Writing authentically like Hemingway

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.

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

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


24 thoughts on “Writing authentically like Hemingway

  1. Can somebody answer me one question, it is about all classic authors who are now in the public domain. Why/who can get away with publishing on amazon as ‘Ernest Hemingway’ and sell his books for money (they are doing it even now). I feel both confused and angered and think that there must be many unscrupulous individuals that are just re-hashing his books (and many others) that should be provided now for free. Has anyone ever left a review pointing this out – I can’t see any and worry about the ‘fall out’ of pointing it out. However, I feel that something is wrong here. Great post about Hemingway he is a minimalist and I find that a rare skill. Too often, authors take an age to ‘get to the point’. It’s harder to be concise, and Hemingway did that beautifully.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts – and, indeed, it is rare to find minimalism done so well. Many have tried to emulate Hemingway – none have succeeded, to my mind. The thing about his copyright, as I understand it, is that this expired on 1 January this year in countries with a 50-year-after-death duration like New Zealand. However, his work is still very much in copyright in places with more than 50-year duration like the UK or the US (which has hideously complex duration laws) and his books are still commercially available worldwide in any event – these arrangements haven’t changed. My copy of ‘Farewell to Arms’, for instance, was published by Vintage (Random House) in 1999 and is copyright 1929 and 1957 to the Hemingway Foreign Rights Trust, who I expect would be receiving the royalties.

      1. Hmm, perhaps with Hemingway (I don’t know) but there are certainly books still being charged for via Kindle written over a hundred years ago, that surely are clearly in the public domain. It’s a bit of a minefield though and I am steering clear of making any complaints to Amazon. I know that they have their radar on now about it.

      2. Canada is not much better with regard to copyright duration. It doesn’t help that our government often carbon-copies their legislation and then passes it in our house. (Why anyone wants to be a carbon copy of US law/copyright eludes me.)

        I love Hemingway’s minimalism. I’ve never come close to mastering it, but I do write from the heart, and feel very empty and full after finishing a good piece of writing.

        Thanks for another great post 🙂

        1. I don’t know either. New Zealand’s is pretty much the same as the UK’s, but with some curious quirks, including duration. It doesn’t reduce the complexities involved in applying copyright law internationally.

  2. Reblogged this on Naimeless and commented:
    I love Hemingway’s minimalism. I’ve never come close to mastering it, but I do write from the heart, and feel very empty and full after finishing a good piece of writing.

    These posts really are quite inspirational, and while I’m too busy right now to write much as I’m still getting ready for a long winter. I’m planning on spending all the cold months huddled inside with a pen at my fingertips.

  3. “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.”

    All 3 of these quotes have helped me to process, empathize with, and chronicle my four years abroad. While these do help to improve my writing, of course, they also help me to keep my acidic mouth closed, relying instead on something more divine to understand and come to terms with whatever’s ailing me.

    Thanks for this post.

    1. There’s no question in my mind that Hemingway wrote what hurt – and rightly objected when other writers, some of whom he knew well enough to know what hurt for them, didn’t. To me it was the authentic emotion – paradoxically, matched against the ability to abstract himself back from the issues – that makes his writing so good.

      1. It’s so easy to throw down words on a page that sound delightful, but if the bona fide emotion isn’t there, the reader knows that. An author’s lack of authenticity is impossible to hide. It’s kinda like being in a psychotherapy session with a narcissist.
        Writing from truth is difficult, painful, bloody. It leads to stories like “$50,000”. It also requires a great deal of courage, no?.

  4. As a Hemingway lover and a having moved back to Canada from Paris last year I have to say that his quote on Paris being a Moveable Feast stays with me wherever I go. His love for the city and his descriptions of Paris are so accurate and I thought of him often as I explored the City of Light. I even had a weekly writing work shop 2 blocks from his first Paris residence and would pass this apartment on my way to class and felt his guidance and inspiration as I went to meet my fellow writers every week. I am now trying to write about my Paris life with authenticity and emotion –certainly not easy. Time to reread a Moveable Feast perhaps for some inspiration.
    On a side note, I am getting on a plane this week to come to Auckland, the other side of the world for us!

    1. We missed going by his former home when we were there. Next time. Got inspired to go back watching that Woody Allen movie last year. That whole city is just so inspiring.

      Enjoy Auckland! A little slice of NZ – one the rest of us tend to make jokes about because of its metropolitan air, but it’s NZ nonetheless. Sky Tower’s worth an ascent if you get time. Dreadfully touristy, but the view’s fabulous. It’s featured in a book I wrote on Kiwi engineering achievements & I can state for a fact is designed NOT to topple! 🙂

  5. Nice blog. You asked for quotes from other great writers who have inspired us. Here’s one from Gilbert Highet. It depicts the value of writers across the generations.

    “These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves. From each of them goes out its own voice…and just as the touch of a button on our set will fill the room with music, so by taking down one of these volumes and opening it, one can call into range the voice of a man far distant in time and space, and hear him speaking to us, mind to mind, heart to heart.”

  6. Very good post. Thanks for sharing.
    It was such a great feeling for me as a writer when I read the shortest Hemingway classic for the first time. It is mind boggling to know that so much can be said in just the right six words.
    “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”

  7. One of the ways I learned about Hemingway’s writing was by reading “A Moveable Feast.” His desire to write what was true – one true sentence – before he moved on to the next. His “Iceberg” theory. Enjoyed your post.

  8. Thank you for sharing this! I just read A Moveable Feast a few days ago and I’ve been trying to figure out how Hemingway did it. It’s just like speaking, and I love it.

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