Iceberg Writing

Ernest Hemingway once gave an interview in which he compared his writing to an iceberg. The words on the page represented the visible part of the iceberg. The part of the iceberg we do not see, which is up to 90% sitting under water, is the rest of the story.

Hemingway is the master of saying it without saying it. That annoys some people, but a few others and I find this the most compelling reading and the most advanced writing.

Hemingway’s Greatest Icebergs

These are just a few examples of what I’m talking about.

  • The Sun Also Rises – A nymphomaniac is in love with an impotent man. Hemingway never tells us he’s impotent, but still makes it clear.
  • A Farewell To Arms – They are not in love, even though they constantly tell each other how in love they are.
  • Hills Like White Elephants – A man tries to convince his girlfriend to have an abortion in a story that doesn’t even use the word “abortion,” or “baby” or “pregnancy.”
  • Ten Indians – Nick’s father lies to him about the unfaithfulness of his girlfriend because she is an Indian.
  • Big Two-Hearted River – This is pretty much all iceberg. It’s a story of a man who goes fishing. It has traditionally been understood as a man home from the war suffering from shell-shock. I mostly agree, but I think the man is still at war. He is wandering the battle front of Italy, but his mind is fishing back in Michigan.

The Best Example Yet

These are not the only examples, but just a few of the clearer ones. And yet, there is one work of Hemingway’s that uses iceberg composition so well, that I thought it should be set aside and discussed with a little more detail. I’m talking about the short story “Indian Camp.”

It’s a story about an eight-year-old Nick Adams who goes with his father, Dr. Adams, and his uncle George to an Indian camp near their fishing cabin in Michigan. Dr. Adams has to help with a difficult delivery of a child. Uncle George goes along because he is the father of the child. Of course, this is never said. This part of the story is submerged beneath the text, but is still a clear understanding. Consider the following facts from the story.

  • George’s boat arrives first.
  • George hands out cigars to others Indians there on the shore.
  • The woman in labor screams when Dr. Adams, Nick, and Uncle George enter her house. It seems she is screaming when she sees George.
  • The woman’s husband lays in a bunk above with a gangrenous wound on the foot (traditionally in literature, a wound beneath the waist is symbolic of impotency).
  • The woman bites George on the arm, and when he later looks at the wound, others Indians smile “reminiscently,” as if to say, “I remember when my wife bit me when she delivered our first child.”
  • After the delivery, the mother looked pale, which is a way of saying the baby is pale-skinned, which indicates a white father.
  • Dr. Adams says he should check out the father, who suffers the worst from “these little affairs.”
  • The husband had cut his throat during the delivery. He had known all along that he was not the father of the child, and now with the delivery his shame will be open.
  • Uncle George stays behind after Dr. Adams and Nick return to their fishing cabin across the lake.

These are all visible parts of the iceberg that tells us about what rests underneath. If you haven’t read it in a while, you may want to do so. 

A Challenge To Us Writers

Even if you’re not a fan of Hemingway, if you’re a writer, trying reading some of his work, as well as the industry of other minimalists. Try to write something in a minimalist style, even if it is nothing more than an exercise. The value of minimalism to a writer is that it forces you show and will not allow you to tell. You’re writing not only becomes focused on details, but on those that are the only ones you need.

You may not wish to try your next novel or short story that you wish published in the Hemingway style, but having learned it, you will be a better writer. And who knows, but you might find yourself wishing to go on a fishing trip or see a bullfight. Now go and enjoy those icebergs, just don’t crash into one.

I can’t wait to read your thoughts on this. Please let me know what you think in the Comments section below.

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