“Show, Don’t Tell” Doesn’t Always Work, Especially with the Coronavirus

The other day, I wrote a post here on my website about getting ready for the coronavirus tsunami to hit. It’s much closer now but the world still resembles the one I always knew, except that today the toy store in our neighborhood is closed, as are the interior decoration boutique, the hair salon, and the kitchen store. The restaurants are only permitted delivery and takeout, but the wonderful people at the grocery store and the pharmacy are still somehow getting to work each morning so that our neighborhood doesn’t collapse under generalized panic. We’ve already embraced smaller panics: the Tylenol panic, the hand-sanitizer and the toilet paper ones, among others. But this is the way it must be for now, because every time we get too close to another human being, we create a bridge that the virus can cross, in one direction or another.

Yesterday I received some constructive feedback from a reader of my story, noting that the underlining assumption of my essay seemed to be that the point of social distancing and isolation is to avoid catching the disease. But, my reader said, I was missing a larger point: that the scope of social distancing is to avoid transmitting the disease to other people. Better still: the point is to delay transmitting the disease to other people. That’s how I should’ve framed my essay.

Whenever I receive feedback on my writing, I tend to assume it’s my fault if my message didn’t get across. I take responsibility if the things I tried to show through my writing weren’t expressed clearly enough. In my previous post, I tried to show what life in Seattle was like and what I thought about the current situation developing here and soon all over the U.S. But I failed at least one reader.

So let me try to fix that. Do I really understand that it’s more important that other people don’t catch the virus than it is that I don’t catch it? Should I show or tell my answer to this question?

Cross-sectional model of a coronavirus. Wikipedia

Tell: I worry more about other people catching and transmitting the virus than about my catching and transmitting it. As a writer working from home, I live at a dead end of social interactions. My chances of catching the virus right now are small, especially with my kids and my husband staying home, too. If I catch it, I’ll probably be just fine in a month’s time since I have no underlying medical conditions and my age group is not at high risk. I probably won’t burden our local hospital and I won’t steal a ventilator from someone else. Also, if other people—many other people—don’t catch it, then the virus will stop spreading and our lives might go back to normal, whatever “normal” will be then.

Show: Imagine I got the virus and now I’m in quarantine in my bedroom, leaving my two young children in the care of their father. I’ll be ill with a fever for up to ten days. Every day, my husband delivers meals on a tray at my door, complete with a disinfectant spray for when I pass back the dishes. My kids come to my door, slip “I love you!” notes under it, and sit crisscross-apple sauce on the floor while telling me what they did during their day of remote schooling. I hear them playing the piano upstairs, the same tunes repeated as they practice from their music sheets. A burst of ukulele wakes me up from my feverish slumber once in a while. A shout of frustration at other times. Then, on a beautiful sunny morning, I feel better, but I must still stay in isolation to make sure I’m not still shedding the virus while I recover. Now that I’m no longer feeling sick, I’m sick and tired of the space I live in, the books I have on my nightstand, and the pounds I’ve accumulated by not moving for weeks.

In this case, it seems to me that showing doesn’t convey the direness of the situation. Telling it like it is: If I get sick, I’ll be of no use to anyone and I’ll pass all my parental responsibilities to other people. My in-laws are in the high-risk group, so they won’t be able to help, so it’s all on my husband, who also has a job to worry about while working from home. If he gets sick, too, then our kids are on their own. Just kidding—we’ll make them sick, too, but won’t be able to be as responsive to their needs as we should. We’ll be four people stuck in the house for at least a month as we pass the disease from one to another, unable to go grocery shopping, but hopefully still able to receive packages by mail. If Amazon warehouse workers stay healthy.

In my writing, I always struggle with how much to show of a character’s inner landscape in order to allow the reader to feel what my character is feeling. When I was younger, I used to start from the premise that I shouldn’t lecture the reader—the reader gets it. Many craft instructors taught me the same thing: your readers are smart and sophisticated; don’t talk down to them. Over the years, though, through countless hours of critique and revision I’ve learned that the same smart and sophisticated readers are also busy, frazzled, and if they have dogs or kids at home, they might skip a whole paragraph of my writing while trying to stop the dogs from eating the kids or vice versa. Then they’ll yell at me in margin-notes that I wasn’t clear enough in my writing and that my “showing” was ambiguous.

In the case of the coronavirus, I now want to make sure I tell you what I think about it. COVID-19 is bad. Bad for you, bad for your family and for your neighbors. We need to slow down its spread by not allowing it to use us as a bridge to others. COVID-19 is not like the flu, no matter what our lying president says. As if the flu were a walk in the park… Last time I got the flu, the year I moved to the U.S., I was so sick I fell on my bathroom floor and I couldn’t get up for quite a while. I just lay there thinking how ridiculous it was to work so hard to earn my new job at Microsoft and then move halfway across the planet, all on my own, just to be killed by a stupid germ for which I had no immunity given that I had grown up in a different microbial environment in Romania. Thoughts of Alexander the Great might have occurred to me in my sorry state. What can I say? I was in my twenties, and though it felt like I was dying, I was quite chill about the prospect.

So, again, I’m spelling it out: the coronavirus is bad and we don’t understand many things about it. Just this morning I read an article about face masks that changed everything I knew about them yesterday. We don’t have clear answers about anything right now. We need to give our scientists and doctors and pandemic experts all the time we can give them so they can take care of the sick and come up with a treatment, and later a vaccine. It’s important that all of us keep ourselves healthy, and by extension everyone else around. The worst we can do for the people around us is to get sick. Because we can’t do our part in our family and our community, and we also need other people to keep us alive. For weeks. Straining their resources and putting them and their families in danger. Once sick, we must do everything we can to keep it to ourselves and starve the virus. And if we recover and have immunity—though I don’t yet know how we determine that—we should try to help where others can’t.

Tell: COVID-19—

My six-year-old interrupts me with another question about her assignment from school. I stop typing to listen to her read to me the answer to a question about penguins and bald eagles. Which one is better? My daughter decided it’s the penguins. Why are they better than the bald eagles? My daughter thinks it’s because they have thick blubber and that makes it hard for their predators to eat them. Okay, I say, let me see how you wrote that in your notebook. She spelled penguins as “penegwens” and predators as “pretiers.” I help her correct those words. We take a picture of the page and upload it for her teacher using Google Classroom. Then she goes to her room to work on her Spanish flash cards. Now, where was I? Oh, yes, the coronavirus.

Tell: COVID-19 sucks.

4 thoughts on ““Show, Don’t Tell” Doesn’t Always Work, Especially with the Coronavirus

    • Thank you, Jack! I’m glad to hear your voice. I might write a few more pieces before this is over–which doesn’t mean much considering the disruption will last for months. I hope you stay safe and keep busy.

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