Speaking Of The Iceberg

The first time I read A Farewell to Arms, I was, in a way, transfixed. I thought, how is it that one can write so affectingly, so powerfully, so deeply, in such a basic, straight-forward manner? The inception of that thought might have been of a simpler nature. That is, reading Ernest Hemingway seemed to be easier for a young lad of fifteen, not because I really understood the implication of his words or the effect they would later have on me, but because the words themselves were to the point, the sentences eloquent in their brevity. And besides, there was no way in hell I was going to grasp the dense narrative style of one William Faulkner.

It was only later I fully realized what it all meant. For Hemingway, to write in exorbitant detail was to deny the reader any satisfaction of discovery, or wonder. To write simpler was to affect more deeply, inspire more thought, spark more imagination. This approach is what critics called the Iceberg Theory of Prose, or Theory of Omission, which is explained in further detail here:

If a writer of prose knows enough about 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. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. A writer who appreciates the seriousness of writing so little that he is anxious to make people see he is formally educated, cultured, or well-bred, is merely a popinjay. And this too, remember: a serious writer is not to be confounded with a solemn writer. A serious writer may be a hawk or a buzzard or even a popinjay, but a solemn writer is always a bloody owl. Ernest Hemingway- Death in the Afternoon (Scribner, 1932).

It’s really quite a wonderful thing, and it’s something I’ve been working on within my own writing. While there are certainly occasions in which a story needs more detail and description, as in the inclusion due to distinct artistic provocations. For the most part, however, I tend to agree with Hemingway. Simpler, in many ways, can be better.

For instance, if I can take my character from one place to another, and do so without explaining, in desperate detail, every inch along the way, that’s a good thing. I don’t need to tell my readers he is wearing a yellow shirt, walking atop crunchy crabgrass, or sucking on a raspberry lollipop. These details can be good, they can be useful, but they aren’t all needed. Sometimes the vague implication is more than enough. Try it sometime. Create your iceberg!

Project Update:
Alasdair and Shamus are about to give a magic show to the local retirement home occupants. Alasdair, to his surprise, will be a part of a particularly gruesome trick. Then, it’s onto New Mexico!

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One thought on “Speaking Of The Iceberg

  1. jdobs says:

    Very true. And very interesting!!

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