6 Things To Learn from Hemingway
Over the last year or so, I’ve been re-reading some Ernest Hemingway. The more I read, and the more I learn about his approach to writing and his work habits, the more I’m in awe of his genius. I’ve come to see him as a remarkable example that serious writers would do well to study and emulate.
Setting aside the depression, the personal demons that drove him, and the drinking he used to cope, Hemingway stands as a master of the craft with a great deal to teach us. Here are a few valuable things I’ve identified:
1. He read the masters and studied them obsessively. His teachers were Homer, Dante, Flaubert, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and countless other exceptional writers.
2. He was friends with writers and discussed writing, art, and literature incessantly. His early circle included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein. I’ve always been fascinated that many of the great writers (including Lewis and Tolkien) found like-minded souls to be with regularly. They seemed to feed off each other. They undoubtedly supported as well as challenged one another. This is why I’m always suggesting to writers that they find a writing community or partner.
3. He prioritized his writing. Hemingway treated writing as his most important work, even when he was doing other jobs to make ends meet.
4. He wrote all sorts of things. He experimented with many forms—poetry, short stories, novels—and he was a journalist as well. He taught himself to become a writer through this continual exploration and was always seeking a new and better way to express himself.
5. He wasn’t afraid of the process. He knew that a book or short story had its own timetable, and he didn’t try to force it. If a project needed weeks, months or years in the editing and rewriting phase, that’s what he gave it. Despite the same anxiety for publication that all writers share, he still gave his books the time they needed to develop.
6. He knew when his work needed to be put in a drawer. He would set a completed project aside for weeks or months to “simmer on its own” while he worked on something else, allowing his subconscious to continue meditating on that first work. When he went back to it with fresh eyes, he’d be full of ideas to improve and refine it.
Are you developing any of these same habits?
What have you learned from some of the great classic writers of history or of today? Do you study them and read them?
[…] the post from Rachelle Gardner about Six Thing to Learn from Hemingway that I mentioned a few weeks ago. Here’s one of the things she gleaned from studying his […]
Any writer in here who uses bromides in any form is one I will never read.
My writer’s circle, before I saw this post, got into a discussion of Hemingway and how he economically described scene and character without actually writing a “description.”
The writing circle that I would most like to be in: supposedly Amy Tan, Anne Lamott, and Stephen King (sorry, Stephen, the Other other stephen king) discuss each others’ work in progress on a regular basis, or at least they used to.
I used to re-read The Sun Also Rises every couple of years and haven’t done it for awhile, so this is a good reminder to go back to Hemingway. I also love to study how he can render an emotional scene in nearly objective description–it’s amazing.
I’m way behind on my blog reading (no power for many days) but I’m catching up now.
I LOVED this post, Rachelle! I read Hemingway in HS, and over the years I’ve come to appreciate him so much–in fact,his type of writing, if I could do it, would be what I’d choose. All that you listed was keep-worthy.
I’ve studied many authors/fiction over the years, but I’ve become deliberate in the last year because of another author with whom I studied. She taught me how to use what I’m reading to construct my own writing (kind of like dissecting it.)
I think part of why I love Hemingway so much is because he lived life (all his adventures) and he worked that into his writing. That’s what I want to do! But I guess I won’t get all depressed, start drinking or stop my prayers. Do you think he wrote so brilliantly IN SPITE of his demons, or BECAUSE OF them?
My dad always tell me to write more like Ernest Hemingway and so when I saw this post I had to laugh. Thanks for sharing.
[…] 6 Things To Learn From Hemingway by Rachelle Gardner at Rachelle Gardner […]
[…] agent Rachelle Gardner recently posted six things she learned from Hemingway. One is relevant here today: He prioritized his writing. Hemingway treated writing as his most […]
Particularly like #6. I’m always amazed when I go back and see so many things to change in what I thought was “brilliant”! Ha!
Yes, economy. Hemingway has been a favorite, along with Doestoevsky. The example of Hemingway’s one sentence short story above, quoted by John, shows the power of writing just enough to stimulate, and amaze, the reader.
You left out his two most famous pieces of advice:
1. Write drunk, edit sober.
2. Every writer must have a built-in, shock-proof shit detector.
Good post – I need to read more of these ‘greats’
When I read ‘The old man and the sea’ I was simply in awe that such a simple topic held my attention for the entire reading. Often we as writers are tempted by trend to write what is shocking, dark or fashionable.
We can learn from Ernest – write something well and it can leave a lasting impression, hold the readers attention – all without shock, gore, sex or fashion.
This is a great list and most encouraging. I’ve been moving forward on items 2 through 6, but number 1, reading the masters, has always been a struggle for me. (I’ve never been interested in reading books just because someone tells me I should.)
What have I learned from the great classic writers?
From C. S. Lewis I learned that he admired George MacDonald and was friends with Tolkien. I was so impressed with “The Screwtape Letters,” “The Four Loves,” and “Surprised By Joy,” that I plowed on through the fiction of all three authors and found, to my great delight, that it was possible to clearly express a world view – and inspire toward redemption with ideas and issues-without ever giving a salvation message or an alter call.
Thanks, Rachelle, for this interesting blog and resource. I came across your site during a search for Waldo Canyon fire photos (I have family in Castle Rock) and felt as though I’d stumbled upon Gertrude’s salon.
[…] saved the best for last today: Rachelle Gardner’s (@RachelleGardner) 6 Things To Learn From Hemingway. Rather than take a literary-criticism approach to the subject, Rachelle looks at different aspects […]
The best discipline I’ve ever picked up, by accident, is asking my writing heroes who they read. A few years ago I had the chance to talk to a NYT’s Best Selling author and he turned me on to three authors whose work kept me busy for three years. I’m learning that writing is like jazz in its subtle emphasis on heritage and influence.
If I ever brush up against literary greatness again, I’ll be asking the same question.
I used to avoid reading other novels while I was “working.” I was worried their voice would show up in my writing, or I might be influenced by something they wrote and it would affect my project.
Then I realized, what’s wrong with that? If it’s something good, why shouldn’t I learn from it and allow it to shine through in my own writing?
On the flip side, I’ve also read some real stinkers, and made mental notes not to travel down the same path.
In terms of “simmering,” I have a long commute home from my day job. I found that just turning off my radio, thinking about my characters for a minute, and then letting my mind wander often makes the task of putting words to paper much easier when I get home. Trying to force it never seems to work. “Inspiration” has to come to me on its own.
Great post, thank you.
I think reading the masters is so important. Once again you’ve given us a great post.
Not a huge Hemingway fan, but you’ve got me convinced: he’s got a few things to teach me!
Question for Everyone: Is writing in the style of Twain, or any of the other Masters mentioned, relevant for today’s reader?
Example: One of my favorites, besides EH, is Victor Hugo, who is accused of rambling–too many words.
In your experience, what are today’s readers and publishers looking for by way of style, POV etc?
I’ve had similar experience being a Dostoevsky fan. Hemingway, with his love of all things concise, HATED the Russian’s work.
Perhaps we can’t get voice lessons from the classics. But we can get windows into human behavior and character motivation.
Excellent point, Larry!
I wouldn’t want to copy or even emulate anyone else’s style, but there is more to be learned from studying an author than just his / her style. Twain, to use your example, is a master at dialect. Perhaps more importantly, he found a way to address tough social issues through entertainment and humor–but without losing a satirical edge. Not an easy feat!
I simmer, and simmer often. Several writer friends insist on banging out a set number of words per day, but I find that process futile. Why eat up time and energy on empty chapters just to create huge editing work later? If the story needs time to develop, if your characters become temporarily mute, leave them alone – do something else and the story will follow. And I’m a HUGE supporter of writing outside your comfort zone – it’s perfect during the simmer cycle! I know some authors strongly disagree, but I believe a good writer, professionally trained or self-taught, should be able to write regardless of topic. Ghost writing is a great way to do this if you do not wish to be linked to the project. (Confession: Contributor on local GWB campaign blog– yeah, registered Democrat. Mama has to pay the bills!)
I like #6 the best. So important to let the work cool off a bit. Even with a blog, this is a great practice.
I believe in the “set it aside and marinate” theory of editing. I need a few days- sometimes weeks- to gain the perspective needed to tackle the rewrites.
I have been studying the classics since I was young. My flaw is not reading enough contemporary work. It’s like wanting to write songs, but only listening to Bach and Mozart while ignoring the Top 40. So mea culpa. I admit that that’s a habit I need to develop.
Number 2 is one of my favorites, as I mentioned above (and PJ–just resist it, just resist it, just…)
I practice Number 4. The poetry writing comes in cycles. Writing short stories has been fairly constant and working a short story or a poem gives me a break from the novels. I also write non-fiction and a long, long time ago, I attempted to write a play. That won’t happen again! Recently I wrote a short memoir piece.
Number 6 is an absolute. Putting the work away and then looking at it later is invaluable to revision.
One of the things Hemingway has taught me is that, as a writer, I can learn so much from an author whose work I don’t like as a reader. I don’t enjoy reading Hemingway, but I have had to teach his works (yes, I’m one of those horrible English teachers who, apparently, destroy for students the joy of reading great literature). Having had to teach his work, I have had to analyze it and that has led me to a tremendous appreciation of what he was doing as a writer. He was brilliant. So reading outside my comfort zone can teach me things about writing that I never would have learned if I only read authors and genres that I love.
Resist what? (Blinks innocently)
I know what you mean about reading that which is helpful in spite of not liking it. In an effort to understand modern trends, I read “Twilight.” After reading the sparkling schmaltz, I learned a bit about what’s grabbing audiences and that I was out of Tums.
You’re a better person than me, PJ. Since one of my novels is YA, I know I should read Twilight to see why it so infected a generation, I just haven’t been able to bring myself to do it. I guess I’ll just have to stock up on Tums and go for it. Eventually.
Journalism is great training for writers. Economy of words. Discipline. Deadlines. But how wonderful (for us) that Hemmingway used those basic skills and then explored many avenues of expression.
Hello Rachelle! I’m happy to see you back,but happiER that you chose to tweak and older post and give yourself some extra time in your day.
Ahem. Speaking of serotonin, I checked, and Purty’s doesn’t ship if the temperatures are above 73F unless I want to donate a kidney, sorry. Look for hedgehogs this Fall. Was that me hinting at a bribe? No. That was “honey, you need more chocolate.”
Ah Hemingway. TOSK is right, school and the “experts” there can do more damage to one’s love of literature than reading Twilight.
How many writers rise about the description of “writer” to become “literary master”. Not many. But those who do surround themselves with whatever it takes to leave the chains of drudgery behind and soar.
“For sale. Baby shoes. Never used.”
Hemingway had demons galore, which, I think, make his work resound with so many more readers. The poor man understood.
Tolkien and Lewis met regularly and pushed each other to excel. I can’t imagine being the guy at the next table. The eavesdropping must have been insane!
I’m thankful my husband gets it with my writing. He announced this morning that 2 more papers were accpeted. Woo!! He’s given up offering to be my agent. Thank goodness. He knows how LONG things take. He knows I have to study and stretch in order to rise above the fray and stand out.
That last R is vital.
Ah, to have listened in to Lewis and Tolkien: “I’ve just created a new race. They’re called Ents. They walk and talk and they’re job is to shepherd trees.”
“Really? I’m writing about a world with a talking lion who I’m considering making an allegorical representation of God.”
Yes, only writers can have conversations like that with other writers. If you try with other people, they smile and back away from you REAL SLOWLY so as not to startle you with any quick movements.
Seriously, though, the work that they put into world building and character development. The precision with which they wrote every detail and kept everything consistent…absolute mastery of the art of writing.
Jennifer, you are blessed to have such a supportive husband, but then, you already knows that, doesn’t ya?
I does, yes, I does know dat. Tanks.
Christine, I love this so much
“Yes, only writers can have conversations like that with other writers. If you try with other people, they smile and back away from you REAL SLOWLY so as not to startle you with any quick movements.”
That I have to share:
Most of my years have been spent working other jobs to survive and indulging my reading and writing on the side. It came about that as I was working a temporary Student Services Advisory job at a Christian university and feverishly trying to get on permanently; I was called in to HR for an interview. With my experience, I got on swimmingly until the director looked over her glasses at me and asked the next question, “Who is Jesus Christ to you?”
I answered quite honestly and simply, ” Maleldil.”
She scrambled away from me. I have found that university administrators and many professors are not as well read as writers. I just kinda thought that C.S. Lewis expressed his (and my) worldview so clearly through his Space Trilogy that everyone would know exactly what I meant. He makes me wiser.
I’m glad you enjoyed it, Cherry. 🙂
Like you, my own spirituality resonates with Lewis’ (and with Tolkien’s).
I sorry about your experience with the HR person. I was just having a bit of fun and had no idea that you had gone through an actual experience like that. She could have at least asked what you meant by your response. It would have given you a chance to the character and Jesus (and it would have added to her education). Oh well, at this point, it’s her loss.
Please excuse my HUGE grammatical error. Of course I meant “their job,” not “they’re job.” Oh, if any of my students follow this blog, I am dead in the water! 🙂
Jennifer, I’ll second the motion that having a supportive spouse helps.
“How many writers rise about the description of “writer” to become “literary master”. Not many.” – Keep in mind that “literary master” is very much in the eye of the beholder. While many of the greats whom Rachelle, you, and other posters have mentioned respected and corresponded with each other, at least some of them were less than positive on others’ writing prowess.
Ah Hemingway. TOSK is right, school and the “experts” there can do more damage to one’s love of literature than reading Twilight. <– Funny and true.
I'm glad to hear he's getting it. Supportive spouses shoulder struggling spirits.
What a great post, Rachelle! As an English Lit Creative Writing major 20 years ago, I studied the masters more than I wanted to at the time! I had the opportunity to meet or learn from the likes of Clyde Edgerton, Sharon Olds, and even had breakfast with John Updike one morning. After many years chasing other pursuits, I have begun re-reading my old textbooks. It’s been so refreshing and inspiring. I try to write every day (even if it’s just flash fiction or non-fiction or a long letter), and not to rush a piece of work at the same time. I recently put down a novel (50k words into it) for a couple of months and am returning with a fresh perspective. I wish I could say that I don’t allow other things to crowd writing out of the #1 spot. But I do.
Um…yeah, sorry for two replies, but I hit Submit too quickly. On the matter of studying the masters, I do. Rather, I’ve recently begun to. I think school ruined them for me; it’s no fun to read anything knowing you’ll have to do reports on it, no matter whether it’s Hemingway, Hawthorne, or Twain. Since I’ve been writing, though, I’ve been working my way slowly back through, starting with Twain (adding a touch of Dostoyevsky when I’m feeling skippity about it). Twain was genius, and he wrote in a compact and no-nonsense voice that I’d like my own voice to mimic more.
I attended a wonderful lecture by Linda Patterson Miller on the thousands of letters that Hemingway wrote. The letters framed his history and truly gives an example of his life. http://live.psu.edu/story/58435
The bottom line is he made time to write letters as well as everything else. Never stop writing/editing/reading.
Those are all important habits to have. I think surrounding yourself with like-minded people as you discuss in #2 is crucial, and these days it’s incredibly easy too. Not only do many people have writer’s groups to join, but there are numerous groups on Facebook to interact with. You just have to remember to treat them as colleagues rather than as an advertising platform.
Yeah really, the first writers group I joined was one of those advertising groups. There was no assistance desired nor given.
Yeah–there’s (still) an awful lot of money waiting to be made by promising authors to help them make money. With the economy as down as it is, ebooks are inexpensive enough to still be selling well, and some authors are doing extremely well, and frankly it doesn’t take a lot of investment to get into the game. Thus, there’s plenty of space out there for people to “help” new authors to riches.
I remember Hemingway stressing the importance of writing about the weather.
A writer’s principle I try not to follow is crazy Richard Adams, notorious for missing deadlines: “I love deadlines, the sound of them whooshing by,” he said.
And I feel, once again, that I must complete The Brothers Karamazov. This masterpiece that has deeply influenced so many writers, readers, and theologians is ponderous and difficult to read for me. But I get a little farther each time I try, so I’l try again…
and imagine, he accomplished all of it without the convenience of a computer. We can delete, cut and paste, insert–and still writing and rewriting is hard work. Just imagine if all the rewrites and edits were long hand or done on a typewriter.
I remember doing rewrites on a typewriter (I know; I’m showing my age). It was so frustrating to get to the bottom of a page and then make a mistake, which meant having to type the whole thing all over again. Thank heaven for word processors…and printers and copy machines and email submissions!
Hemingway is one of my favorites for a reason. Not only did he tell great stories, but he gave all of us writers great lessons in writing.
This is all the Ernest I need:
“The first draft of anything is shit.”
Oh, and I’ve read al of Hemingway’s stories. In doing so perhaps I’ve ingested the spirit of what he learned from The Greats.
By the way, one of us mentioned Midnight In Paris where EH figures large. One of his bits of advice to Owen Wilson’s character is: ‘Never show your writing to another writer’ (for an opinion).
Anyone care to comment on that?
I don’t agree with the character. Showing your writing to another writer can have great benefits. Another writer can recognize when you (to paraphrase Jennifer Major) drowned that guy real good and praise you for it. Another writer also can tell you that you’ve overdone the scene. “You spent three paragraphs drowning the guy. Why? He’s only a tertiary character. How does he rate three paragraphs?” The important thing is to be careful about WHICH writers you show your work to. It’s important to find writers who will give you constructive criticism on what you are trying to do rather than writers who will criticize your writing because it isn’t the way they would have written it.
A sayings attributed to Hemingway was:
‘All artists borrow.
‘But great ones steal.’
I’ve read very few of the giants of literature that Rachelle quoted. But I have read a lot, good stuff and trash/pulp, and I notice in my writing what I have read (and viewed and heard) finds its way into my stories, be that from conscious stealing (which is rare) or unconscious appearances (which is normal, followed by me saying: ‘where did YOU come from?’). It’s like that saying ‘you are what you eat.’
I really like the idea of knowing, paying attention to when a work needs sit in a drawer awhile, and allowing the piece to take as much time as it needs to be completed. Not that I can rush my writing, because that seems impossible (ha!). I started a writing group years ago when I started a new piece because I knew I needed/wanted to be around other people in the process of creating. Reading their work was quite inspiring. Helping a friend edit her self-help workbook and another friend edit his fantasy story really propelled the creativity in my own writing. Thanks for the suggestions.
Economy. EH once took a bet from someone who said he could not write a story in six words. He came back the next day with “For Sale: Baby shoes. Never used.” The most important words are the ones you leave out.
Yes, economy. Love this characteristic of Hemingway’s writing. He’s always been a favorite, along with Doestoevsky.
There’s not much you can teach me about Hemingway as I’ve always been a student of his work. One of the most important hints I learned from his writing about writing was that never leave your work for the day until you know where you will start tomorrow. I’ve found that helps. He’d even leave his day’s writing in the middle of a sentence so he had somewhere to start next day. Genius.
Thanks for a great post.
A Moveable Feast is like reading Hemingway’s diary of his time in Paris and details of his writing habits and process. I read and re-read it often to receive fresh motivation. A must read for writers.
Hope you are all well in Colorado Springs Rachelle. Blessings. CER
One of my favorites.
Thanks for posting, Rachelle, this is so essential for any serious writer. Too many genre writers seem to read only in their own genre which I believe is a mistake.Okay, it’s necessary insofar as you need to know the criteria governing your genre, but to improve your writing? No, you have to follow in Hemingway’s footsteps, I’m convinced of it! To the list of great writers you mention, I’d like to add another couple of Russians that have constantly guided me and inspired me: Gogol and Tolstoy…
Wonder why Russians are so good? Even modern ones are terrific, think of Bulgakov or Solghenitsyn…
I’m grateful that I live in a time where I can speak with authors using mediums unavailable to Hemingway. These greatly help a small town dweller like myself accomplish number two (that and Ex-lax, but I digress).
These are all great habits that I’ve applied to sermons due to John Stott’s teaching. I’m only beginning to get the hang of applying them to my other writing. Thank you Rachelle.
By the way, I’m thrilled to see you’re back!
Gotta watch that Number Two with all the Facebook groups out there. Nobody likes crappy writing. *rimshot*
Love the new drummer!
This post was clearly a moving experience.
Ohhh, speaking of moving, my son just did the music and voiceovers for a new game about a secret agent cow. It’s called Uddercover. http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/598320
And you think OUR puns are bad? 🙂
I’m glad you reposted this I don’t remember reading the original post. I am currently working on a piece where I am including Ernest so this was really interesting.
Also, have you seen the movie MIDNIGHT in PARIS? If not…you have to 😉 So intriguing.
I recently met Beverly Lewis and I had the opportunity to ask her what her best advice is for an aspiring author and she said: “Read, read, read as many books as you can in your genre. Join a critique group. Attend a conference, meet editors and find out what they are looking for. Write from the heart. And spend a great deal of time in prayer.” She expounded on almost all of these tips, but these were the basics and I can see many of them are echoes of Hemingway’s approach, but from a Christian perspective. For me, one of the most important things I’ve done so far is connect with writers online and I hope to meet some of them in person soon. Just like meeting Beverly, I know meeting other writers will help me gain wisdom and insight in a way I couldn’t on my own. I love Proverbs 27:17 “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”
I agree Gabrielle, I’ve found that the writers I’ve met online have quickly become my anchors and confidentes. Who else understands it when I say “I drowned my bad guy really well!!” ?
I really like Beverly’s advice, Gabrielle. Thank you for sharing it.
I agree with you and Jennifer that connecting with other writers is invaluable. Each person in this group and the writers I connect with on Twitter and in person in my critique group is a blessing to me. Thank you.
That’s a great verse for this subject.
I am now.
Great piece. Thank you.
I love this straightforward advice. I have to be ever mindful to make writing my top priority.
Wonderful article. I never put those traits I’ve been adhering to to Hemmingway, but good to know the things I’ve been doing have a pretty amazing pedigree.