The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping up and mopping, were all you needed. For luck you carried a horse chestnut and a rabbit's foot in your right pocket. The fur had been worn off the rabbit's foot long ago and the bones and the sinews were polished by wear. The claws scratched in the lining of your pocket and you knew your luck was still there.
- Ernest Hemingway, "A Moveable Feast"
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.
- to Berenson, 1952, "Selected Letters"
However am now going to write a swell novel - will not talk about it on acct. the greater ease talking about it than writing it and consequent danger of doing same.
- to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1927, "Selected Letters"
I am more a fan of Hemingway on writing than Hemingway's collective works themselves. Which is saying something, as I admire his work very much. I find Hemingway's insights on the culling of inspiration, on ways to structure the discipline required to make worthy stories from slips of ideas, frequently hit the mark with me. I am often, as Hemingway puts it, facing "the blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer things than things can be true." Dear friends, there is a vast Senegeti between the thought and the finished story.
Hemingway often spoke about pitfalls and insights in the writing process in his witty, frank letters to literary friends and editors. The "Selected Letters," and "Ernest Hemingway on Writing" (ed. Larry Phillips) span Hemingway on everything from writer's block to politics, indulgence and the dangers of success.
Sometimes, like today, when I am stumped for the right critical filter to evaluate a work I've finished and determine if it really is done, I turn to Hemingway's strong self-critical drive and let him be my guide. He once wrote Fitzgerald, "I think you should learn about writing from everybody who has ever written that has anything to teach you." They had been discussing Dostoevsky, and a line Hemingway later included in "A Moveable Feast" was to resonate from his own search to master the nuances of the perfect story. "How can a man write so badly," he wrote, "so unbelievably badly, and make you feel so deeply?"
There is more to effective writing than grammar or form. There is a spark, the cadence of empathy. The necessary, powerful word that conveys the whole of the thing. The rest, as Hemingway might say, is but plaster smacked up on the wall.
And finally, for me, there is Hemingway's unquestioned loyalty to story. Telling a tale in the way one might carve a facet from a rough stone, making it worth the read. A man of extraordinary passions and talents, there is no end to what Hemingway might have done in life besides inhabit cafes and rewrite drafts. But consider this, from "Green Hills of Africa,"
"Do you think your writing is worth doing - as an end in itself?"
"You are sure?"
"That must be very pleasant."
"It is," I said. "It is the one altogether pleasant thing about it."
As I review my work and think about whether it satisfies me, and then if what I have written measures up to an imagined reader's expectations, I bear in mind what Hem said in a letter to Ivan Pushkin in 1935, ". . .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."
A thousand ways this hits the old nail on the head.