Yesterday my good friend Maria Gunn sent me an article from the 9/14/2015 issue of The New Yorker. The article by John McPhee is called “Omission.” Maria has been good enough to give me feedback on a piece of mine. I warned her that the work needs cutting, and she sent me this apres pot article.
In making his point about the importance of lean writing, McPhee rightly mentions the man considered to be its greatest champion: Earnest Hemingway. McPhee quotes, “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above the water.”
Clearly Hemingway was influenced by his years as a journalist. Writing to the point is the point of journalism. But I wonder if Papa wasn’t influenced also by radio, arguably the dominant medium of his time. The sparely written radio dramas of the ’30’s and ’40s were very powerful. Witness the national hysteria over Orson Wells’ 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds. People who missed the disclaimer in the beginning tuned in to hear a string of fictional news casts about enormous alien war machines ravaging New Jersey. So terrifying were these terse accounts that a few people attempted suicide during the show, clear evidence of the power of omission.
I struggle with the complexity of the stories and the accessibility of language in my two novels. Will a young reader stumble on a word more common in the books of my own childhood than in hers? Will she finish a book with so many characters and twists?
The point I’ve come to is that while I certainly do not wish to confuse, bore or frustrate readers, I do hope to pass on some of the richness of detail I was fortunate enough to be exposed to not only in my early readings, but in my own childhood. My father, a character himself, devoured sea stories, and could quote Shakespeare and Walter Scott at the drop of the hat. My mother, a painter and poet, quoted the Romantic poets almost daily. My big sister Lalu is a marvelous storyteller herself and read me Thurber with a wicked giggle. My late sister Robin McCorquodale published several acclaimed books and sang mezzo soprano in New York. My brother Grainger Hunt sang rock-and-roll and played Henry IV on stage. My own literary influences were Shakespeare, Homer, Twain, Verne, Stevenson, Doyle, Wells, Hammett, Hellman, O’Brian, Chandler and McMurtry. I read them still.
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Everybody has an interesting story, but it’s generally not the one they’ll tell you first. How Bob kicked the winning field goal in the last high school game is interesting to Bob. It’s the story that makes Bob feel giddy as he anticipates excitement rising in your expression. To get a grand sense of this, read William Shatner’s or Donald Trump’s autobiographies. They’re stuffed with vignettes that portray them as brave, smart and very cool. (I actually enjoyed Shatner’s.) They’re the same stories you’ve been button-holed in the corner at a cocktail party to hear. There are one or two in this blog to be honest.
The good stories are the ones you pull out of yourself like arrowheads. They make you squirm. They’re embarrassing or shameful – so much so they’re likely to be embedded in fiction, or told as though they happened to someone else.
Those are the ones I want to hear, and write. Most of us, I suspect, have several. But, like I say, they’re hard to tell.
*The painting is Leonardo DaVinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, c. 1474.