“Yet when we have said all our fine things about the arts, we must end with a
frank confession that the arts, as we know them, are but initial. Our best
praise is given to what they aimed and promised, not to the actual result.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Art”
The idea for a story can be so glittering, so clear in the writer’s mind that it is almost a slice of “real” life
the author is observing. The writer is filled with joy and anticipation at developing the story and sharing the
idea with readers through plot and characters.
Alas, the writing never fully captures the pictures, events, settings, ideas, and people in the writer’s
As writers, we know that it doesn’t matter how many people tell an author the writing is good, that
they love the story, or that the author is a terrific writer. The author always knows he didn’t capture his
ideal story, didn’t create the characters as in depth and true to those who lived in the world only he could
see. What the author relays in words is always but a fraction of his vision of the story.
When we begin writing down a story, we struggle to describe with care what we see and hear. As we
approach the deadline, we might feel the need to abandon our attempt to perfectly recreate the vision in
order to fulfill a contract and get on to our next writing obligation.
“The work is not the vision itself, certainly…You try—you try every time—to reproduce the vision, to
let your light so shine before men. But you can only come along with your bushel and hide it,” Annie Dillard
commiserates in The Writing Life (HarperCollins). (Dillard is referencing the Bible, Matthew 5:15-16, here in
the King James Version: “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and
it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men…”).
In spite of the bushel basket, the writer has completed the book. Then an editor or reader or both tells
the author that the completed manuscript or book is wonderful, that the author told the story of the reader’s
life, caught an idea, setting, way of life, or feelings in a certain situation exactly, or that the characters
are so real they get up off the page and walk around the room.
The praise reassures the writer. Maybe in expecting perfection, he was too hard on himself. He might
think, feeling relief, “I am a good writer after all. I presented that person, idea, setting better than I
thought.” Then the author cheerfully dives into the next story and goes through the entire process all over
again: the excitement of presenting an idea/story to a reader, copying what he sees with care, and once
more realizing—regardless of what readers or editors or critics say of his ability—he is not capturing his
vision, not even close. Nor is he capable of it.
And should we have that capability? No artist in any media gives perfect life to his subject. NINC members
are all novelists. Our stories present ideas and the intangible, as well as human beings and descriptions
of tangible objects. How can we hope to capture something as complex as a human being in words, or even
something such as a rock, which is, in comparison, simpler? An idea or theory may seem more concrete,
less immense or complex by far than a human being, but maybe an idea or theory is even more difficult to
capture or portray and thus easier to “tell” than “show” in a story.
In Bess Streeter Aldrich’s 1928 classic, A Lantern in her Hand (Grosset & Dunlap), the heroine and her
daughter are artists who try to catch the look of the prairie in paint. One day Abbie says of her
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