Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. And when he said something about his craft – well, it paid to listen.
The rules haven’t changed much since he flourished almost a century ago – merely moved further down the direction he pioneered. Two words sum him up; authenticity and sparseness. After an early flirtation with purple prose, he eschewed the florid descriptions of nineteenth century writers. I posted some of his rules for that a while back. His reasons, according to one argument, involved his First World War experience; he thought the struggle had used words up. And maybe it had, for him. Technically he did it – in part - by dropping subordinating junctions, creating text of short, sharp and fast sentences.
What counted was the content. To him the story as written was like an iceberg - hinting but not spelling out, getting the reader’s mind to work. He was determined to get to the heart of what writing is all about – evoking an emotion in the reader, usually by exploring some aspect of the human condition. And by writing almost in skeletal fashion, he actually drove the process, forcing the reader’s imagination into overdrive. The skill was knowing what the right material to include might be.
For Hemingway, the story had to be real – fictional events, but with that sense of human depth that can only come from experience. “When writing a novel, he said once, “a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” That authenticity also did not come easily; it had to be wrung out as an emotional exercise – fuelled with the writer’s own pain, and its expression was not to be wasted. He referred to writing as sitting at the typewriter and bleeding. Here’s what else he said – and they’re good lessons:
“As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.”
“Write hard and clear about what hurts. ”
“A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it.”
“After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made lve.”
Hemingway was referring to fiction, but what he had to say was true for non-fiction as well. It works by the same rules – and has the same end goal of evoking emotion from the reader.
He’s worth reading. A good place to start, if you haven’t read it, is The Old Man And The Sea (1952). The full text has been published online - in countries with a 50-year-after-death copyright expiry, it has been in public domain since 1 January this year. It is one of his best works, and it helped win him the Nobel Prize in 1954.
Do you write from the heart like Hemingway suggested? Have you any great writers’ quotes that inspire you? I’d love to hear from you. Let’s talk.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012