Back in my early teaching days, I had assigned my students to write an essay about the concept of Home. However, they were not to use the words home, house, warmth, comfort, familiar, etc. (I think we even played a couple rounds of the game Taboo.) Almost ten years later, I still remember some of those essays (and interestingly, so do they-- one of my former students recently told me that he saved that particular essay, citing it as one of his all-time favorites). The ones who really "got" it were the ones who mastered "showing" vs. "telling", capturing the meaning of the experience (or the experience itself) by using a completely different image or experience. They revealed a truth without explicitly telling it.
The other night I was on the phone with my twin brother. I was bragging about that day's word count (3200!), yet lamenting how disappointed I was with what I'd written.
"It's supposed to be a pivotal moment," I explained. "A breakthrough. It's emotional. Everyone's crying. But it's hard to write or describe people crying without it sounding like a bad soap opera. You know when you watch a TV show and the character's supposed to be so distraught, but the actor can't get him/herself to cry? That's what this scene feels like (and all my crying scenes/descriptions, really). Just so disingenuous. I don't know how to make it work."
My brother's advice floored me: "Play the Taboo game. Write it without using the words crying or tears and see what happens. Describe the physicality of what they're feeling rather than filming what they're doing."
Describe the physicality of what they're feeling... my God, that's brilliant!
I told him what a great idea that was, and couldn't wait to try it. "You know," I said. "That reminds me of an essay assignment I gave like ten years ago."
"Yeah, I think that might have been where I got the idea, actually."
Moral of the story: as writers, we need to remember that we're smarter than we think. And when it comes to description, conveying meaning, and showing vs. telling, we need to play the Taboo game every now and then, surrendering generic words and descriptions for unique ones. Revealing the truth without explicitly saying it. Try it in your own manuscript and see what happens. I will too.