The basic principle of good narrative writing, the teacher informs us, is “Show, don’t tell.” In other words, use language that creates pictures in the reader’s mind, instead of the abstract terms we’d use in, for example, a legal document.
Usually a long silence follows, while the Southerners in the class are thinking, “Yeah. So, what else?”
It’s not that we think we’re know-it-alls, it’s just that we take the picture part for granted because, from our first day in the crib, we were baptized in verbal images from sunup to sundown.
Oops. See? It just slips out. An educated person would say we were “constantly exposed to images in speech.”
I know I’m prejudiced, but I think my grandparents’ use of figures of speech was a notch above the Southern norm, which is considerable to begin with.
Case in point: I was about 10 years old the first time I saw a bikini bathing suit in person, as opposed to in movies and TV shows. One summer our elderly neighbors had a teenaged granddaughter visiting from up north, and one day she donned her bikini and sunbathed in their back yard. The sight made a deep impression on me. So deep, in fact, that I was struck speechless. But not my grandfather.
“I tell you the truth,” he described it to my grandmother afterward, “that gal wasn’t wearing enough clothes to flag a train with.” In all the years since, I can never see a skimpy bathing suit without picturing its wearer at the old Dora railroad station trying to flag down a train. Such is the power of language.
The first time my grandfather test-drove a new eight-cylinder Pontiac, he didn’t remark afterward that the car had “above-average acceleration”; he just grinned and said, “Stepping on that booger’s gas pedal will slide your hat to the back of your head!”
One time I drove him to a doctor visit where he had some very painful medical tests. As we left afterward, the receptionist called to him cheerfully, “We’ll see you in three months, Mr. Brasfield!”
As soon as we were out of her earshot he said to me, “If they see me again, they’ll have to catch me first.”
My grandfather was a broad-minded man, with a few exceptions. One exception was that he was irritated to see women wearing “flashy” clothes and jewelry. One morning at Sunday church services, the lady who played piano was wearing a new pair of stylish, bright-colored earrings that were, in fairness, a good bit bigger than average for Shanghi, Alabama, in those days. He gritted his teeth but didn’t say anything until we were driving home from church.
“Did you see her strut up there to the piano,” he asked me and my grandmother, “wearing them loud ear-bobs the size of hubcaps?”
Till this day, I still can’t see a pair of oversized ladies’ earrings without imagining...
But, you get the picture. And I’ll always be thankful for the writing course my grandfather gave me.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos, and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com and is archived afterward on his website. His first book, the collection of columns “I Left My Heart in Shanghi, Alabama” will be reprinted in an anniversary edition this summer by NewSouth.