Ernest Hemingway's Advice about Writing You Must Not Ignore
Every writer must have a built-in shit detector
Ernest Hemingway, one of the greatest American writers won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 "for his powerful, style-forming mastery of the art of narration."
Hemingway thought that it was, somehow, bad luck to talk about writing - that it takes off "whatever butterflies have on their wings and the arrangement of hawk's feathers if you show it or talk about it."
Despite having this baseless belief, he did write about writing. In his novels and stories, in letters to editors, fellow artists, friends, and critics, in interviews, and in commissioned articles about writing. Hemingway wrote incisively about the subject - better than many other writers.
Ernest Hemingway on Writing, by Larry W. Phillips, is a compilation of his reflections on his writing process.
Larry W. Philip says in the preface of the book, "This book has Hemingway's thoughts on the nature of the writer and on elements of the writer's life, including specific advice to writers on the craft of writing, work habits, and discipline. The Hemingway personality comes through in general wisdom, wit, humor, and insight, and in his insistence on the integrity of the writer and of the profession itself."
Here are some of the paragraphs to help writers in their work, taken from the book - mostly from Hemingway's letters to various people:
1. Shit detector
The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer's radar and all great writers have had it.
A writer without a sense of justice and of injustice would be better off editing the yearbook of a school for exceptional children than writing novels.
All my life I've looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time…
…real seriousness in regard to writing is one of the two absolute necessities. The other, unfortunately, is talent.
A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge.
Working on a title for a book of stories now. With enough time you can always get a good title. The hell of it is that you always have a lot that seems good and it takes time to tell which one is right.
…I think it has the magic that a title has to have. Maybe it isn't too easy to say. But maybe the book will make it easy. Anyway I have had thirty some titles and they were all possible but this is the first one that has made the bell toll for me.
3. What writing is and does.
All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterward it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorry, the people and the places and how the weather was.
Nobody really knows or understands and nobody has ever said the secret. The secret is that it is poetry written into prose and it is the hardest of all things to do…
4. What to write about.
Write about what you know and write truly and tell them all where they can place it…Books should be about the people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you study about.
You see I'm trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across- not to just depict life - or criticize it - but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can't do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can't believe in it.
…whatever success I have had has been through writing what I know about.
For instance, I am guilty of using "swell" in writing. But only in dialogue; not as an adjective to replace the word you should use. Try and write straight English; never use slang except in dialogue and then only when unavoidable. Because all slang goes sour in a short time. I only use swear words, for example, that have lasted at least a thousand years for fear of getting stuff that will be simply timely and then go sour.
I've tried to reduce profanity in The Sun Also Rises but I reduced so much profanity when writing the book that I'm afraid not much could come out. Perhaps we will have to consider it simply as a profane book and hope that the next book will be less profane or perhaps more sacred.
5. The pain and pleasure of writing.
I believe that basically, you write for two people; yourself to try to make it absolutely perfect, or if not that then wonderful. Then you write for who you love whether she can read or write or not and whether she is alive or dead.
…writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else that I have ever done - so I do it. And it makes me happy when I do it well.
I have to write to be happy whether I get paid for it or not. But it is a hell of a disease to be born with. I like to do it. Which is even worse. That makes it from a disease into a vice. Then I want to do it better than anybody has ever done it which makes it into an obsession. An obsession is terrible. Hope you haven't gotten any. That's the only one I've got left.
6. Writer's block.
…sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, 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.
7. Daily word count.
I loved to write very much and was never happier than doing it…And days of 1200 or 2700 were something that made you happier than you could believe. Since I found that 400 to 600 well done was a pace I could hold much better was always happy with that number. But if I only had 320 I felt good.
I think you should learn about writing from everybody who has ever written that has anything to teach you.
Ordinarily, I never read anything before I write in the morning to try and bite on the old nail with no help, no influence, and no one giving you a wonderful example or sitting looking over your shoulder.
When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written… afterward, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again. I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.
9. Knowing what to leave out.
If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
It wasn't by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.
10. On fame.
I think we should never be too pessimistic about what we know we have done well because we should have some reward and the only reward is that which is within ourselves… Publicity, admiration, adulation, or simply being fashionable are all worthless…
You must be prepared to work always without applause. When you are excited about something is when the first draft is done. But no one can see it until you have gone over it again and again until you have communicated the emotion, the sights, and the sounds to the reader…
11. The Writer's Life
"Tell me first what are the things, the actual, concrete things that harm a writer?"… "Politics, women, drink, money, ambition. And the lack of politics, women, drink, money, and ambition," I said profoundly.
Glenway Wescott, Thornton Wilder, and Julian Green have all gotten rich in a year in which I have made less than I made as a newspaper correspondent - and I'm the only one with wives and children to support. Something's going to have to be done. I don't want the present royalties until they are due. But I would like to make a chunk of money at one time so I could invest it. This bull market in beautiful letters isn't going to last forever and I do not want to always be one who is supposed to have made large sums and hasn't and doesn't.
…I don't think there is any question about artistic integrities. It has always been much more exciting to write than to be paid for it and if I can keep on writing we may eventually all make some money.