Between Self and Story

Between Self and Story

On Hemingway and Writing

By Richard Gilbert, contributing editor

A writer’s sense & sensibility become, through craft, literature.
Craft is the self’s conduit to art—but craft mustn’t be enshrined.

If you stay in newspapers long enough, you’ll only see words.”*                                                                                      —Ernest Hemingway

I encountered Papa’s warning in my teens, reading everything by and about him. When I went to work in newspapers after college, his phrase haunted at odd moments. I’d just knocked out my fourth police brief of a morning, say, and realized I had another to go—on an epidemic of car-battery thefts—and it was six minutes before deadline. Usually it was satisfying, working each little story like a jigsaw puzzle, selecting pieces culled from the police blotter. But was this what he meant?

A roundup of battery thefts doesn’t bring to life the widow, outsourced by the textile mill, turning her ignition key to silence in the Wal-Mart lot as plastic bags blow past. But it doesn’t intend to. Is there anything inherent in journalism (or nonfiction generally) that bars it from doing everything fiction might do with her story, including rendering her point of view?

Not theoretically, no. It’s thrilling to realize that. There are only practical difficulties, but admittedly brutal ones. You need her story and permission to use it; you have to get her to talk—in detail; and essentially she must let you enter her mind. The sheer work and trust involved in this process—call it reporting—is staggering. Talented immersion journalists succeed, but the difficulty may be one reason fiction has been a historic default for writers.

Having asserted, however, that there’s no insurmountable reason why nonfiction cannot present even another’s subjective reality as richly as fiction, there’s another issue.

Maybe what Hemingway meant with his warning, which I haven’t been able to find again except in my memory*, is that reporters knock out so many words they can beat the sense out of them—that is, lose the felt sense of deeper purpose: they’re just shoving around words. If he meant that it’s primarily a problem of high output, I don’t fully agree. For God’s sake, look how much Updike published! If Hemingway was criticizing the impersonality that still afflicts much journalism, I agree. You must bring your whole heart to the keyboard. Otherwise, you’re just shoveling manure.

Ron Carlson’s advice in Ron Carlson Writes a Story seems to indicate this is an issue in fiction too:

Regardless of where I got the experience (or the story “idea”), I treat it personally; if it’s not personal, I don’t want to be involved. If it is solely intellectual, some concept or puzzle I’m tempted by . . . I will explore it until I find the personal element and something sparks. Having a feeling for my material means sending myself on each journey, whether I’ve actually been there or not, and it involves the powerful act of the imagination that good writing requires: empathy.

I used to think that fiction writers are often so impressive when they turn to nonfiction, whether memoir or magazine article, because they’ve simply learned how to tell stories. That may be part of it. But what can get beaten out of writers in schoolroom or newsroom is the connection of words to inner truth, and fiction writers deal, as their stock in trade, only with the most deeply subjective perspectives. So maybe it’s not vaunted narrative, per se, not event sequence, that’s most powerful and appealing in storytelling but point of view.

Writing based in a social science approach, whether traditional scholarship or “objective” journalism, has strengths (testing a hypothesis, the imposition of rigor in presenting evidence) for which I’m grateful. Yet it tends to enshrine craft at the surface level, not only making a fetish of its simplest aspects but trapping the writer there in Hemingway’s curse, disconnected from meaning. I saw this after I’d become a journeyman reporter with a five-year apprenticeship under my belt, and at a newspaper conference was appalled at the lowly aspects of craft that dominated the agenda. They can’t talk about the writer or his intentions, I thought, because that would contravene the conventions of objectivity.

Their assumption seemed to be that a roomful of reporters who witnessed the same event would write identical stories. Just apply craft. Use your eyes and jot down exactly what you saw and what you heard said. And remember, use active verbs. Presto, an objective report. Whatever that means.

By then I’d written immersion profiles, investigative series, some short stories, and had spent a fellowship year reading Sartre and the Bible. I was beginning to see that writing that’s art, whether fiction or nonfiction, derives from truth apprehended by an inner life and struggling to be expressed. From a deeply subjective point of view. From a powerful feeling, often only a sense. Point of view can be handled in many ways, but there must be one. This is why the writer cannot be scrubbed from her prose without loss. Because writing that moves readers arises from idea and emotion, which flow within and beneath all effective prose. This unity of sense and sensibility becomes, through craft’s alchemy, art.

Writing theorist Peter Elbow, in Chapter Two of Writing with Power, addresses this aspect—writing as the product of a profound inner struggle:

To write is to overcome a certain resistance: you are trying to wrestle a steer to the ground, to wrestle a snake into a bottle, to overcome a demon that sits in your head. To succeed in writing or making sense is to overpower that steer, that snake, that demon. But not kill it.

This myth explains why some people who write fluently and perhaps even clearly—they say just what they mean in adequate, errorless words—are really hopelessly boring to read. There is no resistance in their words; you cannot feel any force being overcome, any orneriness. No surprises. The language is too abjectly obedient. When writing is really good, on the other hand, the words themselves lend some of their energy to the writer. The writer is controlling words he can’t turn his back on without danger of being scratched or bitten.

Art is intensely personal and so must the artist be. When my prose goes flat it seems that’s because I’m cut off emotionally from the material and am just covering narrative ground. I’ve lost point of view and therefore voice. Craft (basically my working on the words and syntax) can get such a passage flowing because such recasting reconnects me to subjective experience. And honestly, probably because varying sentence structures both mimics emotional connection and creates it.

Dead spots afflict fiction writers too—more often, probably, because they slip into so many different points of view. Until point of view clicks, they don’t have a voice or much else to work with. I presume they ponder to find their way in, and maybe, like me, they resort to craft and fiddle with sentences. But craft is only the tool.

Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner conclude in Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose:

Our answer is that writing is . . . not a bundle of skills. Although it is true that an ordinary intellectual activity like writing must lead to skills, and skills inevitably mark the performance, the activity does not come from the skills, nor does it consist of using them.

Techniques, from research to rhythm, are means. I honor craft, midwife to art, and emphasize craft greatly in teaching, because although talent is common the higher levels of craft are not.

But to make craft writing’s pinnacle barricades the writer in a room far from the music that arises from meaning. Which comes at base from intent. The inner truth, though often discovered through craft, and inexpressible without craft, is not craft. In all writing, craft is the vital transforming link between the writer’s self and his story. The self, flowing through craft, produces art. But craft is therefore subservient to self lest it reduce writing to the mere arrangement of words.

Far from being just a journalist’s issue, it’s any writer’s.

[*Recently I came across in The Paris Review Papa’s warning or at least this variant of it: “Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time. . . . [J]ournalism, after a point has been reached, can be a daily self-destruction for a serious creative writer.”]

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