Ernest Hemingway on Writing

"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."
“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.”

Ernest Hemingway is widely regarded as one of the great writers. His 1954 Nobel acceptance speech on working alone, is one of the keys to his genius. Being alone gives you the space and freedom for “combinatory play.”

To continue my look at writing and great writers, I wanted to take a look at some of Hemingway’s wisdom on the subject. The excellent Hemingway on Writing is the place to start. The book is a compilation of his reflections and musings on the craft, selected from his writings.

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In this correspondence, found in By-Line: Ernest Hemingway (pp.219–20), Hemingway writing as “Your Correspondent” (YC), offers some straight advice to aspiring writers.

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 thousands ways to practice. And always think of other people.

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Hemingway comments on overcoming resistance in A Moveable Feast (p. 12).

… sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. 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.

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In a beautiful 1934 letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway provides some sound advice.

… Second place, a long time ago you stopped listening except to the answers to your own questions. You had good stuff in too that it didn’t need. That’s what dries a writer up (we all dry up. That’s no insult to you in person) not listening. That is where it all comes from. Seeing, listening. You see well enough. But you stop listening. …

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In A Moveable Feast (p. 134), Hemingway discusses the use of adjectives.

[Ezra was]… the man who had taught me to distrust adjectives as I would later learn to distrust certain people in certain situations …

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Writing to Horace Liveright in 1925, Hemingway discusses his attitude towards 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.

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In this letter to Bernard Berenson from 1953, Hemingway suggests that people should read the dictionary “three times” before writing.

Actually if a writer needs a dictionary he should not write. He should have read the dictionary at least three times from beginning to end and then have loaned it to someone who needs it. There are only certain words which are valid and similies (bring me my dictionary) are like defective ammunition (the lowest thing I can think of at this time).

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Hemingway on Writing is a great place to start if you’re looking for inspiration from the master. Pair with The WAR of ART and the Unlived Life and Anne Lamott: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.