Observations on “Baby Shoes” and Hemingway’s Iceberg Principle

Ernest Hemingway Thought I do not know who the creator of this work is, I must ask that you respect their copyright.

Ernest Hemingway
(Though I do not know who the creator of this work is, I must ask that you respect their copyright.)

There is a story that Ernest Hemingway wrote the following to win a bet with other writers that he could write the shortest story:

“For sale:  baby shoes.  Never worn.”

Even a little research on the Internet shows that there is considerable doubt that Hemingway wrote this story, with the earliest reference to it as a Hemingway work not appearing until 1991.  There is also considerable evidence that the story existed in various forms as early as 1910, when Hemingway was 11 and well before his writing career began.   Whatever the facts, it is an extreme example of the lean, muscular writing for which Hemingway was famous.

In an interview with The Paris Review (see The Writer’s Chapbook, 1989, pp. 120-121), Hemingway did say:

“If it is any use to know it,  I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg.  There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.  Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.  It is the part that doesn’t show.  If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story…First I have tried to eliminate everything unnecessary to conveying experience to the reader so that after he or she has read something it will become a part of his or her experience and seem actually to have happened.  This is very hard to do and I’ve worked at it very hard.”

So “Baby Shoes” is a good example of Hemingway’s iceberg principle, even if he didn’t write it.

“Baby Shoes” is also a good example of what I like to think of as the Tao of writing (see my earlier posts):  creating a story by a careful, strategic use of what is not said.  No where in the story does it state that a couple had apparently been expecting a baby, that they bought shoes for it, but then something happened to the baby to cause its death, and now the parents want to sell the shoes.    None of that is stated.  It is all implied, but yet we know what happened–or at least we have a good idea of what happened, even if we do not know the concrete facts of the matter.

There are also other facets of the story that we can infer, albeit tenuously.  From the fact that they bought baby shoes we can infer that the parents were probably eager to have the child.  From the fact that the parents want to sell the shoes we can infer that they probably don’t want them around any more as a remainder of a painful experience, but at the same time they may want to see someone else make good use of them or that they are hard up for money.

But one question I have that concerns human psychology is why is it that most people can read these same six words and come away with the same perception of what occurred?  Does it have to do with Jungian Archetypes floating around in each of us or is it that each of us has had the same broad experience(s) so that we can interpret these six words in a very similar way?

In the art of sculpture, those areas of a work that are empty, yet give the work its form, are called “negative space”.  An example is the space between each of your fingers.  If there were no space, there would be no individual fingers.   In that sense, a story like “Baby Shoes” makes maximum use of what might be termed “literary negative space”.

It is not really the words that give this story its power, but how we psychologically connect the ideas behind the words that fuel this extremely brief, but epic and poignant tale.

This is part of the magic of writing:  conjuring worlds out of nothing.

Thoughts?  Comments?

 

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One thought on “Observations on “Baby Shoes” and Hemingway’s Iceberg Principle

  1. Pingback: 15 Creepy Two-Sentence Horror Stories | Slattery's Art of Horror Magazine

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