How to Imagine Acts

Close your eyes. Lay your hands flat on your desk. Think of something that happened to you last week. Don’t think of something dramatic — a near miss or a broken heart. Think of an ordinary experience, like taking the bus or buying a shirt. What happened? What did you do? Why did you do it? What are some of the things you could have done but did not do? How did you succeed? How did you fail? What did it feel like (what sensations did you experience)? How did it make you feel (what emotions were involved)? What might well have happened instead? What would have been unlikely? What would have been altogether impossible? Since this is your experience you are the best person to answer these questions. You’re the ideal author of a story in which you are the protagonist. You could write a nice little paragraph about it.

If you did it right, your text would evoke a series of images — moving images. And the dignity of their movement, as Hemingway might put it, would depend on the experience that lies beneath the surface of your text. Our experiences are much richer, much deeper, than the stories we tell. Not even Proust could recover every detail in time, and Hemingway made a virtue of this limitation of language. Overcoming it is not easy, as he explained in Death in the Afternoon:

I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. In writing for a newspaper you told what happened aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if your stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to try to get it. (p. 10)

What does it mean, here, to be “working very hard”? We imagine Hemingway sitting in front of his typewriter. (But we are wrong about this; he would write standing up.) He struggles to find the right words to evoke the required images in the mind of his reader. After a time, he is satisfied. Somehow the work paid off. How does he know he succeeded?

“A writer’s problem does not change,” he said. “He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it.” You can develop this ability by writing about things that have actually happened to you. Whether your “projection” works is something you yourself can judge (though your judgment, too, can improve through training.) Then, when you discover truths (through your research) about the actions of others, you know what it means to get those actions — those sequences of motion and fact — right. You know what would have had to happen, what they must have done and felt, in order for your story to be true. You can imagine it. And that is what you are expecting your reader to imagine too.

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