Ernest Hemingway on Writing

A while back, I read Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips. Hemingway was obviously superstitious and thought it was bad luck to talk HemingwayOnWritingabout writing. He did, however, write about it. Not in a systematic manner, but here and there, now and then, in letters, articles, and books. Phillips have collected many fragments on writing from Hemingway’s hand and put them together in a somewhat orderly fashion. While the result is not all that impressive, in particular given that it comes from one of the most celebrated authors of the twentieth century, there are several interesting points, ideas, and moments contained in the collection. The book would be much more interesting and valuable, I think, if Phillips, being an accomplished writer himself, rather than just collecting and ordering all these fragments from Hemingway, would take the best ideas and fragments and provide us with his own thoughts about them; why he chose them, what they mean to him and his writing, and whether he agrees or whatever with them. [Long sentence, sorry, I won’t go back and rewrite it.]

Some of my favorite passages, interesting, revealing, or both:

My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. […] 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 [pp. 37-38*].

Punctuation should be rather straightforward, but it can be tricky sometimes, in particular if you are not writing in your mother tounge. But I agree that you need to master the conventions before moving beyond.

Actually if a writer needs a dictionary he should not write [p. 38].

I wholeheartedly disagree! Perhaps it could be discussed for certain types of writers, but I don’t think so.

Hemingway counted how many words he wrote each day, to measure his productivity I guess (see p. 56). I find productivity measurement interesting (probably in more ways than you can imagine). It took 320 words to make Hemingway happy. Modern word processors have made word counting very easy, but I forget to keep tally. But I guess I would be pretty satisfied with 320 words if I could keep at such a rate. My problems is that my writing (as an academic economist) comes in bursts; when I have something to write about (which is more seldom than I like to admit). Perhaps the problem is that writing depends on what I do otherwise, and not upon the mere inspiration to write. Taking a year off just to write, that would have been an interesting experience. (Note to self: This piece currently runs up towards 500 words, put down within less than an hour, and fewer than I feared when I sat down belong to Hemingway. I am a talkative person when I get started, perhaps I am a writative person as well. But how to get started on something interesting?)

Writers should work alone [p. 63].

Hemingway’s point is that too much interaction with other writers is destructive. My favorite band (Motorpsycho) said something similar in a recent interview, that they could never have become what they became if they were not in a small town where little happened; in a place where they could focus without being afraid of missing anything.

Chapter eleven contain fragments on other writers and has a bunch of great passages, perhaps more for what they reveal than what they say about writing. I feel this post is more about writing than, well, bullshit, so I’ll try to stick to the topic. On page 92, however, is a list of books that Hemingway seemingly think are important to have read for a, I presume creative, writer. Among them, War and PeaceMadam BovaryUlyssesThe Brothers Karamazov, Huckleberry Finn, and a bunch more.

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since [p. 93].

[Gertrud Stein’s] Making of Americans is one of the very greatest books I’ve ever read [p. 96].

The chapter goes on discussing literature that Hemingway admired, among them Hamsun’s The Growth of the Soil (Markens Grøde, which happen to be one of the best books I’ve read).

So, what did I learn from Hemingway? Worry about productivity. Be careful with punctuation and words. Read alot, the list is long.

Phillips has also edited a volume of Fitzgerald’s fragments on writing. Hemingway corresponded regularly with Fitzgerald, it seems, and many of the fragments in the book are taken from letters to Fitzgerald. While I was somewhat disappointed by what Ernest Hemingway on Writing provided, I am somewhat tempted to check out the Fitzgerald book (which usually means reading it).

* Page numbers refer to the First Scribner trade paperback edition of 2004.

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