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Books for Writers: To Show and To Tell by Phillip Lopate

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To Show and to TellIn his instructive book To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, Phillip Lopate, essayist and Nonfiction Director at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, explores the form through a series of essays. In his introduction, Lopate poses a number of questions: where is the line between fiction and nonfiction? What are the ethics of writing about others? What are the techniques in essay writing? And, as the title alludes to, when, if ever, is it okay to tell?

Throughout the book, Lopate emphasizes the need for essayists to “think critically—to think against themselves,” to contradict themselves if need be. This is the message at the core of To Show and To Tell—that an essay is an attempt to come to an answer, not an opportunity to prove a rigidly held belief. By “thinking against oneself,” by being contrary, the essayist creates tension and suspense.

“All good essays are dialogues, and all partake of both exploration and argumentation,” Lopate writes. “In the best nonfiction, it seems to me, you’re always made aware that you are engaged with a supple mind at work.”

In addition to exploring philosophical questions about the craft, To Show and To Tell offers practical advice, such as how to turn oneself into a character (“you cannot amuse the reader unless you are already self-amused”), why one should research (“Research inspires curiosity, helps you break out of claustrophobic self-absorption”), and what’s gained by keeping a journal (“No one can expect to write well who will not first take the risk of writing badly”).

Lopate gives permission to do away with convention. For those who have trouble with endings, Lopate writes:

A common mistake students make is to assume they need to tie up with a big bow the preceding matter via a grand statement of what it all means, or what the life lesson to be drawn from it is … Readers should be left with some things to work out on their own.

The final section is a study of key essayists; Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and James Baldwin are just a few writers Lopate highlights. Lamb “had the quintessential personal essayist’s ability to see his own personality as problematic, and to dramatize the resulting tensions.” According to Lopate, he saw people as actors and the streets of London as a stage. Hazlitt showed that essays can change direction and Baldwin’s “Notes on a Native Son” is “A twenty-page miracle, a masterpiece of compression.”

To Show and To Tell is an inspiring book on the art of the essay. The reader will come away with a richer understanding of the form and motivated to put theory into practice.

Buy To Show and To Tell from your local bookstore 
Read an interview with Phillip Lopate at Harper’s Magazine
Read an interview with Phillip Lopate on Beyond the Margins
Read an interview with Phillip Lopate at Poets & Writers
Listen to an interview with Phillip Lopate on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show


Written by Gabrielle

May 21, 2013 at 6:49 am

8 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this! I am always looking for good instructional book about writing, great recommendation


    May 21, 2013 at 6:53 am

    • More than welcome. I really enjoyed it. Tin House has a great series as well, “The Writer’s Notebook.” You should check it out.


      May 21, 2013 at 7:18 am

  2. great resources to look into. i’m left wondering, how many pieces do i have to get published in order to afford books on writing?

    Bani Amor

    May 21, 2013 at 10:24 am

  3. He sounds like a very smart man. I want to be a fiction writer, but I’m sure his advice would carry over into that genre as well! Thanks for the great recommendation.


    May 21, 2013 at 11:49 pm

  4. Sounds like a great resource for me; I do all sorts of writing from essays and copywriting to drafting poems and stories. Where might could I get this?


    May 22, 2013 at 3:12 pm

  5. Reblogged this on The Catalyst Spark and commented:
    A good reminder that writers should always be curious about the world around (and in) them.


    May 22, 2013 at 3:13 pm

  6. Reblogged this on Writing Wall.


    May 30, 2013 at 6:14 am

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