That’s what happened to Townes Van Zandt, the troubled and eclectic songwriter, whose life ended at age 52 better than 12 years ago. I learned this while watching the excellent biographical documentary, Townes Van Zandt: Be Here to Love Me, in which the composer of Pancho & Lefty revealed that insulin shock treatments wiped out all memory of his childhood.
For the rest of his life, Van Zandt only remembered his earliest years through stories told by others. His active mind had to conjure up the images that were missing.
What Van Zandt went through was the same thing any person goes through when hearing a story that they do not remember from their own experience. It is also one of the great challenges of anyone sharing stories from their own experiences: to give listeners enough detail to accurately re-create the event in their own minds.
This is what good storytellers do. They provide vivid detail. They create drama. They stir emotions. They put listeners at the center of the story. This is why writing coaches stress “show, don’t tell.”
As listeners, we cannot help but create our own mental images based on our personal experiences and what we are hearing. As storytellers, it is our duty to make certain we are giving our listeners our stories in a way that creates the images we intend.
Writing prompt of the day: Find an example in your own writing that can be improved by “showing, not telling” and experiment with it. Ask others for their opinions on which way works better.