The Prompter Rooms

For Thursday, May 5, 2016:


“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Anton Chekhov (my emphases)

The age-old adage of ‘show, don’t tell’ is often one of the hardest for writers to follow.  A young writer might think, for instance, ‘Everyone knows what the moon looks like.  Why do I have to go into specifics?’

It’s not specifics, young writer.  It’s interest, it’s perspective, it’s experience, it’s variety.  Everyone may know what the moon looks like, but each ‘everyone’ sees it differently, from different places in life, and in the world.  The moon in the cold north is not the same moon in the sub-tropics, even if the watchers’ nights are both clear.  If nothing else, the atmospheric lenses aren’t the same, so the glint on glass in the north cannot be the same as that in the southern realms.  Readers want to know this, they want to see what you see.

One of the reasons I’ve been compiling zen koans lately is because, in addition to their meditative value, they can provide inspiration for ‘atmospheric’ writing and, in some instances, storyline and/or character development.

For example, Blue mountains after rainfall: much bluer.  One of my favorites is Watch fountain murmur; hear mountain color.  And there’s this: To sense an old temple, hearing bell sounds.  To know a hamlet, seeing smoke.  (If you want to see more, check out the growing collection I’ve compiled above on the page entitled ‘Zen koans.’)

I find Zen koans are something like haiku.  A master haiku poet can show us the seasonal moment without saying what the season is.  More importantly, s/he can show us the spiritual insight that prompted the poem without giving us specifics.  That’s on purpose because haiku are written to encourage the reader or listener to continue the poem’s creation with his/her own thoughts and insights.

Koans can play a similar role for writers.  Sometimes one or more provides a quick connection.  Others you have to stay with for a while, or come back to them a few times.  Either way, I think using Zen koans on occasion is a valuable exercise.

Somehow I think Chekhov would like this one:

Sit on the mountain rock: a cloud rises on your robe.  Scoop water from the spring: the moon enters the bottle.


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