Like so many writers I know, my writing-self grew up on “show, don’t tell,” a maxim that demands sensory details and descriptions, action, scenes, and showing, and cautions against too much summary and backstory, exposition, and telling. Unfortunately for me, the advice show, don’t tell! written in the margins of my early attempts at creative nonfiction was—like the prose it was meant to repair—too vague, general, and abstract. Overcorrecting, I then produced essays (and an entire failed book) that were heavy on showing but lacked reflection and explication.

Perhaps it seems counterintuitive that in order to revive my writing, I turned to “No ideas but in things,” the famous phrase from William Carlos Williams’s lengthy poem Paterson, published in 1927, and often interpreted as “show, don’t tell.” But the two phrases don’t really mean the same thing at all, at least not in the way I interpret them. “Show, don’t tell” coaches a writer to communicate emotional weight and sensory textures through well-developed scenes, whereas “no ideas but in things” asks the writer to replace an abstract idea with a concrete object (a thing), moving the object toward symbolism.

Ed Wickliffe writes in Triggerfish Critical Review, “If the exact object creates an image in our mind, then we can say it creates also an idea of what it signifies” (“Historical View of W.C. Williams”). Symbolism might be achieved through a well-developed scene, yes, but it can also be achieved through a short anecdote, a one-sentence description, or in exposition, among other ways. And the object already lives in memory, waiting to be plucked out and replanted on the page, unfolding into organic, authentic meaning. I find Williams’s phrase to be more precise than “show, don’t tell.” His phrase is a little prescriptive in how I’m using it, yet successful in practice.

Take, for instance, River Teeth’s 250-word micro-essay series Beautiful Things, in which writers render “beauty in the everyday” and illustrate urgent memories of love, loss, grief, resentment, anger, rebellion, pain, hope, contentment, jealously, fear, and more.  (Coincidentally, a woman whose beauty overwhelms young male onlookers to the point of violence is called “Beautiful Thing” in Paterson.) In the opening of her Beautiful Things essay “Tiny Purple Flowers,” Sarah Broderick writes, “My mother stands at the grocery store counter. Tiny purple flowers rest tucked behind her ear. They have wilted as we walked through the aisles, comparing prices per ounce and coupons to sales. Now, the flower petals are withered balls of lint.”

The objects receiving the most prose attention are the tiny purple flowers. To the outside observer, these flowers are nothing special; they wilt, droop, and wither. Earlier, the child narrator picked them “from the cow pies that litter our fields,” with stems “thin as discarded threads.” Yet her mother didn’t throw them out then or now, after a woman waiting in the same checkout line “scoffs.” Broderick ends:

I study my mother as she digs within a purse that doesn’t match her shoes, flexes open her wallet with its broken hinge, but leaves those flowers where they are. Right there as right now, handing over our food stamps to the register man, my gifts tucked behind her ear, she is the only true woman in the world, the most beautiful woman there is.

With the last paragraph, the deeper meaning of the moment crystalizes: the tiny purple flowers come to symbolize poverty, love, and a child’s first awareness that others view her mother differently than she does. The nuance and emotive density of the moment—and the narrator’s fierce mother-love—are illustrated without the author once stating the abstract meaning.

Many of the Beautiful Things essays capture small moments, as “Tiny Purple Flowers” does. This encourages writers to narrow their focus, locating more of the details and descriptions within a tiny window. Abby Frucht’s essay “Crush,” however, successfully spans two decades, during which the narrator has an affair, divorces her husband, and presumably raises her children to adulthood. In “Crush,” the sole button on a coat becomes the symbol for a married women’s sexual desire and autonomy:

But I was wearing a coat that had just one button, a suede coat with bright scarves I’d sewn to the hem via uneven stitches, and when we spun to the ground the scarves tangled around us, the trail aglow with crushed mulberries, my babies damp in their beds in the house down the road where their dad sat reading.

In the second paragraph, the narrator finds the missing button a year later and keeps it in her pocket for twenty-three years, where it recalls for her a “warning coo.” The third paragraph and ending of “Crush” offers a satisfying double-entendre, one that signifies another shift in the narrator’s attitude toward the affair, implying her infidelity is in the past (and perhaps, too, her sexual freedom): “We live scattered around and we walk along trails incandescent with berries, our wives and husbands beside us, our coats buttoned up tight.” In each of the three paragraphs of “Crush,” a button symbolizes complicated emotions that are never articulated.

The essay “Letter to a Ladle (Stainless Steel, $18.99, Purchased Three Years Ago)” by Matthew Olzmann demonstrates that good creative nonfiction doesn’t have to be trauma-based, sensational, or about our darkest experiences and thoughts. Here the narrator remembers a financially challenging time when he “didn’t get the job” and “the moon stalked” him, his wife “like a bill collector.” Yet a seemingly ordinary ladle literally and symbolically offered sustenance, comfort, and an expression of the couple’s enduring love. Olzmann writes, “Not once—Dear Ladle—did you fail to do the one thing you do,” and then he artfully describes the soups the ladle served throughout the seasons, including fall, “the season of viruses and worry.” In the end, the ladle signifies that the couple has enough to be content.

In Chris Bahnsen’s “Hands Like Sunrise,” intersections of life, death, and faith are symbolized by “a great white egret on jointed stilts,” fishing in shallow water near a riverbank. The narrator’s father considered the river “his wide altar” and “a secret place of devotion.” Sometime after the father dies in a hospice room, the narrator witnesses the egret as it spears a minnow with its yellow beak, the fish “wriggling down the smoky vine of neck.” Both images of death—the fish’s and the father’s—are juxtaposed with the “bright glory” of the egret, “whose wings stretch open now and strum the river with silken beats.” It is in this moment, watching the egret “sail over a raft of water lilies,” that the narrator finds momentary peace. Belief in an afterlife is hinted at, too, as the narrator watches the egret in flight and feels the sun “resting on my shoulders like my old man’s hands.”

The small happenings explored in Beautiful Things are often mundane and deceivingly simple, yet they become exceptional through the writer placing a unique focal point on an object or a thing—a relief for writers who worry that their lives are too ordinary to write about.

I eventually learned how to apply “show, don’t tell” purposefully to my essays. Both this maxim and “no ideas but in things” remind writers to meet readers halfway when illustrating our intended meaning, but not all the way, encouraging engagement with our prose. And so “no ideas but in (beautiful) things” is one method of many that we might use to effectively reveal truths about our own ordinary and beautiful lives.

Jody Keisner’s essays have appeared in Fourth GenreBrevityThe Threepenny ReviewPost RoadHunger MountainAssayThe Normal SchoolThe Rumpus, and many other journals and magazines. You can read more of her work at