“Cat in the Rain,” by Ernest Hemingway, Part One
A View Out a Window
Today, let’s start working with Hemingway’s Cat in the Rain.
To do this, let’s try a method I used in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which is to read the story a fragment at a time.
In the book, I tell the story of a conversation I had with Bill Buford, then the fiction editor at the New Yorker. We were working on a story of mine called “Sea Oak” and I was struggling with some of the edits and, fishing for a compliment, asked, “Bill, what do you like about this story, anyway?”
And Bill said something like: “Well…I read a sentence, and I like it…enough to read the next.”
And that was it – a beautifully encapsulated aesthetic statement. A story happens a line at a time. After each line, the reader decides whether to go on and adds, to the evolving thought-cloud over her head, one more small element of coloration – her visceral understanding of the story has been incrementally advanced, we might say.
So, this exercise involves a radical slowing down of the reading process, so that we can notice with more clarity how its meaning is accumulating and how our understanding of it is evolving. We read a bit, then ask: “Where am I now? How has my sense of the story just changed? What do I expect to happen? What’s at stake? What do I understand the story to be about?”
This is the same thing that happens whenever we read, but here we are interrupting the process in order to see it more clearly.
Before we start, some ground rules. Or, you know, “ground guidance.”
This exercise works best if you’ve never read the story. If you haven’t, hooray. And it’s best not to find it and read ahead. Just absorb it a fragment at a time.
But if you have read it…do your best to pretend you haven’t.
I’ll send out the story a short section at a time, starting below, near the end of this post. The game is: read what I offer and then…do nothing. Just carry it around until the next post, casually turning it over in your mind, asking some of those questions above, which I’d summarize/consolidate as: “Where am I right now?” Or: “Where has the writer just put me?” Or “How has my evolving understanding of the story just been altered?”
The story, like any art form, has a sort of internal physics. Within it, some things just work better than others. So, for example, the story form itself sets up certain expectations. If I say, “Once upon a time,” you immediately start waiting for things to change. If a form is brief (like a story, like a joke, say) we expect it will strive to be efficient. We also expect the thing to be an organic whole; if the writer spends two paragraphs describing something, we expect that thing (and the way in which the writer has chosen to describe it) to be relevant to the task; to be, that is, to be non-random.
These are not rules (“Thou must!”) but laws, in the same family as the Law of Gravity (“Things, within this form, tend to behave in this way.”) We can choose not to honor these Laws but our reader will feel that lack. We can choose to not care about, say, escalation, but we can’t pretend that a reader isn’t hungry for it and doesn’t expect it. (As soon as I write, “I was sitting in this empty room,” you are waiting for something or someone to come in.)
We just expect escalation, and like it, because of the fact that we’re in a story. This seems to be how the reading mind works. (We can use that expectation in an ornery way (see Waiting for Godot) but that’s a topic for another time…)
So, part of the artist’s job, in my view, is to cheerfully say, “All right, then, since fiction has its laws of physics, and these are really just nods to what readers like, let me go about trying to understand how my reader’s mind works, so that I can then delight her.”
Another thought along these lines.
I’m going to give you the first line of my new story.
But first - note where your mind is. It’s…nowhere. That is - it’s blank, with respect to this new story of mine. There’s maybe a slight feeling of “receptivity,” or “leaning in.” You’re…willing to hear it.
“Once upon a time, there was a dog with two heads.”
Now where are you? It’s fascinating, really: a thought-bubble has instantaneously appeared over your head, and in there is….well, a notion/image of that dog. Your mind made that notion. The next person’s dog will be different. (Maybe we should have Story Club t-shirts made, with this slogan: “No two two-headed dogs are imagined alike.” Then again, maybe not.)
But: there’s that dog, your two-headed dog, there in your mind, and he wasn’t there before and is already starting to “mean” for you.
And the game begins; I, the writer who put that dog there, have to (get to) now start working with it.
What else is up there in that thought-bubble? Well, suddenly: expectations regarding the rest of the story. If you’re like me, you’re wondering (perhaps not consciously): “Do the two heads look alike? Do they get along? What happens at meal time?”
There’s also something else going on that I don’t have a word for - we might say that there’s some Thematic Notion-Generation going on. The mind has begun to speculate re. what the story is “about” - in this case, Duality, say, or Opposition, or (depending on what happens next), Friendship, or The Divided Self.
But the point is: all of that happened from that one sentence.
And this is how all storytelling works. I say something; your mind, in response, changes (expectations are generated), and I say the next thing.
And so on, for twenty pages, or a thousand.
So: the quality of a story has to do with the way in which the next thing the writer tells us responds to that expectation she’s just put there in our thought-bubble. (If she’s ignoring that cloud, the story is felt to be meandering - and we drift away. If she’s servicing that cloud too literally, the story is felt to be predictable - and we drift away.)
So, this is why I say a story is an intimate, respectful communication between two minds. The writer has to respect the reader, by taking her expectation cloud seriously (and imagining it generously). The reader wants to feel seen and honored and included, and, if she is, she rewards the story with her attention.
That’s why we feel, in the hands of a good writer, well-cared-for.
Also, in the name of lessening our omnipresent Writerly Anxiety - note that we readers are, actually, pretty easily interested. We are already, and naturally, curious about that dog. This should give us some confidence; people who are reading are, in a sense, an easy crowd, imbued with natural curiosity. (I call you on the phone and say, “When I walked into my house, you are not going to BELIEVE what I saw.” Who doesn’t want to hear the next line? That is precisely the energy we are working with when we write a story. People are naturally curious about the slightest thing.)
So, once you’ve read the text below, watch your mind. What has Hemingway put there, that wasn’t there before, that he can now use? (That he, in fact, must use, or be judged unartful?)
After all this big build-up, I will now offer you just one long paragraph, the first in the story, fifteen lines, around 200 words:
CAT IN THE RAIN
There were only two Americans stopping at the hotel. They did not know any of the people they passed on the stairs on their way to and from their room. Their room was on the second floor facing the sea. It also faced the public garden and the war monument. There were big palms and green benches in the public garden. In the good weather there was always an artist with his easel. Artists liked the way the palms grew and the bright colors of the hotels facing the gardens and the sea. Italians came from a long way off to look up at the war monument. It was made of bronze and glistened in the rain. It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain. The motor cars were gone from the square by the war monument. Across the square in the doorway of the cafe a waiter stood looking out at the empty square.
So…where are you? What are you noticing? What has Hemingway put in motion? What bowling pins has he put into the air, that (we are already expecting) the rest of the story will need to catch (make use of, exploit, respond to?)
We’ll discuss next post.
And I think it might be best, for our purposes, for us NOT to discuss in the comments just yet, so that everyone can sort of dwell in their own thoughts a bit, unassailed. 😊 What might be good is for you to write a little about your reaction. When I teach at Syracuse, I have my students keep a notebook just for this purpose - to record their reactions to the stories we read. They can write an essay, or jot down bullet points - or whatever. I’ve had students who made drawings, or graphs. The idea is that trying to articulate your reactions forces you into a space of deeper engagement.
Also want to add that this “bit at a time” process is…well, it can be annoying. And tedious. (How’s that for a sales pitch?) But let’s leap in, acknowledging in advance that we may feel some resistance along the way, hoping that something in here will help adjust our readerly gaze a bit, which might, in turn, infuse our writing process with increased…something.
Thanks again - a person I really respect recently said to me that our comments section was the most positive place on the Internet, which made me really happy.