Ernest Hemingway, they say, wrote the best short story ever. History is fuzzy but the general idea is that Hemingway bet some friends he could write a complete story in only six words. No way, they said. Hemingway jotted some words on a napkin and passed it around. His friends read it and handed over the money. This is what he wrote:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
In my first attempt at writing short fiction last week, I managed not to convey a single emotion in 500 words, let alone six. Not even a drop. I got the who, what, where, when, and how, but none of the angst felt by someone who fears she’s piddling her dreams away.
Which made me realize that switching from editor to writer will be harder than I thought. Because it turns out that when you write, you go through all that pain first!
How did I not know this? And, really, does every novel or short story or poem have to be gut-wrenching? Can’t writers just entertain without putting characters we love—and everyone else—through the wringer?
On the way to school this morning Lexie and I cast the movie version of our novel (it will feature Jennifer Lawrence, Harry Styles, Meryl Streep, and Colin Firth). This led to a discussion of Out of Africa (me), The Fault in Our Stars (her) and other books and movies we love that broke our hearts. As I write this, I’ll bet you anything Lexie is staring misty-eyed out the window lamenting the impossible love triangle in Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices series. Oh the pain!
When I was young I adored the Anne of Green Gables series by L. M. Montgomery. It killed me when Anne’s baby died and “Anne found that she could go on living; the day came when she even smiled again over one of Miss Cornelia’s speeches. But there was something in the smile that had never been in Anne’s smile before and would never be absent from it again.” No! What was wrong with that author? I didn’t want Anne to be changed forever.
Every single one of us deals with rejection, failure, pain, and loss. Even beautiful things cause the “queer ache” that Anne Shirley describes. I could barely look at my babies in the moments after they were born because they were so exquisite it hurt.
And maybe that’s where writers come in. Someone has to try to make sense of it all. As James Baldwin said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
But maybe I don’t want to feel so much all the time. I bet there are plenty of arms’-length writing opportunities out there. I wouldn’t feel a thing if I wrote about hockey. Well, at least not until I had to write a story about a player shaving her head and shooting goals to raise money for a teammate diagnosed with cancer. Never mind.
It’s not just writers who take on this job. All artists—painters, sculptors, poets, actors, architects—take our raw, unformed emotions and craft them into something that will connect us. Just stand at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and watch a middle-aged man in a baseball hat run his finger back and forth, back and forth over his father’s etched name to know what I’m talking about.
Robert Frost wrote “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” and he probably knew what he was talking about. So I guess there’s nothing to do but sit down in front of my laptop and open a vein.