Monday, July 21, 2014

Ernest Hemingway on Writing

Hemingway did not specifically write a dedicated treatise on writing (he considered it bad luck to talk about writing), but throughout his written work and correspondence he ended up talking quite a bit about the writer's life. I have to thank Larry W. Phillips for his research and collecting together these loose fragments of advice and thoughts on the craft of writing into the book Ernest Hemingway on Writing.

Know Your Tools

As an artist it takes many years of practice getting proportions right, seeing and recording values of light and shadows, understanding the rules of composition and the idiosyncrasies of the various mediums.

There is a balance between knowing the rules and breaking them. If you dive right past the foundational basics and try to paint, your lack of understanding will be apparent to everyone and you will never work with confidence.

You've seen the famous paintings by Picasso, but may not have seen his early realistic drawings that show his complete ability to capture his subjects. Knowing the basics becomes the foundation to greater work.

Hemingway talked about one of the basic tools for writers, punctuation:

“My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. The game of golf would lose a good deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green. You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements.”

His spare writing style was a conscious choice:

“I don’t like to write like God. It is only because you never do it, though, that the critics think you can’t do it.”

Word Count

Make each word count. What if you had to pay for each word? He explained how his economic writing style was shaped early in his career:

“Don’t worry about the words. I’ve been doing that since 1921. I always count them when I knock off and am drinking the first whiskey and soda. Guess I got in the habit writing dispatches. Used to send them from some places where they cost a dollar and a quarter a word and you had to make them awful interesting at that price or get fired.”

And don't get too hung up about how many words you write per day. How you feel after writing is the important thing.

“I loved to write very much and was never happier than doing it. Charlie’s [Scribner’s] ridiculing of my daily word count was because he did not understand me or writing especially well nor could know how happy one felt to have put down properly 422 words as you wanted them to be. And days of 1200 or 2700 were something that made you happier than you could believe. Since I found that 400 to 600 well done was a pace I could hold much better was always happy with that number. But if I only had 320 I felt good.”

On Writing Novels

It's easy to think of famous writers and imagine that the words came easy for them. It gives me hope when I learn it was otherwise:

“...I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel. It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.”

Yes, writing a novel is hard, so here is some of the best advice you will ever read:

“You just have to go on when it is worst and most helpless—there is only one thing to do with a novel and that is go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.”


Want to be a writer? Stick with it, through all interruptions.

“I happen to be in a very tough business where there are no alibis. It is good or it is bad and the thousand reasons that interfere with a book being as good as possible are no excuses if it is not. You have to make it good and a man is a fool if he adds or takes hindrance after hindrance after hindrance to being a writer when that is what he cares about. Taking refuge in domestic successes, being good to your broke friends etc. is merely a form of quitting.”

I have often felt guilty for not being much of a letter writer. I thought "How can you consider yourself a writer if you can't even write letters? Then when I read this it I felt more at ease:

“Take good care of yourself and please forgive such a rotten letter. All my juice goes in the damned book. Anytime I can write a good letter Tubby it’s a sign I’m not working.”

On Characters and Being Observant

We've all heard the advice to write what you know, and Hemingway showed why that was so important:

“People in a novel, not skillfully constructed characters, must be projected from the writer’s assimilated experience, from his knowledge, from his head, from his heart and from all there is of him. If he ever has luck as well as seriousness and gets them out entire they will have more than one dimension and they will last a long time.”
“The more he learns from experience the more truly he can imagine. If he gets so he can imagine truly enough people will think that the things he relates all really happened and that he is just reporting.”

That was how I felt reading The Sun Also Rises, that he was mostly reporting things that had happened, but in reality those things didn't happen. He used real people but "controlled what they did."

Selecting the Right Title

Hemingway spent a lot of effort in choosing the right title:

“Getting a title is a lot like drawing cards in a poker game. You keep on drawing and they’re all worthless but if you can last at it long enough you always get a good hand finally.”
“How about this for a title
For Whom the Bell Tolls
A Novel
By Ernest Hemingway
…I think it has the magic that a title has to have. Maybe it isn’t too easy to say. But maybe the book will make it easy. Anyway I have had thirty some titles and they were all possible but this is the first one that has made the bell toll for me.”

Motivation for Writing

I'm sure we all dream of being published and recognized for our work. But that is a lousy motivator for me. This is the motivation that brings out my best writing:

“I have to write to be happy whether I get paid for it or not.”