Continuing with Davidman’s letter to H.H. Lewis: “These defects [see the previous post] are thrown in sharp relief in your work by your habit of mixing styles. You will use the funniest, the least dignified of slang phrases in the same line with some of this pompous old stuff; and consequently the slang looks cruder and the fancy language sissier than ever. Once you pick a style, stick to it. It’s like the tone of your voice; it adds a great deal of meaning to the words themselves, and if you changed tones five times in speaking a sentence you’d confuse everybody.”
While Davidman is writing specifically about poetry, her observation applies to all genres of communication; though I suppose in post-modernity many people might not notice – so accustomed are we to discontinuity and disjunction and disharmony. It seems that communicators and artists and musicians must be asking today, “How much noise can we make?” when engaging in what passes today for creativity. When I was a child we had “dot-to-dot” books (do they still publish them?). You drew a line from 1 to 2 to 3 and so forth and when you were done you had an image of an elephant or a dog or a house or car. In post-modernity a dot-to-dot book need not result in a discernable image. In today’s milieu a speaker or writer can change tones five times in speaking a sentence and few people will notice, so accustomed are we to our disjointed world.
Davidman continues, “Abusive epithets have no place in poetry; they belong on the back fence. Instead of calling Hitler a so-and-so, the poet must show Hitler doing something which at once makes it clear to everybody that he is a so-and-so; then you must have proved your case without even needing to state it.”
This is a tough rule to adhere to because it requires discipline and sweat and merciless editing. It is so much easier just to get to the point and call a spade a spade without describing the spade; it is easier but it is not memorable – not memorable for the audience and not memorable for the communicator.
When the communicator forces himself to show and not tell he is likely to gain a deeper understanding of what he is talking about, likely to discover nuances he didn’t see, likely to walk down paths previously hidden. Once the communicator takes the journey himself then he can describe the journey to others, once the communicator has seen something then he can show it to others.
Familiar territory is dangerous territory; we think we know the familiar and we think we can walk right by it and tell others about it without slowing down, stopping, and pondering what we think we know. This is one reason why working with children is both challenging and enlightening at the same time; it is challenging in that we need to communicate descriptively, we can’t take shortcuts by just telling them things (or at least we shouldn’t take shortcuts); it is rewarding in that as we force ourselves to describe subjects and objects we see new images which lead to our own greater understanding. Adults let us get away with laziness, children don’t. If children don’t see what we’re saying they’ll let us know one way or the other – by words, by body language, or by looking for something else to do.
A couple of years ago I read a popular biography of Dietrich Bonheoffer, at times when the author was dealing with Hitler and Hitler’s ideas he resorted to what Davidman was talking about in her letter to H.H. Lewis; I recall a passage about Mein Kampf; Hitler’s book was dismissed out-of-hand without any description of what Hitler wrote in the book – this was not helpful and it was lazy…it was also poor writing. There was so much of this type of thing in the Bonheoffer biography that I felt I was watching a DVD with gouges in it, stopping here and skipping there – shame on the editor.
Back to the danger of the familiar; some years ago when preaching through the Gospel of Mark I came to Mark 12:28 – 31 in which Jesus says that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. I’d known that passage since I was fifteen years old, it was one of the first passages I learned by heart after meeting Jesus, but preparing to preach that passage by showing what the passage meant required more sweat and pumping iron than just about any passage I’ve ever taught; one of the most familiar passages to me required the highest degree of work, of dogged determination, of perseverance. I also knew that while my audience may not know the passage by heart that it was a passage whose concepts they had heard and therefore were likely inoculated against – I needed to take them on a journey to explore and see the passage. The result was a message that I could see and illustrate and could show to others.* If you were to put me on a plane land me in an unfamiliar land without Bible and notes, by God’s grace I could preach and teach that passage because I’ve seen it and showed it to others. I like to think that my listeners were turned into viewers that morning and that they could also share the images of that message with others. If my listeners haven’t seen then they haven’t heard.
Joy Davidman understood the difference between telling and showing; perhaps this is one reason she was a gifted collaborator with both William Gresham and C.S. Lewis; Lewis’s Till We Have Faces would likely not be the book it is without Davidman’s partnership. Her advice is a bastion for those who strive to maintain clear and meaningful communication in an age of incoherence; her advice was needful when she wrote it in 1943, it is indispensable today.
*The message title is; A Ladder or a Loveseat? Is our relationship with God based on climbing a ladder to earn His acceptance, or is it sitting on a loveseat with Him in Christ, loving and being loved?