A lot has been said about Hemingway’s sparse text, and whether it would -- or wouldn’t -- be as successful in today’s market. In my own experience, I read A FAREWELL TO ARMS in high school, and was struck by the poignant imagery of certain scenes, and how those characters -- so real -- lingered in my memory long after it was finished. They still do. Later on, it was THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, which I picked up on my own out of a love for old men and the sea.
Once again, characters sprang to life in that same familiar way (what makes something familiar?) and I marveled how he managed to make such a simple man so full of dignity. Years later, I got down to business as a writer and began picking apart even his short stories to search out the how’s and why’s of his craft. I had to. Because he had captivated me. How could he do that?
I don’t love his stories (most of them make me sad). I am even directly opposed to his “Todo de nada” philosophy -- everything is not worthless! -- and have spent most of my life reveling in how wonderful it all is. But he had something. He had something that people all over the world (including people like me who don’t even agree with him) relate to in some way. The basic needs of humanity, maybe, which will always hit the deepest no matter who you are, or what you do with your life. The need to be loved. The need to be respected. The need to be recognized. Deep, deep needs. Everybody has them. They must be met in some way at some point in life, or a person ends up warped in some way. Hmmm... so, he deals with the stuff that we don’t really want to look at.
Yes, but not really. Because he never came right out to say, for instance, “this man was never loved by anyone in his life...” but you knew it by the man’s actions. A constant need to please, maybe, or making himself a pest around people he admired. Something in the deepest part -- of all of us -- recognizes little things like that. It is not pleasant, but we know. Hemingway does not pass judgments on us for knowing, or meddle with our thoughts about it, either. He just gets on with the story. The “here is how it happened,” and “this is the way it was,” part. Which is all that really matters when you are into a story. Because even if you are not that man, you know someone just like him, so the connection is made.
Maybe Hemingway’s success lies in the knowledge that all people are human. So, he doesn’t put any of that into words. He just goes on with the story. Meanwhile, picking and choosing each action of his characters with a meticulousness that often drove others crazy. An obsessiveness that sloshed over into other areas of his life and made him a difficult man to live with. But he had an amazing grasp of something he was was exceptionally good at. The kind that can only be got by obsessive means. Like golfers who hit balls till their hands are bloody, he learned what he had to leave out.
He knew what NOT to say. And that meticulous choosing of exactly what not to say, spoke louder to us than his words. He even went so far as to remove any of his own words that might muddy up the waters of each reflecting pool he created. For his part, he just whispers, “Come here. Bend down. I want to show you something.” Who can resist that? On the other hand, if he would have offered, “Want to see a true-to-life picture of yourself?” The majority of us would have replied, “Thanks, but no. I have to live with myself every day, and I so don’t need to be reminded.”
So, I am thinking about these things, and have been thinking about them for a long time. Until one day -- hard at work on a rewrite -- the thought suddenly occurs to me, “What shouldn’t I say?” To which another voice chimes up from some other part of my psyche and replies, “Who do you think you are? Hemingway? He’s wine and you’re water. Do you want to get this thing done, or not?” But it’s too late, I am hooked by the idea, now, and I am going to think some more about this.
Then it strikes me -- after years of effort at learning how to put words down -- am I going to fly off to this new mountain and waste who knows how much time trying to figure out how NOT to put them there? Just the thought of that makes me ill. And while I am teetering, the advocate voice pipes up, again, to warn, “It’s just a distraction. This is your best work and you know it. It’s hard enough to get things down the way people want these days -- don’t sabotage yourself!”
“I never wanted to read Hemingway.” I may even have said that out loud. “He... captivated me.”
“Horrible man! Look how you came away afterward. Sad, sad, sad!”
But all of a sudden, I have to know. Am I onto a good thing, or a bad thing, here? Well, we shall just see about that! I don’t live in the Information Age for nothing. So, I minimize my work-in-progress (along with my voices) and hop onto the Internet to Google up a definition for the word captivate. Of course, I know what it means (I’ve used it enough times), but I have a hunch it may have one of those hidden poison meanings, too. Like the words assertive, or sophisticated. And if it does, I will toss it out and be done with this utterly disturbing, recurring mind-conversation, once and for all...
“Captivate: to attract and hold by charm, beauty, or excellence..”
Well, for goodness sake, of course I want to do that -- what writer wouldn’t? But the size of that mountain looks almost more daunting than the last one I climbed. Now, I feel like something of a deflated balloon, and I start to wonder if maybe I could be satisfied with just a little bit of charm, beauty, and excellence...
Oh, bosh! Satisfied? I’d be satisfied about as much as I am with a little coffee, or a little help, or even a little warm in my bathtub. I’d rather not have any, if a little was all I could get. And I’m thinking most people might feel the same way.
So, now I have to decide. Cold or hot, once and for all, either decide to do this thing or I never want to think about it, again. Enough! Enough for now, anyway. At which point -- almost out of reflex -- my finger clicks onto a new editing blog I’ve just found. Let’s quit with all this ethereal stuff and return to concrete, shall we? Isn’t that most of what rewriting a manuscript is? Let’s get down to business, here -- I’ve got a big job to do, and a bunch more waiting in line.
But then I read these words:
“Drilling down to the essential ingredients
Choosing what not to say is the art of storytelling. Less is always better, and it’s actually fun to choose among all that’s happened to create a unique and insightful way of seeing things. Leave out everything you possibly can.”
Can you believe that? Thank you, Alan. You have no idea how I needed that just now. Thank you. So, here I am sitting back where I started, this morning, with my nose in my rewrite, wondering, all right. All right! “What shouldn’t I say?”