Saturday, June 23, 2012

HILLS LIKE WHITE ELEPHANTS


FIVE LESSONS I LEARNED FROM PAPA HEMINGWAY,
BY WAY OF NANCY PACKER

My last post, two weekends ago, was a tribute to my first and best writing teacher, Nancy Huddleston Packer, who taught creative writing when I was an undergraduate at Stanford in the early 1960s. I didn’t write a blog post last weekend, because I was in Palo Alto at the time. Susan and I attended a party at the Stanford Faculty Club honoring Nancy Packer and celebrating her new story collection, Old Ladies, which we have just published.

It was a delightful party, and it was fine to see Nancy surrounded and congratulated by so many friends of many years. Her children, novelist Ann Packer and political journalist George Packer, both delivered warm tributes.

At one point during the party I was glad to get a chance to recount to Nancy and a couple of her friends a moment in the classroom, fifty years ago.

To illustrate a point she was making, Nancy was summarizing the opening of Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants.” A man and a young woman are sitting at a table outside a train station in rural Spain. They’re having a beer while they wait for the train. Hemingway spends a paragraph describing the countryside, mentioning the hills across the fields, on the other side of the Ebro River.

Nancy paraphrased an early exchange in the couple’s dialogue, which I’ll quote here from Hemingway’s original story:

         …[The hills] were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
         ‘They look like white elephants,’ she said.
         ‘I’ve never seen one,’ the man drank his beer.
‘No, you wouldn’t have.’

At this point Nancy doubled up her right fist, then she doubled up her left fist, then she set her mouth in a forceful line, and she slammed her knuckles together.

To be honest, I don’t remember exactly which point Nancy was illustrating, but it was a point well made. She could have been showing us that:

1. A story has to hit the ground running;

2. Any good story is a story about relationships;

3. Any good relationship story is about the conflict in that relationship; or perhaps:

4. It doesn’t take a whole lot of long words to show conflict in a story.

And another thing I learned from that lesson: Nancy Packer didn’t tell her students the point she was making.

5. She showed us.

For more information about Nancy Packer’s new book, Old Ladies, see http://www.danielpublishing.com/bro/packer02.html

14 comments:

  1. 'Old Ladies' and Nancy sounds like a great read, I remember Prof. Jennifer Olds from Mt Sac College introducing the same piece to her Short Story and Novel writing class, we had to write our own 'White Elephant' version and share with a partner, this was amazingly insightful writing. Thank you Daniel and to all the great teachers big or small who take the time to teach even when you don't think you are.

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  2. Good points made by Nancy and given to us as a reminder. The party sounds like great fun.

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    1. Hi Marilyn. Yes, it was a fine party. I saw a few people there I hadn't seen in years.

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  3. Nancy sounds like a winner, and so does her book. I remember reading "Hills Like White Elephants," and being depressed for days afterward. Go figure. Guess that was good writing. It might also be why I write "light."

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    1. Thanks, Alice. "Hills Like White Elephants" is a downer, all right. Although it's never mentioned in so many words, it's about abortion. Not an easy subject to write about.

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  4. A great example from a woman who obviously was (and is) a great teacher.

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    1. that she was, and that she is. Thanks, John.

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  5. How lucky you were to have a teacher like Nancy Huddleston Packer. Mine was Michael Harada. We writers owe everything to our best teachers. Nice memoir (and instructional) piece. Thank you, John.

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    1. Thank you, Marta, and thanks for stopping by

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  6. Thank you for reminding me about this short story. The exchange about white elephants shows us like an X ray the state of the couple's relationship. Beautiful.

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  7. Yes, Melanie. It is a powerful story, all right.

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  8. Catching up on my replies to all the blogs, John. I loved reading about Nancy Packer a few weeks ago and am glad you chose to write about her again. I feel I can see her standing in the classroom, slamming her knuckles together, letting all of you see the point. What a gifted teacher!

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  9. She certainly was a gifted teacher, and she still is. She's still teaching creative writing to seniors, at the age of 87.

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