Words Fail Me: Writing the Impossible

Ernest Hemingway said good stories should be like icebergs.

“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit the things that 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 water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

Earnest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon

His theory of omission kicked off an era of minimalism that was a mixed blessing because achieving what he’s talking about takes a level of mastery that few writers attain – not that we shouldn’t try. His instinct to have the heart of the meaning express itself in the unwritten warp and weft of a story has without a doubt enriched modern literature.

Hemingway didn’t say that it was impossible to render the entire iceberg, only that it was better not to. Implicit in this quote is the idea that it’s a writer’s job to take in the whole iceberg. I agree we must try to embrace the entire experience of what we are attempting to write about. In fantasy and science fiction this may mean hours spent building alien worlds, cultures, politics, or magic systems from the ground up before writing. Always, it means being alive to everything and everyone around us.

Despite our best efforts, we are all doomed to failure. We never grasp the entirety of any experience, the layers of nuance, the shades of meaning, the unknown histories. Worse, there is no way to hold onto the fragility of a fleeting moment without etherizing it like a butterfly and pinning it to a display case. A dead butterfly is still a butterfly, but it’s not the same thing that fluttered over the sun-splashed meadow.

Some things are omitted because there is just no way to articulate them. Karen Russell acknowledges this in this gorgeous quote from her wonderful novella * about a strange plague of insomnia so severe that sufferers eventually die:

“Then I wish for whatever is flowing between us to remain unnamed, formless, unmeted into story or ever “experienced” in the past tense, and so concluded; I don’t want to say it, I don’t even want to try to understand it, and so begin to mistake it for something else, and something else after that, paling shadows of this original feeling, something inaudibly delicate that would not survive the passage into speech.”

From Sleep Donation by Karen Russell

Writing is a way to plumb the depths of the unfathomable experience of our existence, and in the end, though we dive deep, it is impossible to know every contour of the submerged iceberg. And as Russell says, some things you can bring back from your journey of exploration and others you cannot.

* You can listen to Russell talk about Sleep Donation on Fresh Air, though I would recommend reading it first.

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