Hemingway and 8th Graders

by Peter Mountford, Shorecrest High School and Blue Heron Middle School

Toward the end of 2011, I packed up a bag, bid sayonara to my wife and child, and headed off to Port Townsend for two weeks of intensive WITS-ing with 8th graders at Blue Heron middle school. I was nervous – more nervous than I’ve been about teaching in years. Why? Because I’ve taught fiction writing to middle schoolers before, some years ago, and it was, to be perfectly honest, a little traumatizing.

There’s a reason that middle schools have a harder time recruiting teachers to their campuses than high schools and elementary schools. Picture a room packed full of 30+ hyperactive tweens—like howler monkeys with acne—you must immediately gain their respect and/or fear or they will wrest control of the room from you.  As the instructor, you have to either be a stoic task-master who strikes fear into their hearts, or you have to be so supernaturally likeable and effortlessly engaging on their wacky wavelength that they want to listen to you.

Now, I can’t pull off stern, it’s just not in me, so I try to be the likeable and engaging type instead, and I was fortunate in Blue Heron to be working with a fantastic and inspiring teacher, Kate Garfield, who had a compatible teaching persona (a black-belt in middle-school instruction, she somehow deployed a blend of the likeable and the stoic personas). Also, I was fortunate to find myself working with an unusually mature bunch of kids. They were okay enough with me to give me the benefit of the doubt.

At the end of the first week, we read the opening of Ernest Hemingway’s wildly disturbing story, “Indian Camp.” (NOTE: we stopped reading before it got to the nightmare-inducing parts.)  Hemingway, as most readers know, is famous for his iceberg theory: you show very little and it suggests a huge amount that’s unseen. It’s also known as subtext, and subtlety.

Now, subtlety and subtext are not generally thought of as the centerpieces of middle schoolers’ personalities. But subtlety and the effective use of subtext are crucial for good literature, you need to leave some interpretive work to your reader, in fact quite a lot. So we read Hemingway and I told the kids that they would probably hate it.

They did:

At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up. The two Indians stood waiting.

Nick and his father got in the stern of the boat and the Indians shoved it off and one of them got in to row. Uncle George sat in the stern of the camp rowboat. The young Indian shoved the camp boat off and got in to row Uncle George.

The two boats started off in the dark. Nick heard the oarlocks of the other boat quite a way ahead of them in the mist. The Indians rowed with quick choppy strokes. Nick lay back with his father’s arm around him. It was cold on the water. The Indian who was rowing them was working very hard, but the other boat moved further ahead in the mist all the time.           

“Where are we going, Dad?” Nick asked.

“Over to the Indian camp. There is an Indian lady very sick.”

“Oh,” said Nick.

Oh, indeed!

They howled in protest at his Spartan style: the lack of adjectives, adverbs, the lack of description of emotions, thoughts, the lack of interiority. He’s all noun verb noun. And yet, somehow, his writing gathers an incredible emotional power, all subtextual, but it’s definitely there. So while my eighth graders did find Hemingway horrible, they also recognized that there was something going on there, something menacing and intriguing. They wanted to know what happened later in the story. I was as vague as possible.

Then I told them about Hemingway, the man. How he was mean to his various wives, treated his friends like garbage, punched out some innocent reviewer who disliked one of his books. As a person, he was certainly an oaf and maybe even a bit of a barbarian, but he ended up winning the Nobel Prize, the greatest prize in all of literature, and he substantially altered the way modern Americans write, and in his day he was about as famous and adored as George Clooney is today. My students seemed to respond to this. He was the stern task master, but he was also incredibly talented, which they appreciated.

By that Friday, my students had written a number of fragments of a short story.

This would be their first revision exercise. Their task was to “Hemingway-ize” one of the pieces they’d already written. That is, they were to read over the piece, and then re-write it, this time imitating Hemingway’s style: little or no adverbs, very few adjectives, very few thoughts for the characters. And absolutely no description of emotions, no emotional words.

Much groaning ensued, and I told them that I agreed with them that it was an awful way to write, that old man Hemingway was a brute and a thug, etc., but, I said, they should try this out. Just this once, just in case it worked.

The students, it turned out, loved writing like Hemingway. They stretched the assignment in strange and innovative ways, and they wrote like fiends, quickly filling page after page of their notebooks.

Here, is an example from Maggie E., a quiet girl who sat at the back of the room. She was working on a story about a delusional teenager named Bob whose closest friend is a manipulative and cruel imaginary bunny:
  The bunny and Bob were walking up a gravelly hill. The hill petered off into dead grass and dropped off into a cliff overlooking beachless water. There were grey clouds gathering as if the sky was getting ready to rain. The clouds reminded Bob of the bunny. Bob was average and unremarkable in almost every way. The bunny was about 2 feet tall, with grey white fur and grey eyes.
           “Looks like rain,” the bunny said. “Do you have an umbrella?”
           “No,” Bob said. “I like the rain.”
           The bunny said, “My fur gets matted in the rain.” They were now nearly at the top of the hill.

“Will I have to put you in the dryer?” Bob asked.
“No,” the bunny replied. “I dry off eventually.”

Just as they got to the top, it started to rain. Bob and the bunny walked for awhile in silence, then sat down at the edge of the cliff and dangled their feet over the edge. The ground had completely leveled off by then. Bob turned around as someone came out of the houses on the right side to take their trash out.  They ignored the bunny and Bob. The bunny didn’t bother to turn around; it stared straight ahead, looking at the water.

“Bunny,” Bob said.

“Yes?” the bunny replied.

“What are you looking at?”

The bunny didn’t answer. The bunny never called Bob by his name, nor did it talk much. The bunny never needed Bob for anything.

“Never mind,” Bob said. “Do you want to go home?”

“No,” the bunny said.

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