An excerpt from Afterlife Conversations with Hemingway
[May 18, 2010] Papa, I suppose that “The Doctor And The Doctor’s Wife” is built upon your life but is no word-for-word autobiography, even necessarily disguised autobiography — and critics who approach your work go wrong to think so.
That’s right. A writer takes what he knows and tries to render it so that it’s truer than the real thing, so that people who weren’t there can get it even though they weren’t there. So you have to intensify and magnify and simplify and clarify — and you have to do all that without distorting the subject! It’s like Georgia O’Keeffe painting her tiny subjects huge, so you can’t help seeing. Now, this is not a blanket endorsement for Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting style or subject matter. It’s an illustration. She painted tiny things in proportion but huge, so if you glance at it, you have a chance of getting something of what she had seen, and if you looked longer, she had done it so carefully that you couldn’t keep seeing more and more closely into it. My writing, the same idea: The real thing has to be portrayed larger than life, starker, changed in so many ways, if it is going to have the effect on you that the original emotion had on me.
So how do you do that? You invent, but what do you invent from? It has to be, from who you are and what you know — it comes out of you. If I had told the story of the Cuban fisherman who hooked a really big fish and stayed with it for several days, and killed it finally but lost the meat of it to sharks on his way home — and told just the facts, as if I were writing copy for the Herald-Tribune — and had all the facts right, biographical and piscatorial and climatic and geographical — do you think I could have gotten across any of the meaning of it?
The plot is one thing. The story is another, different, thing.
So the material for the stories came from what I knew regardless how I knew it. Maybe I observed it first-hand. Maybe I was told stories and something jumped from the story-teller to me. Maybe I did research, the way I learned things specific like skills. Maybe my life was research as it went along, picking up background of what it was like to walk down a dirt road in early morning, say, or the streets of Paris in the fall. You understand.
But whatever the material was, and however I’d accumulated it, it couldn’t ever be the final thing until I had worked it. It was always raw material until I invented. Had to be. It always is. It is, even if people think they are just reporting — but in that case they are working without knowing it, and if they are blessed with something the way Scott Fitzgerald was, the magic comes through (as long as it does come through) even though they don’t really know what they’re doing or how it is happening. A lot of journalists work that way and don’t even know it.
So, you invent. But you can’t invent without any consideration of what you’re inventing from. If you’re going to start with the [Gerald] Murphys [socialite friends of his from his Paris days, used by Fitzgerald in a novel], you can’t do just anything you like; you can only do what Gerald or Sara would do, or might do; you can’t do what they never would do. Now, if you want them to do something they never would have done, you have to have them be only partly the model you are inventing for. You see? You can’t have, oh say a star athlete, maybe a specific star athlete, acting in ways no star athlete possibly could, unless that is the point of the story, in which case you had better know exactly what you are doing and why and how it could happen. When you invent, you have to know what you are inventing from, and what you are inventing toward, or you won’t know what you’re doing.
All of this, of course, is meant to apply to sincere writing that tries to express one thing (or many things, with great good luck) truly. It doesn’t apply to whoring. Whoring may be learned — Scott certainly learned it — but has the disadvantage of requiring you to bring yourself back to a sense of innocence if you wish to be anything but a whore in the future — and how can you deliberately do that? You can, maybe, if you have some real shock that reminds you that you were real, once. But not commonly, even then.
All right, so, you know something, and you invent. You invent toward a certain effect. Now maybe you can do this by just feeling your way toward it, and if so that’s a gift, but even there you have to know how to recognize what you have been given once you have received it, or how are you going to edit and revise what you wind up with? And if you don’t feel for it as you go along, the only other way I can think of that there could possibly be is to know ahead of time what you want to produce as an effect. You may not know how to produce it, so you may do just as much trial and error as the guy who just keeps trolling until he hooks something, but you do know what you’re trying for. You see? Either you start by knowing what effect you’re going to try to achieve with certain material, or you start with the material and see what kind of effect suggests itself, but either way there’s the work of going from material to effect by way of invention, and the invention is bounded by what is possible while sticking within the limits of the material.
So I could take my parents’ lives and tell a dozen stories, and each story might express one aspect of something I’d seen or could imagine. To get to the emotional effect I wanted, starting from that same material, I might have to change the “facts” a dozen times, to let the raw material let something happen that did what I needed. If I’d been writing autobiography, or biography, or history, I’d have said so. And if I had been writing fantasy, I’d have announced it by publishing in the Saturday Evening Post. To write truly, I had to take what I knew and say it in such a structure, with such words, that let you see it too, that sometimes all but forced you to see it too. And if I failed at that, or you the reader did, there was nothing. Now — having said all that, you tell me — what is the effect I aimed for an “The Doctor And The Doctor’s Wife”? What is the point of it?
I’m going to need to feel my way to it. The doctor is a good judge. He saw what Dick Boulton was doing and knew why. He was smarter than to fight him when that’s what Boulton wanted, though it made him mad enough that he half-fantasized killing him. His wife, a Christian Scientist, thought she understood things and clearly didn’t, and she was either ignorant or stupid or both. There was war between them but he tried to keep the peace, even knowing better. I don’t see why the unopened medical journals irritated him unless it meant he wasn’t keeping up with his profession. When he went out and found Nick reading, Nick chose him over his mother. I guess the final effect I get is of the doctor living his impossible situation, with an invalid wife who was certain of things she had no clue to, and a man cheating him because he could, and a sense of time leaving him behind, and only his son as a clean, innocent accepting (in fact eager) presence in his life.
Well? Was that so hard?
It’s an amazing amount to compress into a few pages, and without saying anything much to the reader. Little touches like Billy looking grave, and taking the time to shut the gate that Dick had left open, showing that it wasn’t the doctor who was wrong or even was contemptible, but Dick who was callous. You truly were a master.
Thank you. I’m very pleased that you can see into the story now.
Most people already knew how to do that, I suppose, or you wouldn’t have been published.
You’d be surprised. Think of the misinterpretations of “Indian Camp.” But people felt something even if they didn’t quite know what they were feeling, or why.
Amazing achievement, anyway. That’s it for now, I think. Thank you.