspiring. So, thank you! I am with you on “Show, Don’t Tell” 🤝. Cheers!