Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Updike vs. Hemingway: A Writing Retrospect

Tonight, I got to write and, let me tell you, it felt perfect. It's been a while. Having puppies around limits the time I have to sit down at my PC and just babble. Even when I try, they're there, trying to nibble at my feet, trying to remind me that they're there. They're rather hard to forget, though they don't know that.

It's not that I haven't been writing. A good friend of mine who also happens to be a talented writer challenged me to write a short story. She's the type of writer who is good at short stories. She likes flash fiction- stories that can be told or, at least, hinted at to the point of intrigue in less than 500 words.

If you've even glanced at my blog, you might realize that for me, Captain Monkeypants, Flash Fiction isn't exactly an, um, option. I'm what you'd call...loquatious...garroulous. Both are words I learned during my sophomore English class with a teacher named Hilda Studebaker who was slightly crazy but completely charming in the process. She was already almost at retirement age. She loved to write on the blackboard but, as she did so, in her enthusiasm, she'd end up getting chalk from previously written words all over her cardigan. She insisted that Hamlet's ego was pronounced 'eggo' and, when someone muttered, "Leggo my Eggo!" she insisted that the mutterer was a poet.

Mrs. Studebaker was...a character. I can't say she was a particularly good teacher but she was fascinating. She made you think about things in a way you'd never thought about them before. She did make us read Great Expectations which remains one of my least favourite Charles Dickens' novels. It's hard to not read about Miss Havisham when Mrs. Studebaker stands before you lacking all but the mouldy wedding cake.

Yet, Mrs. Studebaker taught us vocabulary. I learned the meaning of loquatiousness...garroulous..ness. These days, I know they apply to me. I'm trying to be better about being wordy but when it's your natural's hard to fight.

In my defense, I did go through a period where I berated wordiness, sneered at it. It was all due to another English teacher. This teacher was the one that would probably go on to be the most
influential teachers I would ever have. In my senior year, I was part of a threesome of friends. One of my friends would go on to major in poetry. She was very good with description, with words. My other friends had the gift of conciseness, of being able to perfectly articulate that which she wanted to say. Then there was me, the shadow that fell in between. I liked to write but sandwiched between two friends like that, I never knew my place. I knew that I liked to write but used it as a comparison to my two friends.

Anyway, when I entered my senior year, I thought myself a descriptive writer, one who told a story and explained the whole thing. I used a ton of words, trying to capture the moment...exactly. Then we read some stories. We read some John Updike and some Earnest Hemingway. Then came an assignment: Write a story in the style of either Updike or Hemingway.

Well, if you know your writers, you'll know that Mr. Updike is Mr. Description- perfectly nailing descriptions with words, finding ways to describe the mundane in new, exciting ways. Mr. Hemingway, on the other hand, didn't mince words, not at all. He was very much a short, punctuated sentence man. Say what you mean and get out., I felt like I was already decidely Updike-an. I used description. I conceitedly thought that I could already write Updike.

So I decided to try Hemingway.

I got an A. I managed to change my entire writing style to short, clipped sentences that spoke nothing but fact, just like Hemingway.

It was a style that would haunt me for years. Not until I wrote my first novel did I feel the luxury of words, of knowing that it was ok to say more than what was happening, to be able to describe it without feeling naughty. In some ways, it worked for me. It taught me the ability to say much in a few words. Yet it was sparse and it was cold.

These days, I like to think I've cultivated my own style. I can use the Updike method of description to give my readers a mental picture of what I mean but at times, Hemingway comes into play and when something happens, it happens...I don't mince words.

It all took time. People say high school was the best time of their lives. I can't say that. It was an interesting time. Sometimes, it was good. Sometimes, it was just...awkward. Yet my senior English class was a cement of sorts. It showed me that there were people in my class to whom I hadn't even given the courtesy of considering who were smart, articulate people that would go on to big things. It was one of those classes which bonds you, makes you remember who recited Hamlet's soliloquay of "To be or not to be..." and did it well.

These days, I'm only in touch with a few of those classmates, mostly on Facebook. Of my two good friends, I remain in contact with both. They were both my 'rivals' back then, both good writers, my competition. These days, competition isn't a factor. We're all different people, still in touch, still friends. We're united by more than that senior English class but I'm fairly convinced that without that class and our amazing teacher, our ties beyond graduation wouldn't be quite so strong.

These days, I can call upon that memory of Updike vs. Hemingway, any time I doubt my writing style. When it comes to short stories, I'm glad I have friends who can do that better than I can. It teaches me to learn from them. I can't write flash fiction- the thought of telling a story in less than 1,000 words just seems slightly horrific and fully ridiculous to me but, because I've seen it done by a friend and, I admit, done well, I know it can be done...just not my me. I'm too garroulous, too loquacious...too...wordy. I remember the days when I thought I was an Updike so I became a Hemingway.

I'm embarrassed to even look back and see how pretentious I really was.

Still, I find, while short stories can be interesting, it's novels that I love, the idea of taking a concept and being able to spread out, stretch and find a comfort that delivers. I like having friends who also write. It keeps me motivated, it keeps me humble.

And, overall, it makes me appreciate the type of writing I love best and there's not substitute for that.

Happy Thursday.

No comments: