Having a novel and three commissioned memoirs published in the past eight years has not left Barbara Carpenter much time to work on her own projects. Carpenter's work appears in multiple Chicken Soup for the Soul books, national magazines and other anthologies. Most current is "Roses and Thorns," The Memoirs of Isabel Ramos de Aguilar." Available on amazon,Mrs. Aguilar's story is an engrossing account of her life and escape from Cuba in the mid-1960s.
Show. Don’t Tell
By Barbara Carpenter
For twelve years I was a member of the Cedarhurst Writer’s Roundtable. Sessions were held on Tuesday nights. Our ages ranged from 14 to 80, and there were two instructors. Many of the members became published writers. Several of my short stories, written as assignments, became part of my first novel. Class members read short excerpts of their work each week, followed by critiques from fellow writers. “Show. Don’t tell.” was a helpful subject to me.
The preceding paragraph reads much like a small newspaper item. It tells basic facts, revealing nothing about my experience with a colorful assortment of people who became my friends. I would like to “show” them to you:
For twelve years, Tuesday nights found me and a dozen other would-be writers gathered around a large table inside the Cedarhurst Art Museum Annex. While the museum is a beautiful, pillared white building surrounded with sculptures and massive trees, the Annex is not. Cedarhurst grounds are extensive. They include an outdoor venue that boasts a classic pavilion where weddings, receptions and other social gatherings are booked months, even years in advance.
A tall, wrought-iron fence encompasses the grounds. Impressive flower gardens and trimmed shrubberies draw photographers, artists, patrons and visitors during all seasons.
On a street behind the museum, the Annex is a run-of-the-mill tan metal building, with gray concrete floors, suitable for art, pottery, sewing and crafting classes of all kinds, even minor art shows. The Writer’s Roundtable was held in one of those classrooms, a large one, complete with sinks, counters, multiple tables and supplies. Our diverse group thought it perfect for our needs.
Ages of those around the table ranged from 14 to 80. The majority, like me, at 48, fell in the middle. Improbable as it seems, we were compatible; and some close friendships resulted from our weekly meetings. The two instructors were memorable: a soft-spoken elderly woman with a crown of snow-white hair, worn in a classic bun; and a man of approximately the same age, who wore horn-rimmed glasses and tweed. They held court and presented lessons/discussions on all aspects of writing. Both of them were aspiring writers, so we all learned together.
Two of my soon-to-be-colleagues-in-arms and I decided early on that the gentleman was a “pseudo” intellectual, his assumed collegial persona as phony as the brown micro-suede elbow patches on his jackets. After delivering what I’m sure he considered a pithy paragraph, he often gazed at us over the tops of his glasses and added, rhetorically, “Don’t you know?” My two new friends and I dared not exchange glances following his discourses, not after the one time we made the mistake of doing just that. We had burst into simultaneous laughter, laughed more as we tried to extricate ourselves from and explain our inexplicable mirth.
We adults parented 14-year-old Sean, whose soft, brown hair curled over his forehead; matching brown eyes twinkled behind his wire-rimmed glasses. Suzy, quiet by nature, had long dark hair and green eyes that seemed to reflect her gentle personality, a writer of plays for her church and her children. Larry with the light blue eyes and slow accent that belied his birth and denied most of his life spent lived in Illinois, wrote side-splitting humor that often had us doubling over with laughter. Beautiful Betty, whose color-coordinated make-up, clothing, shoes, jewelry and be-jeweled cane to assist her MS-afflicted body, wrote flowery paragraphs and poetry that could have come from the pen of some Victorian miss. When I once whispered a question to Betty, wondering if her underwear coordinated with her clothing, she only laughed; but she and her sparkling blue eyes did not deny that my supposition was wrong.
And Melissa, our curly-red-haired, freckled, hazel-eyed genius who had grown up thinking she was “dumb,” until a loving teacher discovered that the girl was dyslexic, held all our hearts. Her epic stories about “The Kid,” a tomboy girl who ran across railroad trestle bridges with the boys, fell out of a tree and broke her arm, after successfully transferring baby birds back to their nest, who survived horrendous sexual abuse. I and the other one of our triangle suspected that “the kid” was actually Melissa and hoped we were wrong.
These are only a few of our number, each memorable in his/her own way.
We gained an amazing amount of practical writing skills, from improved grammar, punctuation, dialogue, paragraphing, wants and needs of publishers; and three of us had articles and stories published from some of our assigned writing. The first book of my series, “Starlight, Starbright…” came into being from a collection of my stories, also part of our weekly assignments. The group helped me decide upon a title for the series. Among the suggestions was “Redbud Prairie Tales,” which was nice; but since the town was called Redbud Grove, not quite suitable.
Our critiques of each other’s works were gentle, but pointed and helpful. We were there to learn, not to be flattered, not to hear only that our efforts were all wonderful and ready for publication. Our victories were shared ones, each of us happy for anyone who ecstatically held up a publisher’s check.
One of the important, possibly the most important lesson/skill, we learned was to “show, not tell” our stories. We learned to use all the senses: taste, touch, hear, see and smell. Recently I read a best-selling author’s newest book, a most disappointing several hours of time. He told a story, but he failed to show me the following: physical attributes of his characters, from hair and eye color, to stature, mannerisms, voice, accents; descriptions of the settings, the ambience, shops, brick or asphalt streets, the tone of the town; and it went from there, or did not, actually.
My goal in writing this little description about Cedarhurst Writer’s Roundtable is to bring life to the characters in my story, to show a glimpse of them, to hear their laughter, see their faces, perhaps to realize a bit of their dreams; for both instructors, Suzy, Betty, Larry and others of our number have passed away, the first being Larry, who died four months after the discovery of an inoperable brain tumor. He left multiple boxes of stories, some finished, some not; but all of us learned better how to bring a reader into our stories, to show them our experiences, not just tell them.