Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Show Don't Tell

Last night I started a new fiction class at the Writing Salon. We discussed the writer's mantra of show-don't-tell, particularly with respect to setting and emotion. Our homework for this week is to go somewhere and just observe for 15 minutes, and then describe the setting and our accompanying emotion -- without actually telling the reader what the setting is or how we are feeling. For example, if you're angry, you'd write about the physical symptoms of anger -- flushed face, clenched jaw -- instead of saying, I was angry. And we were supposed to keep in mind all five senses. I did the exercise today, and I thought I'd share:

The glass security booth is unmanned, so I glide past the booth and into the room, like I belong there. There is no one inside. There are 50 wood-and-steel chairs lined up along the walls, and not one person is sitting in them. There are pizza-sized tables sandwiched between some of the chairs, and on them are magazines – People, Newsweek, Time. The magazines are stacked neatly, and many of them are bright and unwrinkled. Some of the magazines are even fanned evenly across the table, like you’d see in a staged house. A flat-panel TV hangs above the chairs, and Wolf Blitzer is on the screen in HD. The volume is turned up and Wolf’s voice echoes through the vacuous room. Squares of bright colors hang in measured spots along the white walls. Upon closer inspection I see they are magnified pictures of microscopic life: DNA, cells and viruses. The prints are mounted behind heavy pieces of protruding glass, giving the images a 3-D quality.

I sit in one of the chairs against the wall and cross a leg over a knee. It was hot outside but in here it is cool. The air has a filtered quality to it, but not in an artificial way; it’s like being under a grove of trees in Muir Woods. I can hear humming from an air-conditioning system, but I cannot feel any breeze, which is perfect because I’m wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

Above me there are dozens of lights hanging on parallel steel cables, spanning the ceiling in deliberate haphazardness, like you’d see in an architect’s office. A skylight brings in abundant natural light, and I close my eyes and turn my face up to it. There is a warm sensation spreading in my stomach, the kind you get when you slip into a Jacuzzi. When I open my eyes again I lean over and look at the floor. I can see my reflection in the panels of shiny, checkered tile. The floor looks like it should smell of antiseptic or bleach, but there is no smell to the room at all, except for my own sweat, which has now dried on my forehead.

A formidable steel door with a person-length glass window marks the entrance to the rest of the facility. Beside the door, on the wall, is an electronic card reader; and next to that, a hand sanitizer dispenser. Hanging below the sanitizer is a sleek curve of plastic -- to capture any gel that misses the hands. The whole apparatus looks like it was designed by Apple Computer.

Through the glass of the door, I can see multicolored equipment – tubes and gages and tanks -- resting on a gurney. Everything laid out in neat rows. Two women in blue scrubs saunter past the door and out of site. The images beyond the door seem exceptionally sharp, and it occurs to me that my contact lens prescription must be right on.

A voice calls over an intercom, paging a doctor whose name I can’t quite catch.

I pick up a People magazine and flip idly through the pictures of celebrities. My breathing is measured and calm. My heart rate has slowed since I sat down; it seems to have recovered from my walk. The leg I have over my knee is beginning to feel tingly and numb, so I switch legs. My eyelids feel heavy as I sink lower in the chair.

I am jolted by the sound of ragged coughing. Is it a patient, an emergency? No, it’s just the security guard, returning to his post.

I wrote this in the emergency room at UCSF Med Center (No, I'm okay -- I just went there to write). It was not the setting I expected to find nor the emotion I expected to feel.

1 comment:

  1. Going to an emergency room and writing about the feeling of the space is very interesting. It was not until the 3rd paragraph that I realized what the space you were describing actually was. I enjoyed the description but wonder if you used too many words to describe the space? I suppose you could spend an entire book describing a space or just a few sentences...depends on what the goal of the spatial description is.