Show, Don’t Tell

A lot of the people in our program were nakedly emotional in a way that, in childhood, I had so successfully trained myself not to be that I almost really wasn’t. Before entering grad school, I had never felt normal, but here I was competent and well adjusted to a boring degree. I always showed up for class. I met deadlines. I made eye contact. Of course I was chronically sad, and of course various phobias lay dormant inside me, but none of that was currently dictating my behavior. I also didn’t possess a certain kind of feral charisma or mystery, and I didn’t know, though I wondered a lot, if charisma correlated with talent. That’s why Dorothy was right, that funding did feel like a referendum.

At the core, much of what we talk about is about what we find valuable. My last post was a poem that was important to me, not only because of its merit as a poem, it certainly is a great poem, but its value to understanding history, both personal and of the United States. Though perhaps not expressed explicitly, most are genuinely interested in what they find valuable and arguing for it or against what they find unvaluable.

So when it comes to a person, how do we determine their value? Is there only one correct way? Are we ever in a position to really make that judgement at all?

Show Don’t Tell, by Curtis Sittenfield, is wonderful short story from a recent issue of the New Yorker, about a Masters of Fine Arts, Ruthie, student anxious about the upcoming year of funding awards where students in her program will be judged and ranked by their skill and promise.

As we wait to find out what level and prestige of funding Ruthie will receive, we read her evaluations of other students writings and how she deems their worth. Ruthie is an honest critic, revealing and admitting to things she does not fully recognize herself.

In truth, the award funding is not far off from appraising each student’s ability to write. But does it say much about their writings worth? And can we extend their writings’ value to evaluate their writing as a peer, a neighbor, or a friend?

Take a look, let me know what you think.


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