Show and Don’t Tell

Using flash fiction to teach personal narrative.

“We were together again, the three of us.”

“The Wig” by Brady Udall is a flash fiction story occupying less than half a page, but in such brevity, it offers a touching narrative of a father reconnecting with his son after the tragic death of his wife. Its conceit is simple yet unforgettable. After the death of his mother, the son takes to wearing a blond wig (the same color as his mother’s hair) and sits at the breakfast table in the same spot where his mother would sit. His father wants to yank the wig off his head, but gradually, his anger cools to grief, and he holds his son for what feels like the first time since his wife died.

The personal narrative is a staple of the high school writing curriculum. It is very often the first piece freshmen will compose for their English teacher. Yet there is a drought of resources for shaking up the same old five-paragraph-essay approach to this very personal form of writing. Additionally, swaths of our students are living with traumatic pasts. Is it ethical for an English teacher to force them to relive this? I have found teaching flash fiction to be the answer to this dilemma. “The Wig” by Brady Udall is one such story that exemplifies the idea that “less is more” and encourages students to write taciturn personal stories where they get to decide what to share and what to withhold. 

“The Wig” employs free, indirect style in first person narrative—the father recounts the story of his son fishing out a dirty blond wig from the trash and wearing it at the breakfast table. The fact that we are both observers and participants in this reconciliation between father and son makes us feel like intruders in a very private, defining moment, but much is left at the mercy of our inference. Udall encourages the reader to participate by withholding dialogue between his characters. He writes, “I asked him where he got the wig, and he told me, his mouth full of cereal.” We do not know what the son said, and we are left to infer the conversation. Udall also chooses to withhold details surrounding the mother’s death; he writes simply, “last fall after the accident,” leaving it up to our imagination. The father’s interiority is glossed over with action—for much of the story, he paces “back and forth,” bothered by his son’s “munching of cereal” and “rustling of paper” and refusal to “take off the wig.” This all builds to the climax of the story when Udall writes, “I forgot all about my tie and going to work.” This is a full circle moment that links back to the opening moments in the story: “I was trying to make a respectable knot in my green, paisley tie.” In the father’s epiphany, we see him finally connect with his son, who has been trying to recreate this mother and silently pleading for his father’s protection, “the wig pulled tightly over his head like a football helmet.”

The personal narrative is a staple of the high school writing curriculum . . . yet there is a drought of resources for shaking up the same old five-paragraph-essay approach to this very personal form of writing.

The reading of this story takes much of the pressure off our young writers; it allows them to withhold details they are not comfortable sharing, opt for action instead of feeling, and dramatize their narratives in small epiphanies rather than grand declarations.

Before reading his piece, I tell my students that they get to choose between writing a fictional story or writing a story about their life. Offering the choice between creating a fictional story and a personal narrative opens the door to creative freedom: anything is possible in a story, so experimentation is encouraged. I have seen this awaken the inner writer in countless students. I make a point to encourage originality in this assignment that carries us through other writing assignments throughout the year. What students do not know, however, is even though they are writing a “fake story,” they are really writing about themselves because all stories are really about the human experience. Their stories may involve dragons and dystopian landscapes, but they use their stories to grapple with heartache and loss and the fear of growing up just the same as a story about a breakup or longing for parental approval would. Simply shifting the focus off their past and onto fiction allows for the deployment of storytelling techniques like foreshadowing, figurative language, and full-circle endings without feeling like their personal trauma is on full display for an adult to judge. Voice and choice are an integral part of narrative writing (and one that is seriously lacking in the current models of instruction), and I have noticed a paradigm shift in my classroom from I must write like this to how should I write this to tell my story?

Shifting the focus onto fiction allows for storytelling techniques like foreshadowing, figurative language, and full-circle endings without feeling like their personal trauma is on full display.

Before we read, we watch the opening sequence of the Pixar film Up together. I say, “I want you to make a list of everything you know about the relationship between Carl and Ellie.” Students will write:

“They wanted a baby and could not have one.”

“They are opposites of each other.”

“Carl wants his old life back.”

I ask them, “How can we infer all of this?” This question gets them to think about showing a story rather than telling a story. Before they begin reading “The Wig,”I frame their thinking by telling them, “Notice how this author shows us the story just like a movie.”

To practice the development of reading with a quiet eye, I deploy Kelly Gahager’s three draft reading practice. During the first draft, the students read the story to themselves and highlight all of the details they notice, just like we did for Up. There are no wrong details! If a reader is drawn to a color choice or a word choice then it is worth noticing.

During the second reading, they read the story once more, but this time they try to notice two other details in the text they missed the first time. Many will notice the reference to “mist falling slowly onto the street.” At this moment, the father is very uncertain about how to care for his child. Some students will cling to the word choices like “smooth arms around my neck.” If some of the students are drawn to certain words or phrases, I will write them on the board for discussion later.

During the third and final reading, they are encouraged to read the story like a writer. Here I ask them to consider how they could tell their story in the way Brady Udall does. I have them make note of how the author “moves the story”; instances where the author “makes stuff happen with description.” Not much happens in this story, yet it carries so much emotion. How is this possible? I remind them that this is their job with their story. 

After reading, we make a list of all the things we noticed that Brady Udall did on purpose. Very often students will point to moments like this in the story:

“I wondered whether my son had a similar picture in his head or if he had a picture at all. I watched him, and he finally looked up at me. But his face was blank. He went back to his reading.” 

Udall opens the story by showing the son reading, and here, in the final paragraph, he uses reading as a clutch to ignore his father. This is another detail Udall uses, like the father’s tie, to bookend the story. A shift like this helps move the story along, particularly one where not much happens. It would be far less compelling if the author had written, “My son ignored me.” Using this example, I ask my students, “What moments can you set up and resolve?” Students will pick up on the structure, the details, and, with enough guiding questions, will begin to see that what makes this story great is the author’s choice to make simple, subtle things happen in their story. I tend to lay out their one-page story like this:

Create a place. Show us some characters who seem real. Describe them doing ordinary things.  Include some imagery and make at least three things happen. None of the events in your story have to be “big,” however, whatever occurs in your story must feel defining to the characters experiencing the events. Just like the father and son in “The Wig.”

My only length requirement for this assignment is one full, polished page. It is here where I get them to practice the writing process: draft, type, flash edit, collaborate, polish, submit. The “collaboration” phase of the writing process has proven to be the most valuable. Handing your words to another person is perhaps the most sincere gesture of trust a person can express. I make sure to remind my students of this before they begin offering advice to other writers. Writing is a journey, not a destination, and flash fiction writing is often their first exposure to this concept.

Below are student samples personal narrative inspired by “The Wig.

Flower Girl
by Kiria K.

I hate Mondays. I’ve always hated Mondays. When I was younger, my sister announced to me that she was getting married. I hated that, maybe even more than Mondays. I didn’t hate it because of her husband or anything, it wasn’t that I had anything against her. I hated it because her wedding was to take place . . . on a Monday. 

I made up ⅓ of the flower girls. I remember weaving under and around elderly people’s legs, throwing my little pink flower petals around aimlessly. It was a nice day, so naturally, as a child does, I played. I danced around to the loud music with all the other kids, it was an outdoor reception so there were a lot of us.

So many of us, it made me nervous. 

I felt like a zebra at a watering hole, knowing that I’m safe in that area, but I still couldn’t avoid the menacing gaze of the other wildlife, who in this case, were the other people. 

The one person I did feel safe with was my niece. She’s exactly two years younger than me, so she was around three at the time. She was another flower girl. It was, in fact, the exact opposite of cute. She did the exact same thing as I was doing, just flinging her flowers around without a care in the world. 

Weddings involving my family almost always end in chaos. And I don’t mean just arguments. Broken tables. Flying chairs. Fistfuls of pulled out hair on the ground. Unless you get married privately or just don’t invite anyone in my family, you’re practically doomed. But my sister, no. Everyone has always liked my sister. She was my mother’s first child, and my grandparents’ first grandchild, so she was always spoiled. As a result, her wedding went pretty smooth. That was until I came along. 

Now picture this:

Everyone walked down the aisle in a line with my sister going first, so everyone would see her dress first. I was last in line. I’d like to mention I was given clear instructions. I was told to follow in line and walk down the aisle throwing my flowers. I wasn’t to run away or get distracted. Just throw the flowers. So when it was my time, there I went. Little five-year-old me, walking down the aisle with my basket, when I suddenly stopped. I looked up to the sky, still standing in the middle of the aisle, and I started screaming, “Look guys, an airplane!” 

Everyone laughed at me as I continued to walk down the aisle in complete shock at the fact I’d just seen an airplane in real life. Still, today, I’m not sure why that was so monumental to me, seeing an airplane. I’d seen them on TV, I’d heard about them in songs, so why was it so odd to me to actually see one in real life? 

As I got to the pavilion that we were to stand in, I admired the love between my sister and her husband, almost in the same way that I’d admired that airplane. Hearing her say the words “I do,” seeing the celebration, a moment of peace within my family. 

That was the best Monday of my life.

by Dana M.

I lost my sister on June 5, 2016. I remember nothing from that day, but now, six years later, I only wish I could. I understand this is selfish, but the countless nights I have lied awake thinking about what I would have told her at that moment is reason enough for me to be able to say this. I imagine I would have shouted and cried something about how she can’t just leave me alone or that she should be aware of how her leaving would affect me. Instead, I stood there in my cream-colored, sparkly dress while the person who single handedly has made the biggest impact on my life walked away towards a dream.

She is not dead. She has only gone off to college and now graduate school to pursue her own dreams, to create a future for herself. Although I should be proud of her accomplishments, I cannot help the anger I sometimes find myself feeling towards her. I was left to be an only child for six years. While all of my friends talked about the hilarious things they did with their siblings, I was left trying to remember the last time I had shared a laugh with mine. Forever engraved in my brain is the day in second grade when my teacher had asked us what the most recent thing we had done with our family was, and I broke down in tears because it occurred to me that my entire family hadn’t sat down and shared a meal in over three months.

I will always pity the youngest child, and I will always feel anger towards the oldest. I am no longer surprised when I hear stories of peers not missing their siblings until they are already gone because that is how it always seems to play out. The oldest is so blinded by their dreams they forget to warn that little kid, who only wants to be just like them, that it might be the last time they will argue over a mirror. This is the last time they will kick each other in the shin over a footrest or fight about who stole whose lunch money. I was that little kid once, I experienced all of those memories once, and I never cherished them. Until they were already gone.

As you can see in these examples, flash fiction gives young writers permission to write authentically. Many of my students will pull from their own life to complete this task; writers write what they know. Lastly, so many of our students have a troubled relationship with writing. The personal narrative should be the one aspect of their writing where they get to explore the possibilities of language, reflect upon their own lived experiences, and feel empowered to hone their ability to show what they know as budding writers.

The Wig
by Brady Udall

My eight-year-old son found a wig in the garbage dumpster this morning. I walked into the kitchen, highly irritated that I couldn’t make a respectable knot in my green paisley tie. And there he was at the table, eating cereal and reading the funnies, the wig pulled tightly over his head like a football helmet. The wig was a dirty bush of curly blond hair, the kind you might see on a prostitute or someone who is trying to imitate Marilyn Monroe.

I asked him where he got the wig, and he told me, his mouth full of cereal. When I advised him that we don’t wear things that we find in the garbage, he simply continued eating and reading as if he didn’t hear me. I wanted him to take that wig off, but I couldn’t ask him to do it. I forgot all about my tie and going to work. I looked out the window where a mist fell slowly on the street.

I paced into the living room and back, trying not to look at my son. He ignored me. I could hear him munching cereal and rustling paper. There was a picture or a memory, real or imagined, that I couldn’t get out of my mind. Last spring, before the accident, my wife was sitting in the chair where now my son always sits. She was reading the paper to see how the Blackhawks did the night before, and her sleep-mussed hair was only slightly longer and darker than the hair of my son’s wig.

I wondered if my son had a similar picture in his head, or if he had a picture at all. I watched him, and he finally looked up at me, but his face was blank. He went back to his reading. I walked around the table, picked him up, and held him against my chest. I pressed my nose into that wig, and it smelled not like the clean shampoo scent I might have been hoping for, but like old lettuce. I suppose it didn’t matter at that point. My son put his smooth arms around my neck, and for maybe a few seconds, we were together again, the three of us.

Originally read on NPR’s This American Life, “The Wig” was reprinted with permission from the author.

Gallagher, Kelly. “Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12.” Stenhouse Publishers, 2004.

Ben Pitts

Ben Pitts lives in La Porte, Indiana, with his wife, Brianne, and their two daughters, Grace and Norah. He has been a public high school English teacher for eleven years. He holds a master’s degree in education from American College of Education and a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and English from Arizona State University. His poetry has been featured in Pure Slush, The Telepoem Booth in Flagstaff, Arizona, Tifert Journal, Medium.com, Rinky Dink Press, RedFlag Poetry Service, Silent Spark Press, and Sourland Mountain Review. He currently teaches nineth and twelfth grade English at La Porte High School (Go, Slicers!). His personal writing can be read on his website.