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.