The American writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) employed a process that has been called the Iceberg, as a metaphor for the way stories often work. This is sometimes called the theory of omission, where the deeper story and the moment that revealed it, were addressed obliquely, not directly on the page. The iceberg beneath the waterline is much larger than the iceberg we see, because our first glance is often not of the totality of something, or the angle we first view doesn’t give us a totality. Often we will never see the totality, or any sense of totality is subjective. Hemingway in fact would write the revelation moment then go back and delete it, attempting to leave it hanging in the air around the story. In the shadow places at the story’s edge. See Hemingway’s story ‘Hills Like White Elephants,’ (1927) as an example.
For the writer the page is the place for describing the events, the action, the physicality of landscape and gesture. For getting the dialogue to crackle and parry and simmer. For writer and reader beneath and around what is described lives a shadow landscape, much larger in scope and more powerful in resonance that what you actually read. This process asks questions of what we even mean by reading. It also goes to perception and connection from personal experience.
What we see at first glance is not always what is really there. In the photo above, from National Geographic, a first glance sees a group of camels, tall, rangy, against a backdrop of sand. But look closer. At the feet of the ‘camels’ are little white lines. A close inspection reveals those white lines are the camels, what we first perceived as the camels are in fact their shadows. The miss-perception is caused by the fact the photograph is taken from directly above, and the time of day gives an angled light so the shadows loom vast on the sand, and we see only a sliver of the actual camels.
But everything we associate with camels, their shape, posture, the sense of being caught mid-step, is captured in their shadows. Our minds’ capacity for shape recognition constructs them as camels. They are camels in that sense.
Some stories operate like those camels and their shadows. You read the story, your eye passes over the text and picks up the movement and gesture, your ear hears the dialogue and arranges the order of sentences and events in a straightforward narrative. But then the text you’ve read begins to fade, or shrink to a sliver and something else appears not on the page but in the space between reader and page. In the places in the reader they share with the writer, with other readers. Sometimes unacknowledged places. Shadows cast in the sand.
And it is the shadow you carry away with you, not the text.