Re-reading Your Influences: Beyond the Tip of Hemingway’s Iceberg by Brad Windhauser
My senior year of undergrad, I took an upper-division grammar class, a course designed not to teach us grammar but rather to explore all the potential of the English language. Doing so would compel us to pay closer attention to our sentence structure and how we manipulate language to better serve our stories. Apart from the final exam, we had a ten page paper: explore the use of language by an author you admire.
Hemingway is the writer who inspired me to write fiction because he took the ordinary and elevated it to high art, so I wrote about him. But I was ambitious (and a little over confident in my writing abilities), so I asked my professor for a little latitude on the assignment: could I write a short story in the style of Hemingway and use the content to convey his use of language?
Sure, why not?
If you’ve ever read a story by a fledgling writer who was trying really hard to imitate one of their idols, you know how painful these stories can be. Mine was bad. But I cited “The Killers” as one of my inspirations for what I submitted, and my professor generously suggested that the fact that he didn’t have a copy of that story at home worked in my final grade’s favor. The biggest flaw in my story was that I didn’t understand the influence with which I was so enamored.
As I said, part of what I loved about Hemingway was (and still is) his ability to take an ordinary situation and turn it into art. He did this through (famously) simple, declarative sentences, which, when strung together in tight paragraphs, created stories that hum with nary an insignificant word. This continues to be one of the many things I admire about his work. However, as a budding writer, I wasn’t understanding what was operating underneath all of this seemingly simple approach to story.
That assignment taught me something valuable: you need to revisit your influences, and often. But when you do, you should read not for pleasure, but rather as a writer scavenging for technique.
Revisiting your influences doesn’t mean you understand nothing about your influences; your instincts draw you to certain authors for a reason. You like the pacing of the plot, the rendering of setting, use of time, characters, etc. However, whatever the reason(s)—what is appealing about a particular writer’s technique(s)—may not always be clear, especially if you are new to the craft. Therefore, let your influences breathe. By that I mean, soak them up and set them aside. After you’ve been working for a while—think a couple years of writing and reading—return to the influences that got you excited about fiction in the first place and explore them with fresh eyes. Writer’s eyes. Analyze (as clinical as this sounds) not just what the author is doing but how the author is doing it.
Hemingway does it with economy of language.
Hemingway (as well as several other authors) famously believed: “Kill your darlings.” By this he meant that, when revising your work, you need to take a step back and excise anything that is not crucial to moving the story and characters forward. This cutting might mean the loss of a line, a paragraph, or even a scene you’ve fallen in love with. Love aside, if something is not serving the story, it goes.
More importantly is that his work teaches me how you can say so much with so little. He believed in the theory of omission, or the iceberg analogy, which suggests that readers will only see the surface elements of your story, the exposed part of an iceberg (only a small fraction of the large block of floating ice). What the author knows about his or her characters, however, comprises the bulk of the iceberg, the part unseen underwater.
My understanding of Hemingway was limited to what was surface-level, that that was all there was to see and understand. The more I read—and the more I write—I’ve come to understand that I need to go a lot deeper with my story and characters; however, the majority of this will never find its way on to the page. This is what Hemingway keeps teaching me. A look between characters carries weight beyond the scene. Their whole history together carries the baggage that informs one person telling another “no.” And the impact of that response will reverberate long after the story is over. He also keeps teaching me that I am constantly able to learn new tools, ones I didn’t understand or appreciate before. This is why I keep returning to his work every so often.
Side note: His most famous stories include “A Clean and Well Lighted Place,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” and “Up in Michigan.” For me, “The Three Day Blow,” wherein two friends talk about seemingly mundane things like baseball and writers before moving into relationship talk, is perhaps the best example of dialogue rendering character I have ever read. Every writer looking to use dialogue in this way should read it.
If you learn nothing else from Hemingway, it’s that it’s hard work to make writing look so easy.