True writing and (ethnographic) fiction

Posted on Feb 24, 2012 in Everyday Life, Research Methodologies

I’ve been writing fiction.

I don’t think I’m very good at it and I want to get better.

There are loads of books and websites and quotes about writing and story-telling, but right now I’m allowing myself to be guided by one piece of advice from Ernest Hemingway:

“Good writing is true writing.” (By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, p. 215)

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” (A Moveable Feast, p. 22)

I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean “true” in the sense of being completely factual or correct, as much as he meant it in the sense of being honest and faithful enough to actual experience, actions, knowledge and emotions that a reader could not help but be moved. And that kind of “true” is really hard–especially when you’re making things up.

“I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced.” (Death in the Afternoon, p. 2)

Death in the Afternoon is non-fiction, but Hemingway turned a lot of what he actually experienced into fiction, and this resonates with my interest in ethnographic fiction. But, again, doing this is hard.

When asked how a writer can train, Hemingway responded:

“Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you the emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed into the water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you have.” (By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, p. 219-220)

I like the value he places on observation and description; these are the same two things upon which all good social and cultural research is built. But mostly I like his explicit recognition that the point of writing is to affect a reader.

The lesson I take here is that this doesn’t happen by telling the reader what the writer thinks. And it doesn’t happen by telling the reader what to think, either. A good story gives a reader something else to think about.

“Some days it went so well that you could make the country so that you could walk into it through the timber to come out into the clearing and work up onto the high ground and see the hills beyond the arm of the lake.” (A Moveable Feast, p. 91)

“What I’ve been doing is trying to do country so you don’t remember the words after you read it but actually have the Country.” (to Edward O’Brien, 1924, Selected Letters, p. 123)

“[Y]ou are beginning to get what you are trying for which is to make the story so real beyond any reality that it will become a part of the reader’s experience and part of his memory. There must be things he did not notice when he read the story or the novel which without his knowing it, enter into his memory and experience so that they are a part of his life.” (unpublished manuscript from the Kennedy Library collection, Roll 19, T 178)

“That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best–make it all up–but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way.” (to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1934, Selected Letters, p.407)

There’s plenty going on in these quotes, but I’m most struck by the possibility that a story’s capacity to affect a reader depends on how successfully a writer can bring people, places and things to life. And what I take from Hemingway here is that this requires a writer to blur the line between fact and fiction, to write truly without writing the Truth.

In any case, I want my writing to inhabit, and evoke, this space–and moving in this direction is, I think, the key to merging researcher and writer to create good ethnographic fiction.

Now I know there’s a lot more I need to think about, and a lot more that could be said, but I want to end with a speculative fiction quote (via Jeffrey Callen) that suggests one way we can go about making up true stories:

“He was engaged in a serious search for the meaning of his own existence…. To do that, Cinnamon had to fill in those blank spots in the past that he could not reach with his own hands. By using those hands to make a story, he was trying to supply the missing links. From the stories, he had heard repeatedly from his mother, he derived further stories in an attempt to re-create the enigmatic character of his grandfather in a new setting. He inherited from his mother’s stories the fundamental style he used, unaltered, in his own stories: namely, the assumption that fact may not be truth, and truth may not be factual. The question of which parts of a story were factual and which parts were not was probably not a very important one for Cinnamon. The important question for Cinnamon was not what his grandfather did but what his grandfather might have done. He learned the answer to this question as soon as he succeeded in telling the story.” (Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, p. 525)

Oddly enough, I think Hemingway would have approved.