When in doubt, channel Hemingway. This has been my writing motto as of this last year. I had to forgo using this motto while drinking, because I found out I am more like Fitzgerald than Hemingway when it comes to my alcohol tolerance. While drinking before noon is not a way I can emulate this talented writer, I have found I can follow sound writing advice produced in one of my favorite works by Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast. I love this book for many reasons. I enjoy reading about his life in Europe, his marriage to his first wife Hadley, and the back story behind why he wrote about food so much (he was practically starving early in his career.) Particularly, I love reading about his decisions when writing and the gift of getting a look into his process.
One of my favorite sections describes how Hemingway’s inner voice reminded him not to panic when the words did not instantly pour out onto the paper when he was writing something new. “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.'” I love that, and think it’s brilliant on many levels. For one thing, it reminds us that even gifted writers have moments when they can’t immediately think of what to write. And secondly, there is the tried and true tip: write about something you know. It’s also a great reminder to forget about all the crap. Forget about trying to do this or that, forget about trying to sound like a witty genius. Just write something real, man. I might start sounding like a character from Dazed and Confused, or the great hippie poet, Jim Morrison, so let’s move on.
Hemingway went on to talk about his revision process. This advice has been particularly helpful to me, because writing clearly and concisely can be difficult. But clarity and cohesion are valued in writing, especially in academic writing. When you equate eloquent prose with flowery, descriptive language, you run the risk of losing both your meaning and the reader in too many words. Hemingway wrote, “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.” Go back and read over what you wrote. There will almost always be words you can cut out to make your writing sharper.
Hemingway also mentions the phenomenon I refer to as “the flow.” I love the flow, when the words finally start tumbling out of you almost faster than you can write them (or type them, as most of us compose in present day.) “I was writing it now and it was not writing itself and I did not look up nor know anything about the time nor think where I was nor order any more rum St. James.” Few things beat the feeling of this moment. Or, maybe it’s the feeling after you are done, because you aren’t really thinking of anything, but what you are writing during this time. Just writing about it makes me want to light up a cigarette. Unfortunately, it has been eons since I last smoked. Even Hemingway wrote about it like he was spent. “After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day.” Here is another revelation of his process. He doesn’t read through it until the next day. This is great advice again, because you need to separate yourself and take time away from your writing in order to give revision justice. Looking at your writing with new eyes is the best way to “re-vision” your work.
Hemingway’s larger than life personality is fun to get lost in when reading A Moveable Feast. I admire his passion for life, food, drinking, and love. But, where he lived these passions in excess, he knew to pull back when it came to his writing. We can all take a few (writing) cues from the man they called Papa.