Poetry philosophy: Show me, don’t tell me (also struggling with compliments)


I’m not sure where the phrase “show me, don’t tell me” first originated. I think it was through exposure to creative writing exercises and other writing efforts. But I took that to heart. I took that seriously. And in many ways that influenced my approach to poetry writing.

You don’t want to just say “she was upset”; that doesn’t tell you much. But instead you describe the used tissues scattered on the bed, the box laying nearby, how her eyes are puffy. You acknowledge the remnants of a bowl of ice cream. You describe the girl curled up on a bed, clutching tight to a pillow or stuffed bear. These images offer more details, they help tell the story. She probably didn’t just screw up a pop quiz; it’s more likely that she had a fight with her boyfriend or they broke up.

I was much more interested in showing the details of a story and describing the scene versus being straightforward. I still had trouble balancing what was described and how much to describe rather than saying things outright. I often went overboard on the descriptions and imagery, especially early on, but I was trying to find my style, trying to figure out what worked. How much detail do you really have to give?

I used a lot of symbolism and metaphors as my writing developed. I received feedback from teachers and others that my poetry was filled with imagery. I really didn’t know how to take that sort of comment. Yes, there were images in the writing and it was image-based. I knew it was a good thing, but it seemed to be the overall goal of poetry.

I like to set the scene in poetry, to write in such a way that it’s like a movie playing in your mind, a reader can visualize what’s happening. Should poetry be literal or should there be a layer or two of meaning? That’s what I’ve struggled with.

I think when my poetry moved into a more literal format in college, I seemed to think that I had lost my touch; that it was no longer good writing. But in reality it’s just a different approach, format, whatever you want to call it. Even if the writing was more literal and obvious (not requiring multiple reads to understand what some of the images meant), it was still heavily visual. The more literal poetry examples tended to be more experience-based, describing a particular human experience and highlighting very real human emotion. … Something to look forward to as I share my poems written in college.

Self-analysis and conclusions

My writing has generally been more image-based and visual … or you could say it was sensory-oriented, allowing a reader to become an observer of the scene. Looking back, I believe my inability to speak directly of what was bothering me played into this writing style. In real life I couldn’t say directly what was affecting me because I didn’t know. I knew things were problematic but I didn’t understand why. I couldn’t vocalize the problems; I could only see the effects and the end results. Even if I knew what I wanted to say, there were often hurdles or internal filters that kept me from sharing. So, I think that’s why my writing was image-based and became very figurative and metaphoric; it reflected my own struggle communicating directly.

If someone commented about how my poems were full of imagery and showed appreciation for that quality, I brushed it off as no big deal. After all, isn’t that expected goal? To want readers to feel connected, to be touched? That was an expected outcome, so why receive praise?

I want to scream at younger me: Just because you do or achieve something that is expected doesn’t make it less significant. It’s called a compliment. Accept it. It’s not like one person has a monopoly on any given skill or behavior. Many people can show signs of mastery and ability and all are worthy of recognition. And just because something may be expected doesn’t mean people always hit that mark.


You can write poetry and be super cheesy about it. I have plenty of super sappy poems as proof. (No, I’m not sharing them.) Or it can be thoughtful, insightful and clever.

If we were meant to be the best in the world at something, we’d all give up. Because there would be too much pressure, too much at stake. And it would be impossible to judge.

Two people can be skilled and accomplished at something without any way of accurately evaluating who is better. Why? Because each person has a unique combination of ability and character. One person being good at something doesn’t make it less possible for someone else to be good in that same area. Each person breathes new life and offers a fresh perspective into that area, so it’s not going to be identical.

And yet, it’s such a difficult concept for me to grasp. I constantly go into comparison mode and try to see how I measure up to others. And it’s exhausting.

Another thing I’ve realized is that I was very quick to judge my own writing. Some pieces seemed very childish and silly at the time, an enjoyable way to pass the time but not something worth sharing with others. And yet looking back, many of those pieces that I had viewed as not good work, finally I can see their value. Maybe because I’m trying to put the writing into proper context by seeing the content in light of what I was going through at the time. But I was definitely looking for answers, looking for an outlet, expressing pain and loneliness.

Not everyone who writes poetry will have their work published or receive national recognition. But each person can establish individual goals for their work. I’m honestly thrilled that others can see the value in what I’ve shared, can appreciate the words. That someone else can understand and finds value in what I attempted to capture.


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