Friday, February 27, 2009

Advice from Hemingway

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.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Jean:

Interesting post on Hemingway. One thing he supposedly said, that I always remember, is that he read other writers so he would know know "what he had to beat."

That's probably true, and another version of learning from the best. I have always felt that reading a well-written book is the best writing lesson.

Also I read once that Hemingway wrote standing up. It might account for his clear, sparse language.

I wish I had a place to stand up and write. Sitting at this computer every day has has turned me into a dumpling. )-:

Pat Browning
Author of Absinthe of Malice, Krill Press 2008

Jean Henry Mead said...

Pat, I agree about reading good fiction. Another writer who stood up to write was Brian Garfield, novelist and screen writer who wrote "Death Wish," among many others. He had a desk that cranked up and down because he had a bad back.


Linda J. Hutchinson said...

Thanks for sharing this well-written post about Hemingway. We can all learn from the master.

Perhaps you would consider allowing me to include this post, or a link to it, in the next update of The Bare Bones Basics of: So You Want to be a Writer, to be completed before the next Muse Online con? It's an e-book for the emerging/newbie/wannabe writer.

Love your Tweets!


Jean Henry Mead said...

Of course you can include it, Linda. Thank you, I'm flattered. Please send me a link to your site.

Mark W. Danielson said...

The interesting thing about Hemingway is he couldn't get published in today's market. Still, he set the standard for deep-thought brevity, which I dare say, has influenced every author and editor since.

Beth Terrell said...

The master had some wonderful words of wisdom. Thank you for sharing them with us.

I wonder if he would have been unpublished today, though, or if his style would have evolved to reflect the current market. He was the influence for so many writers, but I think maybe he would have been equally successful today, albeit with somewhat different books.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I agree, Beth. Hemingway was well aware of what everyone else was writing and would adapted. And Mark, anyone can be published now, no matter how badly they write, unfortunately.