Hemingway is one of my favorite writers of all time.
Photo Credit: Lloyd Arnold via Wikimedia Commons
Hemingway is one of the most celebrated American writers and is well known for his minimalistic writing style that he called the Iceberg Theory.
His most celebrated works are The Sun Also Rises, A Farwell to Arms, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls‘ and of course The Old man and the Sea. I also recommend having a look at Hemingway’s short stories, because they really show his distinct style of writing. They are available in a complete collection titled The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway.
It is not only because of his novels and short stories though, that I like him but also because of his thoughts about the craft of writing in general.
A Moveable Feast
Hemingway’s memoire A Moveable Feast is one of my favorite works by him. In this book he reminiscences about his life as a young writer in the Paris of the 1920s. The book not only gives you a great feeling of the writer’s life but Hemingway also gives some incredible advices to young writers:
Write one true sentence:
You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.
Stop thinking about your story when you aren’t working on it:
It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to do it. Going down the stairs when I had worked well, and that needed luck as well as discipline, was a wonderful feeling and I was free then to walk anywhere in Paris.
Stop when you know what is going to happen next:
It was wonderful to walk down the long flights of stairs knowing that I’d had good luck working. I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.
Write a story about everything you know:
Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.
Those are just some of his excellent advice on writing in A Moveable Feast. The book is much more than a manual on the craft though. It shows to us a very personal Hemingway looking back at the time when he met such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald or Gertrud Stein and when he was just a struggling young writer in Paris.
Quotes by Hemingway
There are just so many inspirational sayings and quotes by Hemingway. I like them just so much because they hold so much truth in so few words. It was pretty hard to decided, but here are my personal top 10:
“The hard part about writing a novel is finishing it.”
“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
“As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.”
“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”
“In order to write about life first you must live it.”
“it is all very well for you to write simply and the simpler the better. But do not start to think so damned simply. Know how complicated it is and then state it simply.”
“If a writer stops observing he is finished. Experience is communicated by small details intimately observed.”
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
“The first draft of anything is shit.”
Hemingway’s writing advice
Some of Hemingway’s greatest advice on writing can be found in a book called Ernest Hemingway on Writing Larry W. Phillips. It is a compilation from many of his published works, articles as well as private letters and correspondences with other writers. It includes many reflections on the writer’s life, helpful advice, work habits as well as discipline.
There is one specific piece of advice that I want to name here. It is titled Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter which was written for the Esquire in 1935. Hemingway as Your Correspondent (Y.C.) gives advice to an aspiring writer called ‘Mice’, which is short for Maestro. it is one of the most profound pieces of writing advice I ever encountered. Instead of trying to put it into my own words, I am going to simply include it here:
MICE: How can a writer train himself?
Y.C.: Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you the emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had. That’s a five finger exercise.
MICE: All right.
Y.C.: Then get in somebody else’s head for a change. If I bawl you out try to figure what I’m thinking about as well as how you feel about it. If Carlos curses Juan think what both their sides of it are. Don’t just think who is right. As a man things are as they should or shouldn’t be. As a man you know who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.
MICE: All right.
Y.C.: Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When you’re in town stand outside the theatre and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.
In the end there is so much more about Ernest Hemingway. There is his 1954 Nobel Acceptance Speech, his advice letters to writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald as well as his recommended reading list for a young aspiring writer named Arnold Samuelson.
I think an aspiring writer can do much worse than to follow the writing advice of Ernest Hemingway as well as reading his works of fiction.