I recently taught a short memoir writing class at a retirement community. Given their age, I had assumed many of the students would have arrived with some limited writing experience – a few short stories or poems, a journal, an aborted novel. Not so. Nearly all had no creative writing experience whatsoever. I then found myself in the (for me) unusual position of teaching writing to complete beginners. My first piece of writing advice to my students was to always bear in mind that they are to never write about what happens, but rather what it feels like when something happens. As I mulled over how best to teach this, I considered offering up an example or two by A Master. I thought I’d read a short passage from the first story of Hemingway’s memoir-ish A Moveable Feast in which Papa describes writing “Up In Michigan” in a Parisian café. Perfect: A piece of memoir writing about writing.
I quickly stumbled on a problem. In my experience, Hemingway is excellent at putting the reader in the scene, both emotionally and sensually. From a teaching standpoint, he is almost too good at it. The closer I looked at the passage, the harder it was to see how he did what he did; all I had known was that he’d done it. It was like watching a magician at arm’s length and still not being able to see where he hides the dove he pulls from his hat.
I decided this was a more advanced lesson than I had at first imagined. More of a story happens within a reader than on the page. Writing is magical in this way, in that we use words to summon life in others. The life we summon, however, belongs to neither of us - nor to the story. In truth, all we have done is point the readers toward what already existed within them. This is all any magician ever does: divert our attention so that what already exists might appear as if from nowhere.
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