Hemingway is misunderstood
How ironic is it that the greatest American writer is so often misunderstood by other writers?
Hemingway's writing may feel a little dated by today's standards, but it is iconic. His novels changed the nature of fiction. Somewhat ironically, he's misunderstood and seldom read these days, but there's much he can teach us about the art of writing.
Hemingway was laconic.
If you're not familiar with the term laconic it has a wonderful backstory. King Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, launched a military campaign to consolidate Ancient Greece. When he approached Sparta, he sent them a warning, saying:
“You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”
The Spartans sent a one-word response to this threat.
In modern parlance, we'd say, "Bring it!"
With that one word, if, the battle lines were drawn. Philip went on to decimate Laconia, but his victory was far from assured. Both sides suffered severe losses and the Spartans were run off the land. Later, when Alexander the Great invaded Babylon, the Spartans refused to join him after what had been done to their lands by his father.
Perhaps the most misunderstood of Hemingway's laconic prose is his advice to "Write drunk. Edit sober." Although he enjoyed a drink, he wasn't advocating writers getting drunk. He was being laconic.
Although this sounds like something he'd say, there's no record of him actually making this comment. Now, that doesn't mean he didn't, but that it was the recollection of others. He is recorded as saying, "I always keep my whiskey within reach." And it may be that his contemporaries distilled this pithy phrase from anecdotes, but—regardless—it misses the point of the phrase. The meaning is "Write without any inhibition. Write without anything holding you back. The time for restraint is when editing, not when writing." Having said, that, "Write drunk. Edit sober," is sublime and laconic. And as such, it is a much more effective way of making the point.
Perhaps the most effective flash fiction story ever written is attributed to Hemingway by none other than Arthur C. Clarke. Although it too may be apocryphal it's worth considering for its simplicity. It's the epitome of laconic.
For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.
Clarke said, Hemingway "was supposed to have won a $10 bet (no small sum in the '20s) from his fellow writers. They paid up without a word. ... Here it is. I still can't think of it without crying. For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn."
Is Clarke correct in attributing this to Hemingway? It's difficult to tell as records from the early 1900s are not as comprehensive as they are today.
Enough with unsubstantiated quotes, let's examine some of Hemingway's writing from In Our Time to see his laconic style in action.
"Aren't you going back to work, dear?" asked the doctor's wife from the room where she was lying with the blinds drawn.
"Is anything the matter?"
"I had a row with Dick Boulton."
"Oh," said his wife. "I hope you didn't lose your temper, Henry."
"No," said the doctor.
"Remember that he who ruleth his spirit is greater than he that taketh a city," said his wife. She was a Christian Scientist. Her Bible, her copy of Science and Health and her Quarterly were on the table beside her bed in the darkened room.
Her husband did not answer. He was sitting on his bed now, cleaning a shotgun. He pushed the magazine full of heavy yellow shells and pumped them out again. They were scattered on the bed.
"Henry," his wife called. Then paused a moment. "Henry!"
"Yes," the doctor said.
I love this.
Hemingway sets up the tension by contrasting the doctor with his wife. She's calm and verbose. His speech is clipped and angry. She quotes scripture at length while he doesn't answer—only he does—he cleans his shotgun. And a chill runs through the reader.
She panics at the realization of what he's threatening to do and shouts at him, repeating his name. He answers coldly with only a single word, "Yes." Only there's no agreement from him at all. He's in violent disagreement with his actions. He's going to kill Dick Boulton.
With that one, laconic, "Yes," the reader is fully invested in what happens next. Hemingway has made it impossible for the reader to put his book down—and isn't that the goal of all writing?
So my advice to aspiring writers is the same as Hemingway's: "Write drunk. Edit sober." Leave the whiskey on the shelf, but don't hold back as your fingers pound the keyboard.
Being laconic doesn't mean you have to be sparing with your words. Hemingway wasn't when he had the wife quote the Bible. It means placing your words with the care and skill of a painter daubing their brush against the canvas. Let yourself run free when you write. Don't hold back. There will be time for careful consideration later. For now, sit on the bed with the shotgun in your hand.
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