“Murder” by Barry Lopez: How Do Writers of Memoir Know When to Show and When to Tell?

Yesterday, the first meeting of my Spring Quarter classes, I shared a Barry Lopez piece with my creative nonfiction workshop, a short piece of memoir called “Murder.” The essay opens with the then twenty-year-old Lopez setting forth from New Mexico on his way to see his girlfriend in Salt Lake City. He’s carefree, enjoying the pleasure of driving, and is as innocently in love as, he tells us, one can only be at that age. Then he nearly clips a police car making a K-turn outside a small Utah town, and Lopez, gaining control of his car, drives slowly and carefully until he can pull into the lot of an A & W, where he watches the police car drive on by. As he eats his lunch in his car, a strange woman opens the door and gets inside. After some chit-chat, she asks him what she’s come to ask: “Will you kill my husband?” Said husband is alone in a garage outside the city limits, working on his car. The woman has the gun. All Barry Lopez need do is go out to that garage and murder her husband.

This essay is a grand example of how to use narrative in a piece of memoir, how to build tension from the complications that come to bear on the original premise (the trip to Salt Lake), how to move our narrator to a moment of choice, and then to let that choice have far-reaching consequences.

I’m hoping now, of course, that the longer I keep talking about the essay, them more you’re wanting me to shut up and to get back to the story where I left it so you can know what  happened. Did Lopez agree to the woman’s request? The delight of narrative is the delay of information. The writer promises us something. We anticipate what’s to come. How long can the writer put off delivering the piece of information we most want to know?

In a skillfully constructed scene of dialogue, each distinct section of that dialogue paced expertly with description and stage business, each “beat” of the scene building in intensity from the “beats” that come before it, Lopez doesn’t say a word, doesn’t respond to the woman at all, and, finally, his silence makes his choice clear to her and she leaves the car. “I sensed a border I did not know,” he tells us.

The climactic moment of the narrative done, all that remains is the brief falling away of the resolution, but it’s that falling away that contains the most important part of the piece, the effect that the encounter with the woman has had on Lopez and how it’s changed him. This is the point where many writers of memoir would retreat to that position of the writer at the desk speaking in a more reflective voice, telling us what this experience did to him. Lopez, though, remains the participant, the character in the midst of the dramatic present of the narrative. He drives out of town, the joy of that activity now ruined for him, paying careful attention to staying within the law. He stops to let his dog out to run, watches the dog enjoying his playtime, and then suddenly impatient, Lopez whistles for the dog to return and the narrative ends. It’s clear to us without him having to say as much that the encounter with the woman has shown him the ugly side of adult love and has, as one of my students pointed out during our discussion, murdered the innocent love that Lopez felt in the beginning of the narrative.

I offer this description of the piece because it’s made me think, as it always does, about Patricia Hampl’s observation that unlike fiction, which operates so much on scenic depiction (showing), memoir gets to show and tell, gets to move from scene to reflection, gets to utilize the character that the writer was at a previous time as well as the person that writer is now. It leads me to this question: How does the writer of memoir know when to show and when to tell? How did Barry Lopez know that showing was sufficient at the end of this piece, sufficient to create the experience for the reader that he wanted this narrative to provide?

I’m going to let the question of when to show and when to tell hang in the air at the end of this post in hopes that some of you will make a comment and together we can start to figure this out. As writers of memoir (or even as fiction writers who create first-person narrators), how do we know when to let the scene do the work and when to give that scene the extra help that the more reflective, thinking mode can provide? I’m eager to hear your thoughts.



  1. Richard Gilbert on March 29, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    An excellent post–it’s always great to remind students and ourselves that narrative is about withholding information! The Lopez example is superb, especially, as you say, the ending. Hampl is a great writer and theorist of writing, but I think she, along with many others, overdoes the “you must reflect” bit. This position may be due to many things, but it, well, seems a very “academic” side of America’s literary culture. Maybe it is the influence of classic memoirs like Nabokov’s.

    Some of my favorite memoirs, however, and they are acclaimed and/or bestselling ones, are very spare on reflection from the writer’s present. Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr are two examples of great memoirists who are very sparing with their commentary from the desk. So is Alison Smith in her great Name All the Animals. There are many others, of course.

    I just bought your two memoirs and am glad I found this blog.

    • Lee Martin on March 29, 2011 at 9:38 pm

      Hello, Richard,

      Thank you for your kind words regarding the post, and also for taking the time to comment. Finally, thank you for taking an interest in my memoirs. You’ve got me thinking about my first memoir, From Our House, and how it came after my first story collection, which for the most part, was a collection about fathers and sons in difficult relationships. First-person, sort of faux-memoir stories. Then I was assigned to teach a nonfiction workshop, and I thought I should try writing some before I taught others how to write it. I wrote a single essay, “From Our House,” and suddenly the floodgates opened, and I wrote maybe three more essays about my father and the accident that cost him both his hands when I was barely a year old–that and how his accident reached through our family for years and years. As I wrote, I could feel a sense of ownership of my material that I hadn’t quite felt with the stories. Part of that ownership came from the more reflective sections of the memoir. So even though it’s very scenic, there are still those moments when I feel that the adult writer at his desk, much like the first-person narrator of a piece of fiction who is looking back on and mulling over an experience, has something to offer from the here and now that he couldn’t quite get to when he was a participant in the series of events. Sorry for going on so long, but your post certainly helped me think more about this issue. Thank you for that, and thanks for reading my blog.

  2. Richard Gilbert on March 30, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Thanks, Lee. I guess I’m irked by some of those who police the genre—”You must reflect from the present!” As if otherwise it’s fiction. Scene, narrative summary, and reflection are memoir’s basic tools, to be sure, but the mix varies widely within a book and between books and writers. Over the course of a book-length memoir, there almost has to be some reflection, true.

    But who is to say Barry Lopez erred by writing his great essay “Murder” like a short story? And actually it’s suffused with reflection: readers, told it’s an essay, know that he wrote it from some removed present about a past self and event. What’s most worth writing about is often what bugs us because we can’t explain it. It’s a very individual decision by a writer whether to share, or inflict, upon the reader his reflection about a mystery he has conveyed. Maybe he wants to inflict the mystery itself, a la Flannery O’Connor, so that the reader, too, can think about it for the rest of his or her life.

    I am looking forward to reading your books, which are at the top of my “next” pile.

    • Lee Martin on March 30, 2011 at 10:21 am

      I don’t think Lopez erred at all in his choice to stay in scene and to let the action and the details carry the narrative. If he’d slipped into that reflective mode at the end, he would have imposed that “Wonder Years” voice-over epiphany, and he would have deflated the delicious tension that he’d so masterfully built via scene, action, and dialogue. You may know of Charles Baxter’s book of essays on the craft of fiction,Burning Down the House. He has an essay in there where he talks about how he doesn’t trust the epiphany because life usually doesn’t have those moments of crystal clarity where a character “suddenly knows” something. Instead, Baxter says, we should pay attention to what’s rising in the story, something present from the beginning, but submerged. The pressures of plot and the characters’ choices cause this submerged something to finally break the surface.

  3. Julia Munroe Martin on March 31, 2011 at 10:32 am

    I’m glad I found your blog via Twitter. It’s great, and I am looking forward to learning a lot. You ask great questions at the end of this post–I don’t have answers, but you have given me much to think about. Your students are very lucky; sounds like a great workshop!

    • Lee Martin on March 31, 2011 at 5:09 pm

      Thanks for reading my blog, Julia! This particular post got quite a bit of response on my Facebook page when I posted it there.

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