by Jean Henry Mead
I recently came across a forgotten book in my library, titled On Being a Writer by Will Blythe. Thumbing through, I noticed a chapter about Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway is a favorite author, not only because he changed the face of literature, but because I was born on his birthday, July 21. Leather bound copies of his work are among my most prized possessions.
Elmore Leonard reveres Hemingway so much that a portrait of him hangs in his writing den, and he claims that rereading For Whom the Bell Tolls taught him to write western novels. Thousands of writers have followed “Papa” Hemingway‘s lead and learned to write succinctly rather than imitate writers of the past such as Washington Irving, whose flowery phrases give me a headache.
Hemingway was no saint but his candor and truth in writing are traits to be admired. Questioned about his drinking habits, he said the only writer he knew who drank while he wrote was Faulkner, and that he could tell from reading his work when his drinking began during the writing process.
He wrote from 7 a.m. until noon and stressed the fact that writers should write every day, no matter where they were. During the afternoons he would swim or go fishing, explaining that “the best way is always to stop when you are doing good. If you do that, you’ll never be stuck. And don’t think or worry about it until you start the next day. That way your subconscious will be working on it all the time. But if you worry about it, your brain will get tired before you start again. You have to work every day. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite the nail.”
When writing about something monumental like a current war, he said at first it’s too fresh and you’re too close to what has happened. When you have sorted out your feelings about your subject, it’s time to write before the freshness wears off.
“When you write, your objective is to convey every sensation, sight, feeling, and emotion to the reader." He stressed rewriting and keeping your work fluid so that you can always improve upon it. Calling writing the hardest trade in the world when writing about fellow human beings, he said that wordsmiths can train themselves by recalling memories of walking into a room and experiencing the sights, smells and emotions present there.
“Then write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it too, and have the same feelings you had.” Hemingway also stressed watching people and attempting to insert yourself in someone else’s head, and above all, never take sides in an argument. See the problem from all sides and allow the reader to determine who’s right and wrong.
“As a writer you should not judge, you should understand.”
Hemingway encouraged writers to talk to one another about their craft, but not about the stories they were writing. If you tell it, you won’t write it. Writers should work alone, then talk about their work. He also discouraged writers from imitating what others have written unless they know they can do a better job. It’s important to keep a journal if you’re writing about actual historical events because you have to write "an exact, detailed and specific account" of the story. And above all, you have to be serious about your subject as well as your craft.