There’s a(n I assume apocryphal) story about Hemingway and Salinger’s first meeting in which the latter started to tell the former about the novel he was working on and Hemingway said, “Stop. Tell me in a sentence what it’s about. Otherwise, you’re not a writer.” Salinger responded, “I can sum it up in a word: incest.” That novel became The Catcher in the Rye, unsurprisingly.
For a long time, I used this as an example of why I really didn’t like Hemingway – that and the fact that he was an asshole and snobs bash you over the head with his Iceberg Theory in every writing and analysis class I’ve ever taken. In high school, I hated reading his stories and novels and it wasn’t until after I graduated college that I read The Sun Also Rises and realized, to my horror, that I liked it. Ever since then, I’ve been struggling with ambivalence about all things Hemingway.
But in the past few days, I’ve started to reconsider the advice he supposedly gave to Salinger. When I first heard it, it sounded like an extension of his whole philosophy of writing that if the reader can’t pick up on the subtext then they don’t deserve to get it. Now, I think I’ve found something useful.
My job is to write grants, and in most proposals there is an “executive summary” section where you more or less have to sum up the document in one or two sentences. It’s an exhausting, but rewarding and necessary exercise, because if you can’t do an elevator speech for whatever it is you’re doing, then: 1.) the people with money won’t give it to you and, 2.) you probably don’t have a firm grasp of what you’re doing in the first place.
Looking back on it, I think that most of my best stories, essays, and plays, I can usually pitch in a sentence or two. The bad pieces are the ones where I meander around the point for twenty pages wondering why I’m spending so much time on it. For that reason, whenever I’m stuck on a project, I have found it useful to step back and say aloud, as simply as possible, whatever the hell I’m trying to say.
Try it. It’s cathartic.