Tammy Dietz: “Everything I Know I Learned from Shoplifting”

TAMMY DIETZ, nonfiction editor for Silk Road, is a writer, instructor, and instructional designer. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and literary journals including Bringing Light to Twilight, a critical examination of the Twilight book series, and The Legendary Online Journal. She lives with her husband and children near Seattle.

Her nonfiction piece “Everything I Know I Learned from Shoplifting” appears in bioStories.

I’ve always wanted to write about my experiences as a shoplifter, but I’ve avoided the subject for both obvious and less obvious reasons. Obvious: It’s a little embarassing. Less obvious: I didn’t know how to do it and I held no interest in writing a self-indulgent, preachy confessional. The truth is, I’m not proud of being a thief as a child and young adult. But I don’t think my experience is unique (just a hunch) and for me, it took exploration of this morally questionable terrain to develop a sense of responsibility about it. There is something very American (where fortune favors the brave) about my experience, and when I found that angle, I also found the heart of the story.

Balance Reflection and Scene


Tammy DietzBy Senior Nonfiction Editor

Tammy Dietz



In efforts to lead memoir writers away from too much “telling,” many writing instructors encourage us to consider our experiences in the form of scene.

“Think of your life as though it were a movie,” a few instructors have told me.

“But I can’t remember all those details,” I’ve replied to these instructors (and myself).

“You don’t have to,” my instructors said. “Show—don’t tell—and in doing so the emotional truth will be conveyed.”

For me, this guidance helped loosen the Truth Leash enough so that vivid scenes could emerge and by golly, those instructors were right about arriving even closer to an authentic rendering of experience. I’m here to say that if you’re writing narrative nonfiction for Silk Road, please embellish upon what you remember exactly. Don’t make up events. That’s going too far. But do enhance remembered events with sights, sounds, and smells—even if you have to make them up.

That said, there comes a time in narrative nonfiction when reflection is necessary as well. Great narrative nonfiction balances showing with telling—show and tell. When evaluating Silk Road submissions, I look for scenes that draw me into the writer’s experience so deeply that I feel as though I am behind their eyes. Lock-step with these scenes, I must also be drawn into their hearts through reflection that can be in either the story moment (what the narrator felt and thought at the time of the scene) or in the authorial moment (what the narrator feels and thinks at the time of writing the scene).

Some writers to whom I’ve given this advice have asked for a ratio. What percentage do I show, and what percentage do I tell? The short answer on this is, maddeningly: it depends on the subject and the style of the piece. Striking the right balance between showing and telling isn’t easy to do. Many writers struggle to keep pacing tight, voice consistent, and action compelling while pairing reflection with scene. But the best narrative nonfiction does just that.