The iceberg theory thrilled me in high school. You’re telling me the words on the page make up only a fraction of what the story is “about,” that stories are ninety percent hidden in subtext, waiting to be discovered and stumbled upon? Reading became a great mystery. I felt challenged to question my own confusion, consider details closely, and play around in the uncomfortable unknown.
Where I went wrong in this worship was in assuming that the writer knew everything about the piece, that he (and yes, it was almost always a he then) understood one hundred percent of all that mystifying stuff below the water. Adjacent to the document in which these masters typed their story was a separate document, an analytical term paper about their own work, describing how every single choice in the text bore out the secret of the subtext. Having this idea in my head made writers Gods, geniuses, untouchable—why even try? Luckily, I no longer believe this.
Instead (and this goes mostly for fiction under 2,500 words) I believe now in a breakdown like this: thirty-three percent of the iceberg is out of the water (the story’s text); thirty-three percent of the iceberg is under there, and I could describe it if asked (the story’s intended subtext); and thirty-three percent of it is unknown even to me. And I need that last thirty-three percent shrouded in darkness. Without it, I get bored—I get boring on the page.
In workshop a few years ago, I was challenged about the end of one of my stories. I couldn’t say whether or not a strange beast on the side of the road was real or imagined by the narrator.
“Seriously,” a classmate said. “Just tell us.”
“I really don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t figured it out. I can’t say what the animal is exactly.”
“Well, neither will your reader. You’re responsible for figuring this stuff out.”
The consensus was that if I didn’t know it all, the story wasn’t finished, and I hadn’t done enough work. This moment sticks with me more than any other workshop moment because I was forced to verbalize something I did not know about myself as a writer.
“I don’t want to know everything about my story.”
I felt like I had sinned in the name Fiction. I could hear Poe turning in his grave.
Every time I write a flash story that I love, the first draft is drenched in mystery. Each revision organizes, contextualizes, explains, tames, gives backstory, causes the draft to grow. I’m still learning when in that process to stop adding, stop smoothing, stop learning more about my own story, before it’s too late, before I color in all the lines, before the story becomes unwild to me.
I gave what I believe is the best reading I’ve ever given at AWP this year. It was a reading of this story, “The Skins.” The reason it worked (and I’m borrowing from something Angel Nafis said in a panel on giving good readings) was that the piece still held mystery to me. As I read it, even now, I am still actively wondering. I don’t know why the producer is the way she is. I’m not sure why Zeigler stays. The worldviews created by the snapping argument are hidden from me.
If I knew these things, I worry I’d begin to feel as if I were only tracing the sentences, traveling the same paths, instead of consistently happening upon some new unknown underneath.
TYLER BARTON is a cofounder of Fear No Lit, the organization responsible for the Submerging Writer Fellowship. His chapbook of flash fiction, The Quiet Part Loud (2019), won the Turnbuckle Chapbook contest from Split Lip Press. Find his stories in Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Subtropics, and forthcoming in The Iowa Review. Find him at @goftyler or tsbarton.com.