by Kelly Baugh
A few days ago I revisited a place that was one of my favorite childhood vacations: Mesa Verde. Not only that, but my kids are now old enough that I got to visit my favorite ruin in Mesa Verda: Balcony House.
Here’s how I remembered Balcony House: a scary climb up the tallest ladder I’d ever seen, tight squeezes through tiny tunnels, and a surprising pond, collected from a wall seep at the back of the cavern. I wandered around studying the intricacy of the stone structures and marveled at the workmanship that had created such flawless stone walls. I studied the small finger and foot holds that dotted the cavern entrances and pictured myself living in the ruin during its heyday, climbing up those walls with a load of wood on my back or leading my little sister.
It was a magical experience. For weeks and months afterwards, I would imagine myself back in Balcony House and pretend I was one of the original people that lived there. I also read everything I could find, both fiction and non-fiction on the place. I was head over heels in love.
Sadly, this is not the experience my kids got at Balcony House. They were not allowed to experience the wonder of discovering a haunting ruin on their own. Instead they were subjected to the slowest, most boring, didactic one-hour guided lecture that I have ever had the misfortune to listen to.
Maybe it wasn’t that bad, but I watched in horror as not only my kids, but all the other kids in the group, and eventually most of the adults tuned out the droning information dump of the park ranger. We were told what to think about, what to touch and not touch, where to walk, how long to look at an object, what archaeologists were sure everything meant (which, by the way, was completely different than when I visited before).
I know that park officials have had to get more strict about tourists climbing into the ruins or touching them. This is due to the sheer number of visitors they now receive and the damage all us tourists are doing to these fragile marvels from the past. I totally get that. But surely, surely there is a way to not destroy the wonder at the same time? To let visitors discover on their own the magic of this national treasure?
But how often do we as writers do the very same thing to our audience? We tell them every single thing they need to think or see in a scene instead of letting them unravel the mystery of our imaginary world all on their own. So what if some of the things they imagine aren’t what we envisioned? Who cares if they go away wondering about some loose ends that we haven’t tied up? Don’t the best authors leave us wondering, wanting more?
Show don't tell. I will never hear these words again during a critique without picturing the light of excitement fading from all those tourists' eyes, from my children's eyes. And hopefully this experience will pound that writing truth even deeper into my literary heart.
(And if anyone from the National Park Service ever happens to read this blog, please know that people will continue to visit Mesa Verde even if you cut down on the lectures. You aren't the reason they came to visit in the first place.)