MY WALK ON THE BEACH WITH ANTON
A Craft Essay on Connecting the Body to the Brain
by Billy Dean
He put his book down and looked at me over the top of his glasses. “I never said that, Billy.”
“Said what, Anton?”
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
“Oh, that. Yeah, someone turned what you actually said into a show-don’t-tell rule. On behalf of all the writers who should know better, I apologize. If they’d read your stories, they’d notice how skillfully you balanced showing and telling.”
“Well, I’m not turning over in my grave about it. It’s human nature to follow rules absolutely and to take things out of context. But I wish I had said that. Applied skillfully, it’s good advice.”
“And less absolute,” I said, “than Ezra Pound’s ‘Go in fear of abstractions.’ or Wallace Stevens’ ‘No ideas but in things.’ Both imply that we should always show and never tell.”
Anton cocked his head.
“Oh, of course, you didn’t know Pound or Stevens. They started a movement in the early 1900’s that shunned abstractions in favor of concrete images.”
“Not necessarily a bad idea, Billy.”
“True, and their poetry was highly regarded, but can you imagine Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” without the word hope?”
“No, and it gave wings to original thinking because Emily shunned writing about an experience in favor of giving the experience to her readers.”
Anton saw the confusion on my face. “You like the word ‘hope’ in Emily’s poem. Do you know why?”
“Not really, it just seems to fit perfectly with everything else in her poem.”
“It fits because Emily grounded a meaning-oriented concept in a sensory-oriented experience. A bird is something. Hope is merely about something.”
“But everyone knows what hope means, Anton. How does Emily’s bird change that?”
“You won’t find the meaning of a word in its definition, Billy. You find it in the context of something real and specific. Until then, a definition is just words floating in your head. Emily’s poem doesn’t define hope. It shows us what hope means by connecting it to a bird.”
“Ah,” I replied, nodding my head, “a bird that keeps on singing and flying despite the ups and downs of life.”
“Exactly. And her poem works both ways. Without her bird, hope would just be a word. Without hope, her bird would just be a bird. But Emily weaved them together so elegantly, so intricately, that her poem takes us beyond a mere sum of a word and a bird.”
Anton paused, waiting to see if what he had said was sinking in. It was.
“And that moves the word ‘hope’ and the word ‘bird’ from our heads to our hearts.”
Anton pointed up at his head, then tapped his chest with his fingers. As he did, a deeper understanding of what writing is came over me, and what writers must do for their readers.
“Keep in mind,” he continued, “that every word of a story is just an abstract handle to carry the idea of something to your readers. We do not want our readers to know they are reading words. We want them to experience the meaning of our words. So choose words that will evoke thoughts and feeling in your readers by not restricting yourself to showing or telling, abstractions or imagery.”
“You see things so clearly, Anton.”
He stood and smiled. “Let’s go down to the beach where we can discuss this without disturbing the others here in the library.”
We took our books to the main desk. Mine was a collection of his short stories. His was “War and Peace” by Tolstoy. He must have read the surprise on my face because he grinned, and said, “I never found the time to finish it.”
At the beach, he removed his shoes, rolled his pants over his knees, and walked into the sand glistening with the coming and going of waves. I watched him pick up one seashell after another, then tossed each back into the churning surf. He reached down, picked up another shell, and waved me over.
“These shells,” he began, “abandoned here at the water’s edge, were once homes for mussels, periwinkles and mollusks. This one is a nautilus, one of nature’s most elegant, ingenious designs.”
“Yet odd,” I replied, “that the shell and the creature are so different. The spiral pattern is so naturally beautiful, but the creature, well, its tentacles come out of its head.”
Anton nodded, then got a faraway look in his eyes. “And odd that we treat the other animals here on Earth as aliens, as if they were creatures from another planet.”
He placed the nautilus in my hands. “How would you convey the fact that this was home to a creature very different than us? More importantly, how would you evoke the feeling of being the creature who lived in this shell?”
I looked down at the nautilus, knowing he had transferred the problem and its solution to me.
“Some mix of showing and telling, right?”
Anton didn’t say anything, so I assumed I was on a roll.
“Show readers things they can see. Tell readers about things they can’t see. Show important things with dialog and action. Tell less important things with descriptions and settings.”
“Let me give you some advice, Billy.”
“I’m all ears, Anton.”
“You will need more than your ears. Definitions tend to polarize issues into one category or another. So writers tend to think in terms of showing or telling, as if they were mutually exclusive kinds of writing, and that leads to the erroneous conclusion that telling is for ears and showing is for eyes.”
“We have six senses. Five for the body. One for the brain.”
“Six? Oh, you’ve added our spiritual or intuitive sense.”
“No, I am referring to the sensory nature of our bodies and the semantic nature of our brains. Do you recall earlier at the library when we talked about grounding concepts in concrete things?”
“Yes, you opened my understanding by explaining the difference between a meaning-oriented concept and a sensory-oriented experience.”
“Images versus abstractions. Body versus brain. Let’s do a little experiment to clarify the difference. What color do you think of when I say fire truck?”
“Red,” I answered.
“Now what color do you see?” Anton reached into the pocket of his shirt, and, like pulling a rabbit from a hat, held up a card with the word ‘BLUE” written on it.
“Blue, of course.”
Anton couldn’t hide the ‘Gotcha!’ look on his face. “What color do you see?” he asked, with an emphasis on the word color.
“Oh boy, I’m an idiot. The word is blue but the color is red.”
“You’re not an idiot. Your brain, like most people’s brain, including mine, is strongly influenced by what something means rather than what it looks like.”
I stood there thinking how my brain had dominated my body for years, perhaps since birth.
“That doesn’t mean our writing should reflect the body’s focus on senses rather than our brain’s focus on meaning. That would make our writing all showing and no telling. Better that our writing breath with all six senses so our readers are both involved and informed.”
I nodded my head but knew my brain was nodding too.
“First, however, you must be involved and informed. Do you recall me saying earlier that we tend to think of the non-human creatures here on Earth as if they were aliens, creatures from another planet?”
I nodded again, wondering where he was going with this.
“Let’s pretend a flying saucer–”
Anton stopped to watch my jaw drop and my eyes widen.
“People have been seeing strange objects in the sky for thousands of years, Billy. Even in Russia. So let’s get on with this one. It lands here on the beach, and an alien debarks from his craft and asks, ‘What is a nautilus, Earthman?’ How would you answer him?”
“That’s ingenious, Anton. Shiny nautilus. Silver saucer. Creatures from the sea. Aliens from the sky.”
“Thank you, but let’s get on with your answer.
“I should put it in the alien’s hands, right? As you did for me?”
“That would be a good place to start. Give your readers the thing itself with word pictures they can complete with their body and their brain.”
“Word pictures.” I said, “That sounds… I mean, looks like showing.”
“You want your readers to be involved and informed, not consciously aware that they are reading words. So don’t tromp through your story trying to identify whether you told your readers something or whether you showed them something. Focus on the effect you want your writing to have on their imagination and their intellect.”
He paused to lock eyes with me, as if to measure the effect he was having on me.
“And before your readers can complete what you began, you must have something to begin with, something grounded in all six of your senses. Start with this nautilus. Let it touch your body and your brain. Do you see it creeping up on prey? Can you smell the seven seas? Is it whispering something strange and wonderful? Can you hear its angst and ecstasy?”
Anton turned abruptly and walked into the waves lapping at the shore. Nearby, a reef bell began clanging, as if it were calling him into the sea. And then its clanging became my alarm clock calling me out of the dream.
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes but knew I couldn’t rub this dream from my memory. Unlike most dreams, which disappear, as Anton did, it would remain a lucid lesson that readers will be involved and informed if our writing breathes with showing and telling–showing to stir the imagination with sensory images aimed at the body, and telling to engage the intellect with information aimed at the brain.
I pulled the blankets back to roll out of bed, but suddenly, in my mind’s eye, I saw a Martian standing on the beach holding a Nautilus in his hands. I was no longer asleep and wanted to get on with my day. But my dream had ended without answering Anton’s challenge to evoke the feeling of being the creature who lived in the shell. So I embraced the vision as an opportunity to build a word bridge between myself and this alien; this is the same chasm that separates writers and readers until they connect their hearts and minds in a meaningful way. I would indulge myself in another dream to answer the alien’s question…
“What is this, Earthman?” he asked, pointing to the shell in his hands.
“That’s a N-a-u-t-i-l-u-s,” I said, struggling to pronounce the sound of each letter.
“No. I mean what is it?”
I felt the distance between him and me shrink. He wanted more than a name or pronunciation. He wanted to experience the thing itself.
He only had three fingers, and one of them was much longer than the others, so I hesitated slightly before saying, “Well, you could touch it with your, uh, finger.”
He ran that long finger along the shell, tracing the spiral from end to end. He said nothing but his face, despite being from another planet, had a perplexed look.
“As the nautilus grows,” I explained, “it builds new chambers for itself, always in a spiral pattern.”
He held the shell up to his face and looked inside as if trying to see the chambers.
“Are you saying a creature lived in this shell?”
“Yes, the shell is empty now, but it was home to the creature who lived in it.”
He cocked his head as if in thought. “So the shell and the creature, when they were together, is called a N-a-u-t-i-l–u-s?” He pronounced every letter as I had done.
I felt the distance between us shrink even more.
I touched my hand to my ear and said, “Put it next to your ear and tell me what you hear.”
He did, then pointed that long finger of his at the ocean. “I hear that.”
“Yes,” I replied, “and they lived together out there.”
He turned abruptly, as Anton had, and walked through the waves lapping at the shore and into the deeper water swirling with foam and kelp. He had no shoes to remove or pants to roll up, so I didn’t bother with mine, and joined him in the water.
I placed my hands on the Nautilus. He looked up and locked eyes with me. “I’m not trying to take it away from you. I want us both to see and feel where it lived, and how it moved and captured prey.”
“This is good, Earthman. Together we will pretend that we are the creature who lived in this shell.”
We were truly on the same page now–perhaps the same paragraph.
“The creature propelled itself like this.” I leaned forward and blew my breath into the alien’s face as I moved the shell towards him. He rocked back, then recovered and blew his breath at me. We took turns blowing air out of our lungs while moving the shell forward in the water.
“The nautilus moves through the water using a kind of jet propulsion. He pulls water into his shell to move forward and blows it out through a tube below his tentacles to move backward.”
“The Nautilus is kind of ugly compared to its shell. It’s got dozens of long spidery legs sticking out of its head to grab things it wants to eat.”
I moved the shell toward the alien’s legs and made a growling noise.
“Ah, you are making funny with me, but I can see the creature grabbing its prey.”
Neither of us said anything. After a long but pleasant pause, the alien turned his face toward mine. Despite the differences in our faces, I could tell he was looking more through me than at me.
“I am sad the creature no longer lives in its shell. Perhaps that was what I heard when it was against my ear. Not the sound of your ocean and its waves, but the creature’s lament.”
We were no longer just on the same page, or the same paragraph. We were walking through the same words of every sentence in the book. Our connection had moved from our bodies and brains to our hearts.
“Yes,” I said, “and the creature left his lament in this shell when he departed to swim in other seas.”
“Here on Earth, there are seven of them, and I sometimes embrace them as worlds beyond this one. You, my Martian friend, are evidence there are.”
“On Mars, there are no seas, but I will not forget yours, the creature who lived in it, or you and your dream of other worlds.”
Billy Dean is a retired technical writer with degrees in English and Engineering. His essays, how-to guides, poems, and stories have been published in trade journals and magazines, and on the Internet. His goals are to craft prose and poetry loaded with clues for shaping and navigating the sticky web of real life.