Monday, July 20, 2015


Our life is frittered away by detail.  
Simplify, simplify.  

-Henry David Thoreau

It is still July.  Next Monday, it will still be July.

Then it will be August for an entire month.

As I advance in years, & certainly as I watch my once tiny, squirming babies grow, I am not one to wish time away, however, that in no way changes my profound distaste for heat.  Henry has become increasingly verbal of late, pointing at & naming various things as he races through the house.  He never fails to gesture toward the fireplace in the living room & say, "fire," as he whooshes through, usually with his arms full of something, toys, food, socks . . . whatever he's set his mind to strew about the house that day.  I look longingly at the fireplace & nod in confirmation.  I suppose I am not completely opposed to heat.  I like hot coffee & hot chocolate & hot fires; all of this makes considerably more sense when it is not one-hundred degrees outside.    

Anyway, I am such a cyclical person & so as the book club makes its way through Harry Potter this summer I've thought back to last summer's books.  One of my goals is to sit down & make a list of every book the book club has read since I joined in March of 2012.  I need to do this soon considering the list (that does not yet actually exist) will just continually get longer, & thus more difficult to remember, with each month that passes.  I can't imagine what would speak to my little obsessions more than a list of books; I so adore both (maybe Henry Cavill sitting & sipping coffee & reading the list of books in his British accent?).

Right now I am drawing a blank on last August.  I know in July we read The Giver, because we went to see the movie when it was released.  I read The Bronze Horseman series in addition to my book club assignments, & so there's a fog of books from last summer clouding my mind, & the August book is lost in the mist.  I will sort it all out though, because somewhere, buried in last summer's blogs, is certainly a mention of what the book club read in August.  I know that eventually I'll be able to put a complete list together because I was blogging before I joined the book club, & so somewhere in all the other nonsense I'll be able to find all the books we've read.  You don't even have to ask; when the book list is complete, I will of course share it with you because as a blogger, I have no higher goal than to share things with you about which I suspect you care very little.

All this brings me to a semblance of a point.  I may not recall last August's book, but I do remember what we read in June of last summer, & that was a book titled A Farewell to Arms.  When we met to discuss the novel, there was a lack of effusive gushing.  I was not, however, dismayed, & honestly completely expected this.  I tried, with marginal success (I think) to explain that what I love about Hemingway's writing is, well, Hemingway's writing.

I love Hemingway's style, & I admire his process, which you get glimpses of via his writings about writing.  Hemingway is on my mind lately not only because of my list-o-books endeavor, but because I've been reading what I can about writing, & there are few people's thoughts on writing I enjoy more than Hemingway's.

I love the way he agonized over every word he wrote, the burden he felt to get it right, saying exactly what he wanted to say, & not one jot more.  I can appreciate that kind of perfectionism.  He once said, "All bad writers are in love with the epic."  Most of his novels are short.  The Sun Also Rises is 67,000 words.  A Farewell to Arms is 83,000 words.  For comparison, Faulkner's Light in August is 150,000 words.  Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is 169,000 words.  Great Expectations by Charles Dickens comes in at 183,000 words.  If you're curious, Tolstoy's War and Peace is 587,000 words.   Hemingway's longest novel is For Whom the Bell Tolls, coming in at 174,000 words.  I've never read it, but I am interested in doing so to see if Hemingway was off his game, or if he legitimately needed that many words to get his point across.  

Hemingway is equally famous for many of his short stories.  One of his most lauded is "Hills Like White Elephants," a story in which a couple discuss the possibility of the woman, who is revealed to be pregnant, having an abortion.  Not once is the word abortion used.  It is always an interesting story to assign English students.  I wish I'd kept a journal of some of the best answers I've been given to the question: What is the couple discussing?  

Below are some of my favorite Hemingway quotes about writing (well, the ones that don't contain four letter words).  He wrote the following of a story he wrote titled "Out of Season."  The principle applies to so much of his writing, including the short story I mentioned above, "Hills Like White Elephants."

It was a very simple story called "Out of Season" and I had omitted the real end of it which was that the old man hanged himself.  This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.

Sigh.  If you've ever studied Hemingway, you know his writing is often associated with the Iceberg Theory, or theory of omission.  Hemingway explains it this way:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit 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.  

I am drawn to Hemingway's writing for the same reason I want to clean out & organize my closet, the same reason I cleaned out & organized our pantry: simplicity.  I believe humans crave simplicity.  I know I do.      

In an attempt to cope with last week's news cycle, I read a little Thomas Sowell one night, & in so doing I stumbled across this quote:

People who pride themselves on their complexity and deride others for being simplistic should realize that the truth is often not very complicated.  What gets complex is evading the truth.

Last week was a terrible week to be an avid reader of news in America.  Much of the tragedy & rancor gripping this country is the result of laws enacted by those attempting to evade simple, simple truths.  Is is gut-wrenching to watch & listen as a woman discusses the dismemberment of babies & subsequent sale of their organs?  Of course.  The sad truth is that the only illegal aspect of that scenario is the sale of the organs; the simple truth is that everyone knows we are killing babies.  Watch & listen to those attempting to explain away this simple truth; their arguments are the linguistic equivalent of a game of Twister.  They can't state one simple truth: I know it is a baby.

Is it tragic to again see American servicemen gunned down on a military base?  Yes.  Could these mass shootings in gun-free zones be prevented, or at least discouraged, if we'd all admit that gun-free zones are Orwellian death traps, herding school children, church goers, & our servicemen into spaces advertised as being free of weapons that might possibly thwart an otherwise fatal attack?  It is so simple.  Laws don't change simple, logical truths.

I've been tasked with perhaps my most significant writing challenge to date: scripting Ruth.  I am, along with two dear friends, teaching at our church's Vacation Bible School this summer.  In our room, we will cover the story of Ruth, & we intend to do this via a skit of some sort.  This year's VBS theme is "Wanted by God," so naturally my first thought was to somehow work in Bon Jovi's "Wanted: Dead or Alive," but I guess VBS is not the most appropriate place to relive my childhood glory.  I've been asked to write a script of sorts for the "actors" who'll be sharing Ruth's story with the kids (& I am not even sure, but I may be one of these actors).  This will be my first foray into scriptwriting, though I've written dialogue (& I kind of love that), & I suppose this can't be all that different.

So, I am digging through the book of Ruth, & thinking about how to script her story in such a way that it will come alive for kids.  Kids need simplicity on all levels.  They need simple words & simple themes.  You can't have Boaz say something like, in lieu of (I've discovered I can't even say that in the college classroom), & you can't delve too deeply into matters of in-laws or Jewish traditions or when it's okay for a woman to marry a second time.

With Hemingway & the book of Ruth mixing it up in my head, I've come to this conclusion: good literature is both simple & complex.  It deals with complex subject matter like life, death, marriage, loyalty, redemption, war, etc., but the best authors present these issues as truthfully as they can, & the truth is usually quite simple, though admittedly not always pretty or uplifting.  Sometimes the truth is harrowing, shining a bright light on the depraved nature of humans, holding up a mirror for us from which most of us recoil, hiding our head & immediately attempting to explain away the reflection we saw, rather than deal with the truth.

I think some of the best American fiction holds up that mirror, & forces us to think about war, something America never goes too long without contemplating, in ways we otherwise might not, in ways that don't cross your mind reading a history text, or listening to the news.  Writers like Hemingway & others put you in those soldiers shoes, physically & emotionally.  In a letter, Hemingway once wrote,

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.  If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.

Hemingway dealt with his personal demons in the most honest way he knew how.  He poured himself into fiction driven by his tumultuous relations with women, with God, as well as the specters that haunted him after the many wars he witnessed.  The result is, in my opinion, insightful glimpses into truths about the human condition; what it is to love, to be a friend, to watch someone die, to be immersed in war, to be disillusioned by human cruelty, to rail against societal norms & expectations.

Were we to meet face to face, I don't know that there is much Ernest Hemingway & I would agree on ideologically, but I will always be thankful for & defend his contribution to the craft of writing, & to the canon of American literature.  Rare is the individual who can take multiple marriages (& affairs), time spent in war zones, & a drinking problem, & turn that misery into the exceptional literature Hemingway churned out.

Ruth's story is also filled with loss & turmoil, & ultimately redemption & restoration.  It is a rich exploration of familial relations.  I think I will focus on loyalty, which Ruth exudes, as well as Naomi's unselfishness.  I think I will craft a script that highlights loyalty & unselfishness as they're explored in Ruth, & slowly, masterfully, reveal to the kids that God seeks - craves, even - loyal, unselfish children willing to follow Him anywhere, as Ruth does Naomi, & willing to put others' needs before their own, as Naomi does even in her dark hour of grief.

I won't delve into the heavier aspects of Ruth, like death, including the deaths of Naomi's sons, nor will I make any in-law jokes, because they'd fly right over the kids' heads, & would probably be inappropriate.  On telling a story, Hemingway once advised writers to, ". . . write one true sentence.  Write the truest sentence that you know."  Where the book of Ruth is concerned, I'd have to go with: Be loyal.  Be unselfish.  Be loyal & unselfish in all your relationships, & in so doing, imitate Christ Himself.  So simple, right?  Simple, but profound in application & increasingly rare in today's world.  Truth, like excellent prose, is most agreeable with simple, declarative sentences that speak for themselves, stripped of the ornamental scrollwork Hemingway would delete the moment he caught himself inserting it into his work.

Years ago, my sister bought me this sign somewhere, I think maybe at a Tuesday Morning:

(please note the pile of irony behind the sign)

Jessica & I sometimes laugh riotously about my ability to overcomplicate things, which is ironic, considering my OCD, anal retentive need for organization & simplicity.  When I finish my closet makeover, I am going to hammer a nail in the wall of the closet (right now there is not an inch of wall to be seen in my closet), & I am going to hang this sign on the nail & glance at it when I enter my clean & organized closet in which I won't have to ever again dig through the shirts I wore when Bill Clinton was president to find the one I want to wear now.

So I press on, cursing July & its hot, hot heat, but buoyed by Hemingway's examples of truth expressed laconically as I attempt to simplify my closet, the book of Ruth, & my own writing, which is, as you know, not always on the succinct side.  In the same way Hemingway does not need all the words, I do not need all the shirts (nor all the shoes).  I need a few, carefully chosen shirts, & I have to let go of the rest.  I have to write a script highlighting the simple truths in the book of Ruth, & I shall.

When you let go of your darlings, your sacred cows, be they superfluous words or old shirts, when you do the hard work of rooting out the clutter, you realize that what remains is all you need, & you can see the beauty of what you had all along, finally basking in the spotlight it deserves with the excess cleared away.

And yes, I know you're smiling at the irony of my verbose toast to Hemingway, whom I admire for his brevity.  Enjoy yourself.

I close with a Happy Birthday to Hemingway, who would celebrate #116 tomorrow.


No comments:

Post a Comment