The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Progress of a Story: The Importance of Being Ernest Hemingway

By Andrew Tibbetts

I’ve been on a writing holiday for two weeks. Everyday I found one thing or another more compelling than the unfinished writing project. One day I watched four hours of “What Not to Wear.” I’m not kidding. Four hours. Four different transformations. Four quirky interesting people turned into blandly ordinary nice looking people. They must have a “What Not to Wear” channel on cable. It's always on. I lovehate that show. But, me and Clinton, now it’s official—after the hand-puppet episode, where Clinton reveals himself to be the worst improv-comedy performer in the world—that we are destined to marry. He just became so much more appealing when he stopped being perfect. Cute!

On another writing day, I suddenly got the idea that I had to read some Hemingway short stories. I’ve never read any. Oh, that’s not true. I read one about abortion, I think. Some time ago. I barely remember it. A couple was talking. No one actually said ‘abortion’ but that’s what they were talking about. Or maybe not. It was so long ago. I believe I was wearing a deconstructed jacket with padded shoulders. I may have had on a headband. Anyway, I’d decided that my ‘father’ story was going to be inspired by Hemingway (because I think, if my father would ever have enjoyed reading a short story, it would probably be one by Ernest Hemingway) and so I’d better go and get some Hemingway stories. I combed the Toronto used book stores and every store had at least one copy. The cheapest was seven bucks. Hooray! (More writing avoidance—go used book browsing!)

I read three stories and they were smashing! Even so—I was tempted to blame poor Ernest for every stupid macho male thing I’ve come across in my life. He’s pretty rigid on ‘being a man’ which is the opposite of ‘a coward’. And manhood seems to be acquired by shutting off your feelings and killing something.

On the last Saturday before my writing holiday was over I finally dug up my old efforts at a ‘father’ story. Wow—they were so much better than I remembered. I picked up right where I left off and pulled all the bits into a shape. (Do you end up with hundreds of story-bits? I have to do a file search for a characters’ name whenever I try to pick up a dropped story. This time I ended up with 45 files to poke through, slightly different versions of the same few scenes. Very irritating.)

Anyway, it’s back on! I did a bit of research about the Korean War and tried to think of some ways to Hemingwayize the chunks I’d already written. This was really rewarding. There’s something very feminine about the way I write short stories. My favourite short story writers are mostly women: Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Amy Hempel, Miranda July, Katherine Mansfield, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Deborah Eisenberg. And lately, I’ve been very attracted to the poetic prose styles of Anne Michaels and Anne Carson and I’ve been pushing my language in that direction, or I should say directions. They aren’t very similar, my Annes.

Well, putting my ‘father’ story through the Hemingway sieve was very exciting. I chopped all my long sentences into simpler ones. I shaved off half the descriptive words. (Although, I have to say, while I was reading Hemingway, I kept saying, HA—there’s an adverb!, HA—there’s a fancy couple of adjectives! He’s not nearly as spare as I thought he was going to be.) If I could pair down a set of observations into a single punchier one, I did. If I could take out an interior monologue and leave the action alone, I did.

Here’s a before-sentence from the middle of the story:

Given an hour to escape the burning sunshine, some of the sailors went below deck but Christopher Hebblethwaite threw himself from the side of the ship, a beautiful dive curving up, over, and straightening sharply to cut deep into the cold saltwater.
Hey-What do you want? It’s an early draft! It’s trying to be one of those long loopy Gabriel García Márquez/William Gass/Salman Rushie sentences that are the literary equivalent of a panoramic shot. I love those. But, not very Hemingway! So, here’s what happened to it. Pared to the bone:
He dove off the ship into the ocean.
Anyway, I’m not done, so this is an interim report. I’ll keep you informed. And for the meantime, here’re my hotties of the month:
Ernest Hemingway and Clinton Kelly!

Stay tuned for next week's "What Not to Write", when Ernest chucks all Andrew's fruity commas into the trash! And Clinton says, "You're going to the book store dressed like that?"


Anonymous Shaula said...

How amazing! It's like you took this advice on growing sentences and played it in reverse!

In fact, sweet thing, you can blame the entire patriarchy on Hem. Lord knows I do. Before Hem, his 2-dimensional women, and his 6-toed cats, the entire universe was gender neutral. All the machismo bullfeathers are his fault.

Go on, blame him. It will make you feel so much better.

And I'm thrilled to hear that the writing came together!

(I dare you to take the original, Anne-ful version, change the genders, and make it about daughters and mothers instead!)

Tue Mar 24, 02:13:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh man, could someone please nominate me to be featured on What Not to Write?! I can just see Stacy and Clinton going through my files, trashing my beloved purple prose, which, yes, I admit, is soooo Eighties. And the credit card for Chapters, ( with free shipping!) Yes, yes cut my hair, I want to be a writer with style! Anyone's style but my own.
I do love that show, by the way.

Tue Mar 24, 02:42:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Ellen said...

*It was so long ago. I believe I was wearing a deconstructed jacket with padded shoulders. I may have had on a headband.*

You are HILARIOUS!! (And between us, I LOVE Clinton. So saucy ... so smart.)

What Not to Write is a killer concept. Way to go.

Tue Mar 24, 04:33:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous JC said...

Cute. You might want to check out for some more manly chuckles.


Wed Mar 25, 11:42:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Maryanne Stahl said...

fab, as usual. and when I read that you found your stuff to be so good, I was waiting for the self-deprecating punch line that never arrived. yay for you for loving you! (who wouldn't?)

next up: how to lop six-toed sentences?

Sat Mar 28, 07:52:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous martin heavisides said...

Taking the piss a little Andrew? I wrote a review of 49 Stories in Goodreads which I also posted to The Evitable and Open Salon.
Definitely prefer the first draft of the diving sentence.

Sat Mar 28, 08:20:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I LOVE your before and after sentences. A few things do get lost in the process, don't they?

Thanks for the smiles. You're good.

Thu Apr 02, 12:33:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger beebe said...

So sorry you're riding off into the sunset. But before you go, I'd like a confab. I'm a writer. You're a writer and there is someone I'd like to introduce to you. So, as Joan Rivers says: Can we talk?
Maryanne S. gave me your name. She and I are compatriots on Zoe.
Beebe Barksdale-Bruner

Wed Apr 29, 05:47:00 pm GMT-4  

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