No “Hem”-ing and Hawing About It: Hemingway Speaks in “Ernest” on Writing – Part I

“It is not that things should be published. But I believe now that it is important that they exist.”

Ah, and that quotation wasn’t even Hemingway; it was his friend Evan Shipman. But I figured it made a good segue from my previous post about “When Not Being Published Doesn’t Feel Too  Shabby,” no? Who was Evan Shipman? Alas, perhaps if he hadn’t held the views on publishing he did, his name would be as household as Ernest Hemingway’s by now.

Evan Shipman, who was a very fine poet and who truly did not care if his poems were ever published, felt that it should remain a mystery.

“We need more true mystery in our lives, Hem,” he once said to me. “The completely unambitious writer and the really good unpublished poem are the things we lack most at this time. There is, of course, the problem of sustenance.”
~ from “An Agent of Evil”

Ah, sustenance. Indeed. Well, it doesn’t seem  even the published can necessarily count on that anymore. But this is how F. Scott Fitzgerald did:

He had told me at the Closerie des Lilas how he wrote what he thought were good stories, and which really were good stories for the Post, and then changed them for submission, knowing exactly how he must make the twists that made them into salable magazine stories. I had been shocked at this and I said I thought it was whoreing. He said it was whoreing but that he had to do it as he made his money from the magazines to have money ahead to write decent books. I said that I did not believe anyone could write any way except the very best they could write without destroying their talent. He said he had learned to write the stories for the Post so that they did him no harm at all. He wrote the real story first, he said, and the destruction and changing did him no harm. I could not believe this and I wanted to argue him out of it but I needed a novel to back up my faith and to show him and convince him, and I had not yet written any such novel.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

[After Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby:]

I was trying to get him to write his stories as well as he could and not trick them to conform to any formula, as he had explained that he did.

“You’ve written a fine novel now,” I told him. “And you mustn’t write slop.”

“The novel isn’t selling,” he said. “I must write stories and they have to be stories that will sell.”

“Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.”

“I”m going to.” he said.
from “Hawks Do Not Share”

Hm, and did he? Was Scott a sell-out? Or was he just doing what he needed to do to make a livelihood of his craft? It raises the question that hits me time and again—to what extent do writers need to write to the market if they ever want to be published? Just at the start of their careers to get a foot in the door? Throughout their careers to keep earning a living? Is there a happy medium? And could writing to the market harm your writing if it’s any less than your best? Questions I don’t feel the need to answer at this time. (But see my post “To Market, To Market” if you want to further chew on it.)

Moving on, the bits that I’m quoting here are from one of my latest reads, Hemingway’s posthumously published book, A Moveable Feast. The title, though chosen by his wife after his death, bears Hemingway’s stamp, taking liberties as he did with spelling and punctuation out of an innate grammatical logic of his own—in this case, the “ea” in “Moveable.” In any case, I used to read so much Hemingway in my teens and twenties and had neglected him for a while until recently reading Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife about his days in Paris in the 1920s with his first wife Hadley. This led to reading A Moveable Feast, his own accounts of what transpired in those ol’ Paris days, and then re-reading The Sun Also Rises, which is essentially autobiographical of a group trip at that time to Pamplona, Spain. It’s funny how we readers bring so much to a story’s meaning depending on our evolving frame of reference, because first reading that novel a decade or two ago was a different experience for me than reading it now as a fellow American expat in Europe—especially different after attending a bull fight in Madrid last year (and sobbing like an infant, I might add. I’m not going to run out and join PETA or anything, but I’ll say this: Never. Again.)

Anyway, that’s the side of literature I’ve been embracing again: being a reader. Nonetheless, as I won’t be entirely foregoing the trials and tribulations of being a writer (as implied in my last post), I thought I’d share some insights on writing Hemingway gave throughout his Paris memoirs—Paris being where he was still cutting his teeth on his pencil. I’ll break it up into separate posts as this is already getting long, but before I close up shop today, I’ll share this from Seán Hemingway’s introduction to the book. Regarding how A Moveable Feast was originally going to be titled The Early Eye and The Ear:

The eye, a term usually used in the connoisseurship of fine art, draws an interesting comparison between writing and painting […] Hemingway first developed his eye, his ability to discern the gold from the dross and turn his observations into prose, in Paris in the twenties. The ear, which we think of as more pertinent to musical composition, is clearly important to creative writing. Hemingway’s writing typically reads well when spoken aloud. When complete, his writing is so tight that every word is integral, like notes in a musical composition.

Hemingway’s writing isn’t for everyone. I, too, fluctuate in my response to it sometimes. But I’ll never question my overall love for his storytelling if only for For Whom the Bell Tolls. He brought something different to the table, and even if it isn’t the style other writers or readers want to embrace, the discipline and the principles he abided by were universally sound. Until next time, when we’ll hear more of what Ernest has to say!




About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

7 responses to “No “Hem”-ing and Hawing About It: Hemingway Speaks in “Ernest” on Writing – Part I

  • Alannah Murphy

    I have to admit to never having read Hemingway, and for some reason, I have no curiousity about his writing but I also haven’t read TONS of other well known classic writers, I guess I’m a rebel without a cause 😉

    About fixing stories so they “sell” – that’s quite the talent, not sure I’d call that selling out, though I can see why it could be seen that way.

    Lastly, I am a taurus, hence the very thought of a bull fight fills me with more than horror, I wish they would be banned forever 😦

    • thefallenmonkey

      Ha, there’s no shame in not having read Hemingway or other “classic” writers. When I became an English teacher, I often wondered who got to dictate the literary canon that’s been taught at schools for decades, as some of it is downright boring and surely there are contemporary authors with literary merit who can be swapped in. They ARE doing that more often now, but still…when it comes down to it, if a writer’s work doesn’t resonate with a reader, it’s not for anyone to dictate what makes great literature for anyone else. I just had to read a lot of Hemingway in high school and did enjoy the foreign settings and adventure of his stories as a sheltered suburban USA gal. 🙂 I also liked how somtimes he would lapse into these free-association-of-thought sentences that seemed so much more liberated than other stodgy stuff we were assigned. So I kept reading him. I must say now, though, his style is sometimes a little too spare of description for me…I do enjoy detail and the lyrical quality of some stories, whereas his work can sound a little too straightforward. But that was his aim, so kudos to him for honing it.

      As for “selling out,” yeah, I’ve begun to look at writing to the market differently…particularly since I’ve been attempting it to an extent in my second manuscript and have to say it’s actually quite fun. There’s enough weirdness to keep it “me,” but throwing a certain audience a bone that they’ve come to expect from a genre isn’t totally selling one’s soul.

      And bullfights? I’m with you. I’m all for different cultural experiences and appreciating diverse traditions, but that particular practice is horrible. It would be one thing if it were a fair fight, but the bull is completely outnumbered. And, yes, I eat meat and wear leather and am aware of where that comes from, but the source of my food and clothing wasn’t taunted and humiliated and made to suffer in front of a cheering crowd first.

  • writeinberlin

    Ah, the old sellout question and again so charmingly presented.
    Like Alannah, I haven’t read Hemingway yet, and am not sure if I will, as I am already overwhelmed by getting through all those contemporary writers.

    But of course I have thought about the question of how far you want to go down the commercial route. I am a commercial copy writer also, writing what people want me to about their products. It is somehow creative, but in a very strict framework. This is fine as it gets me money.

    As a fiction writer, I think I sometimes have my ambitions so high up it is hard for readers to follow. Not because it would be noble prize worthy but I just have this urge to do something big and special. Guess many writers do, especially in the beginning. And I see now the mistakes that I made with it, those too many “off the beaten path”s which will keep it a low-seller. That is fine. People who read it still like it a lot. I am still immensely proud of it. But in this form it will never pay my bills nor find a huge audience.

    Like you, CK, with the second I came to the conclusion that toning it down a bit, extending my hand a bit to the needs of the reader, by reducing characters and sticking only one or two things they might find it hard to get their heads around, I still haven’t died. I still feel myself. It is still my story. But I think I have gained much more chance of maybe one day make the stream of creative writing income a bit bigger.
    Totally legitimate if somebody does not want this, just want to write out what is in their head. But then they should not be surprised if it doesn’t click with others or blame the lack of financial resonance. These are the choices we as writers have to make ourselves and then face the consequences.

    yadda yadda yadda … 😀 I’ll leave you in peace now. Good luck with the next ms!

    • thefallenmonkey

      So lovely of you to share the utmost of thoughtful commentary, as per usual. This is terrible of me considering I do like Hemingway, but because he’s literary canon for American high school curricula, I generally don’t expect many people to have read him if they weren’t required to for school. 🙂 As you say, there are so many writers to keep up with and new ones emerging every day.

      I can appreciate your experience with copy writing, as my paying work gives me a degree of creative freedom but—even worse than writing to what people want—I’m writing to what some computer geek who works out of his basement wants to optimize SEO. I have this hideous list of rules to follow in every post that I know makes the keywords glaringly obvious, but, hey, it’s for the money…and I can still work around the SEO bits to infuse some soul at the end of the day.

      You had BETTER be immensely proud of your work!!! I am still lamenting that I can’t read German because of it. 😦 The first chapter itself (or at least the draft of it – perhaps the final is different) was so gripping and cleverly described. That, at least, seemed accessible to a wide audience, so I hope you stay true to your writer’s voice and instinct. That said, I know what you mean about going into with grand ideas of what you want to achieve. I totally did that with ms1, and when I later stepped back to look at what I’d actually produced, I realized I’d been perhaps a little too ambitious for what it was meant to be. It ultimately deals with a rather mind-bending concept, and that definitely needed to be simplified for understanding and balanced out with my areas of lightness and irreverence that did lend a more commercial quality. In short, that damn thing was undergoing an identity crisis between silly and sophisticated, so I hope I’ve gotten it to fall somewhere in the middle…but whatever. I’ve chosen to not look at it for a while longer so that when I do I’ll have fresher eyes and hopefully less sentiment to slash what needs to be.

      It really is to each his/her own, as you essentially said. Write to the market if you want it to sell; don’t whinge if you wrote for yourself and others aren’t feelin’ it. Fair enough. 🙂

  • No “Hem”-ing and Hawing About It: Hemingway Speaks in “Ernest” – Part III « The Fallen Monkey

    […] to my level. Here it is: I think that observation speaks (to an extent) to the debate in my first post in this series about writing to the market…I think sometimes you do have to throw the reader a bone and […]

  • Pathetic Much? « The Fallen Monkey

    […] have an easy enough getaway for just the two of us (perhaps sipping a little absinthe in a few old Hemingway haunts) while still keeping on top of real […]

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