I have been struggling over a new blog post for a couple weeks. I feel like writing about baseball. I could pull it off, but many interested in “A blog about my writing” follow “From the Spitbucket.” A couple months ago, I subjected them to a post about nude swimming in high school. Too soon to do baseball.
My writing has been stuck for a while, as it often is when Osher—a lifelong learning program I’m enrolled in at Johns Hopkins—classes roll, and we’re five weeks into a semester now. This semester, I’m taking Shakespeare with Jim Blue, a retired physicist who seems to enjoy the challenges of the bard. We’re just finishing Comedy of Errors, which I find delightful. Reading something like Comedy of Errors gives me a lift because, right or wrong, I perceive it as a piece of entertainment, exactly the sort of thing I like to write. Comedy of Errors is a lot of fun. Starting next week, something completely different, Titus Andronicus.
I’m also taking “Alfred Hitchcock and Adaptations,” with Mary Dutterer. Mary is an associate professor of English at Prince George’s Community College who had a minor in film studies. I enjoyed her class on the Coen Bros., and I love Hitchcock. So many of his films were adaptations of works written as short stories, novels, or plays, and I like the idea of looking at what he did with pre-existing texts, and how. My agent, Lawrence Jordan, has put the idea in my head that my fiction would translate well to a screen, and I’m enjoying looking at a written work and then at what changes in the Hitchcock movie, and what stays the same. Interestingly, I’ve already read a few works that Hitch adapted—The Birds, by Daphne du Maurier, Psycho by Robert Bloch, and Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, but we’re not covering those in this class.
My last class on “Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway,” has been the most exciting. It didn’t take long—the instructor, Robert Jacobs, mentioned the iceberg theory the first week and that knocked me on my butt. It was not so long ago—2016? 2017—that the iceberg theory was near to my heart and I hoped in the back of my mind when I would sit down at my humble cathode ray tube to write. But somewhere during the last three years, I lost the iceberg theory and started writing to the “movie in my mind” (MIMM) hypothesis. Under the MIMM, I try to paint for the reader some characters in a scene that he can visualize, and then try to keep the reader engaged in the action while the characters take it from there. It’s a fun way to write, and it seemed good enough for what I wanted to do—produce a piece of entertainment (viz. Comedy of Errors, above). But I frequently had the nagging feeling that I was leaving something out. Perhaps more correctly, that I was not leaving enough out.
I had some early success—my first two stories were published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Perhaps I got cocky or careless. Sure, it’s swell writing a fun story that readers can visualize. I’ve continued to have some successes, (more published stories in EQMM, agents offering to represent novels), but some failures too, which make me wonder if I’ve kept the literary quality up.
The revelation, the reminder to remember the iceberg, comes at a good time for me. I was slouching through a humdrum section of a WWII novella, trying to make it with only my characters, but even the characters weren’t fully alive. They were slouching toward a murder attempt at Lake Tahoe. I didn’t know enough about my plot to know what to write next. But since I was already thinking about Hemingway, the answer came to me, “write one true sentence.” Following which, it should be easy to write another. And another.
So much for any writer’s block.
After I finish this story, I’ll go back and work it again, (and maybe again), and fill in the rest of the iceberg. But that’s not all. A writer learns a lot from revisiting Hemingway’s short stories. Figuring out what is being said in a Hemingway short story and what is being not said tells the would-be author what he needs to know about the iceberg theory and how to use it. We’ve read stories about suicide, madness, adultery, abortion, impotence, and cowardice, from which we learn the writer must show the whole story, the wretched and horrible along with the beautiful. And watching how Hemingway slips into the internal dialogue of a broken mind shows you the depth of “one true sentence.”
I look forward to the Ken Burns documentary “Hemingway” beginning April 5 on PBS.