(with apologies to David Hockney)
Let’s start small. Think of something that has happened to you recently. Think of an everyday occurrence with you at its center. It will be useful to approach it as an “experience” — a sequence of actions and events that affected you in some way. It happened to you, after all, so it can’t have left you completely unchanged. You may have helped someone or someone may have helped you; or you may have gained or lost something of a more material kind. Hopefully, you learned something in any case, of course.
Try to think of an experience that now exists mainly in your memory, not in some outward record or document of the process. If it had a product, that’s fine; you may have built something with your own hands or cut something down or bought something or sold it. But I just want it to be something small enough that there’s isn’t really anything to prove it happened other than your recollection of it.
Now imagine yourself telling the story — a story in which you are the protagonist. First, notice that I’ve set this up so that you are the ideal narrator; in fact, you’re the only true authority on what happened. Even if other people were involved, they are not witnesses to the whole event, and certainly not to your experience of it; they just played their little part in it. Because it is your experience, you alone are “authorized” to tell us what happened, how it felt to you.
This is a crucial component of what we mean by “author” since if you say something that someone else (or some document) can disprove then your credibility takes a hit. You’ve gone beyond your authority. Keep this in mind when choosing the episode you want to use in this exercise. By a similar token, don’t make it something so personal you can only talk about it with difficulty. All we need is a true story. An anecdote. It doesn’t have to be profound or even entertaining. It just has to have happened and have a reasonable amount of detail. It should take about five minutes to tell the story.
“The dignity of the movement of an iceberg,” said Hemingway, “is due to only one eighth of it being above water.” The words we write are only the tip of the iceberg of our experience. The simplest case, I want to argue, is the situation I’ve asked you to imagine. Your goal is to produce a sequence of words, one word after the other, let’s say around 500 in all, that get their “dignity” from your experience. “A writer’s problem does not change,” said Hemingway:
He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it and seems actually to have happened. This is very hard to do and I’ve worked at it very hard.
In Death in the Afternoon, he gives us a clearer sense of the problem:
…the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what your 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.
This is the difficulty I’m proposing that you face. But I want you to leave that even greater difficulty — of knowing what you really feel — on the side. I want you to pick something where that isn’t hard for you to decide. Pick an easy case and then take on the difficulty of putting down “the actual things” that made the experience what it was.
This is only a beginning. Next time, we’ll try something harder, something bigger. For now, I’m asking you write a tidy little anecdote that is borne up by a perfectly ordinary experience. Write a few hundred words, but leave a few thousand under the surface to give your writing dignity — to give them inertia when someone tries to push on them. These are the thousands of words you could say in elaboration if anyone asks, but that you have chosen to leave out in your first statement of the story. What remains should still make sense. The story doesn’t need you to say all those other things. It’s just that you could say them. They constitute a reserve strength, a kind of depth. Remember that what Hemingway says of icebergs is no less true of ice cubes. Even the smallest story has seven times more under the surface than what it says.