Between self and story

If you stay in newspapers long enough, you’ll only see words.

—Ernest Hemingway

I encountered Hemingway’s warning in my teens, reading everything by and about him. When I went towal-mart 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 is one reason fiction has been a historic default for writers.

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

I think 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, lose touch with meaning, which is carried in the emotion and ideas flowing within and beneath all effective prose. I used to think that fiction writers are often so impressive when they turn to nonfiction, whether memoir or magazine article, because they know 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 it’s not narrative, per se, not event sequence, that’s most powerful and appealing in all storytelling prose but point of view. Because writing that moves readers arises from idea and emotion. This unity of sense and sensibility becomes, through craft’s alchemy, art.

Writing based in a social science approach, whether scholarship or journalism, has strengths (testing a hypothesis, the imposition of rigor in presenting evidence) for which I’m grateful. However, 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. Writing that’s art 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. Evocative prose is so much more than words; something must be flowing from beneath.

Writing theorist Peter Elbow, in Chapter Two of Writing with Power, addresses this aspect of writing as a profound 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. 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 character’s voice or much else to work with. I presume they ponder to find their way in and maybe, like me, resort to craft and fiddle with sentences. But craft is only the tool.

Conclude Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner 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. 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.


Filed under craft, technique, emotion, fiction, journalism, narrative, Persona, Voice, POV, religion & spirituality, syntax, teaching, education

7 responses to “Between self and story

  1. David

    Very early on in my career in journalism at the Winston-Salem Journal–which was a very writerly paper where we all competed to best one another with the brio of our prose–I recall a city editor throwing a story back at a reporter for a rewrite. “Remember,” he said. “You’re only as good as your last byline.” Subsequently at other newspapers, editors were sometimes surprised when I exercised the utmost craft on seemingly trivial items. I’d deflect their compliment by repeating the words of that editor. “I don’t think I’d go that far,” they’d say.
    Probably, but it’s a useful measure in a diurnal business where you never know what’s going to get an editor’s attention and end up on the front page when you thought it would be back with the obits.

  2. great article keep it up..

  3. Hi Sheepboy,

    I see you wrote this a while ago, but I stumbled upon it just now and identified with some of what you wrote. I’ve been feeling that “flatness” in my writing for work these days; granted, some of the content I write must “fit” the website, but it’s all just information for their audience, nothing more.

    I miss working with words in the way I’d been doing in my manuscript, and thinking about writing when I was at Goucher with all of you.

    Hope all is well. I just re-added you to my blog list (I created a new blog since the previous one is private), so I hope to visit your blog more frequently.


  4. Pingback: Crafting prose by the ‘dangerous method’ « NARRATIVE

  5. Pingback: NARRATIVE

  6. This post was written before I knew you as a writer. Thanks for linking back to it. You have inspired me for two tasks in front of me right now: creating an honors course syllabus and the final revision of my memoir before it goes to the publisher. I am more confident in the self than in the story, since I am trying to catch up with others who have had much more instruction and experience in craft.

    Fortunately, for the self, life is not really a race. And there is always more to see than words.

    • How neat you are creating an honors syllabus—I hope for a class you’ll teach, Shirley. Honors kids TALK! Set the bar high for them, and you’ll grow yourself.