Here’s a writing exercise that focuses on that key element of writing: the “tell.” The tell is that moment when people tip their hand and you can see their plot, their strategy, their ax to grind. Tells exist in poker (that clearing of the throat). They exist on the witness stand (the tapping of the foot). We have observed them among our friends (that look of annoyance that comes in a blink of an eye).
Great tells exist in gesture—gestures like a man sitting down as a woman stands before him—a clear sign that in a Henry James novel, which takes place in Victorian England, the man is carrying on an affair, that the two have come to a point where they have dispensed with the formalities, that he feels he no longer needs to stand up when a lady is in his presence. This exchange is witnessed by Isabel Archer in Henry James’s great novel Portrait of a Lady and it is in this moment that she realizes that she has been tricked by her husband Gilbert Osmond and his older lover Madame Merle. They were only after one thing: her great and sparkling inheritance—a diamond solitaire against a black velvet gown.
Great tells can also exist in obsessions—opaque signs of darker stiller waters. Great tells are moments of intuition—the tarot pack on the table of life. We can look to fiction for fine examples, but when we look to our own lives, we learn so much not only about our craft but ourselves. I’m going to unpack a tell from the anecdote of my own life and maybe it can give you something to work with when you work on your own work.
One of my friends is getting rid of her family encyclopedias—or at least trying to get rid of them—if her mom will let them go. She’s about to go to Europe for 2 years, to flit about France and Germany, so that her egghead husband can do complex mathematical research. And so she has been putting her life in order—selling stuff and visiting friends. She’ll be gone a long time on a great adventure. And now she is in La Jolla at cottage by the sea, looking at the accumulation of life and wanting to put some order to that world, too. There are so many objects that amass like barnacles on the slow-moving ship in a home that has been kept in the family for generations.
So she put out a desperate call to her wide network of friends—friends who might cherish these artifacts, which now are so quaint in this age of Google. For her, they represent a simpler time of America’s midcentury—the easy luxuries of mass-produced knowledge and TV dinners. A time when America’s rising dominance after the successful prosecution of a World War, meant that every house could afford these books bound in the gold and red that is supposed to simulate the fine Moroccan leather of a country gentleman.
My parents had a set of Encyclopedia Brittanicas. They were a gift from our church sponsors after we arrived to the United States as refugees from the Vietnam War. And they were for years prominently displayed above the den television next to a bust of the Statue of Liberty bedecked with a strand of fake pearls.
One of my most poignant memories comes from the Brittanicas when my father attempted to explain the difference between a Coup de Grace and a Coup d’etat. He reached for those trusty Encyclopedias and showed me the entry, featuring a black and white photo of a man who had gotten a bullet through the head as the final act of kindness in a massive take-over.
“A Coup de Grace can be a part of a Coup d’etat. But a Coup d’etat does not always involve a Coup de Grace.” He pronounced the word “Grace” the French way, not the way that my school teacher did, butchering it into the French word for “Fat.” I think that at some point, he drew me a Venn diagram to drive home the point, showing the way in which two very distinct things can overlap at certain points but remain completely different.
It would take me many years to realize why this distinction would be so important to my father, why he would reach for those high-up-on-the-shelf Encyclopedias. I never asked him. We don’t really talk of such things. It seems too morbid, too somber. But I can guess. And my guess is that it was because so many Coup D’etats had been the natural consequence of my father’s adult life—a life in a war zone that had come as a result of French Colonialism. My father, a military man of more than modest rank, probably knew people who knew people for whom the Coup de Grace would have been the denouement of a Coup D’etat. And a Coup D’etat probably meant the possibility of advancement—maybe demotion—or death.
The Coup de Grace upon the battlefield would have been a generosity—a bullet to the head that would relieve a friend or foe of his suffering. My father did his military studies in the United States and trained in the graduate institution that produced all the great generals—Eisenhower, Petraeus, Powell. And the first thing you see when you walked through my childhood home was his diploma—a diploma that signified that he had completed a course of study for which a Coup de Grace was an honorable thing and a Coup d’etat was a conceivable operation, the mechanics of which you studied in order to possibly one day enact it. And so my father’s teaching me this basic lesson in the horrors of war—a lesson that he delivered with much patience and kindness—was also a tell of sorts: a sign that the ghost of a life that he had left behind was still with him, even if he was a new man in a new world. Even if in civilian life, he was just an accountant.
So here is your task: Design a tell. Do it in the form of a dialogue—a tic, an obsession. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a dialogue about shooting somebody in the head. It can be as simple as an obsessive discussion of beekeeping or horseracing or veganism. Look toward those moments in your own life where you figured somebody out in the small gesture that lays bare their strengths and their frailties. But in the process of returning and returning to the topic, make that tell tell something telling about its teller.