Why writing was hard for Hemingway

Wednesday, November 18, 2015
F: 8:10 p.m. All right, Papa, was that you that put the idea into my mind, or did I jump to this (possibly erroneous) conclusion all by myself?
I was reading Hemingway and Pound: A Most Unlikely Friendship – rereading it – when something I’d read in dozens, maybe hundreds of places suddenly appeared in a new light. He said “…early moderns like Pound were primarily concerned with expressing the truth, a goal central to Hemingway’s art as he sought to write `one true sentence.’”
Well, who hasn’t heard of your “one true sentence”? But suddenly I got a clear sense of you struggling in a way I had never considered before. I had thought it was you working and re-working the language, crafting it. But that wasn’t it, was it? I mean, that wasn’t the hard part. That was the intricate craftsman-like part, but it wasn’t the thing that made you sweat bullets.
EH: Go ahead and say it, and we’ll talk about it.

F: I’m just so damned aware of scholars looking over my shoulder, even though they don’t know I exist. Okay, here is what I just got. You were waiting. You’d spend your time getting something, and working it enough to satisfy you for the moment, then you had to reach for, and wait for, and sometimes be unable to get, whatever came next. It wasn’t a logical process at all, it was – fishing. It was Intuitive Linked Communication with nobody obvious on the other end.
You literally didn’t know from one moment to the next what to say, where to go with it, how to find the thread. And then when you finally got on the beam, you could go to work, and sometimes your previous material had to be scrapped, and sometimes it could be adapted, and sometimes it could be some used, some scrapped, some transformed. But initially you were at the mercy of whatever could feed you stories.
EH: It wasn’t quite that desperate, but you have the general idea. You noted some while ago how I could pluck a story out of the air and tell it so the others listening couldn’t tell if it had really happened to me or not. But see, that is when I had an idea that revealed itself in a glance. That was only part of the time, and if that’s all there was to writing, there’d be a hell of a lot more writers in the world, and more stories and better ones. Most times, it doesn’t come that easily.
Now suppose I had an idea about a state of mind and a conflict between a person and something else – circumstance, or someone else, anything. I could feel that it was the beginning of something, and I learned early how to listen, so as not to scare the story away. But what would it amount to? There was only one way to find out, and that was to write it.
Well, fine, you might say. So write it. But what do you have? You have an idea, a mood, a character or maybe only one or two of the three. You start working with it to see where it leads. You don’t know a false start from the real thing until it becomes obvious, and that can be in a few seconds or you can lose your day’s work. You don’t quite know what the story mood wants to say, or how it wants to say it, so you construct. Say you know your characters and your conflict, you still don’t know what incidents to describe or allude to. You don’t know what kind of language to use. You don’t yet know the details that are going to let you paint the mood. You know very damn little, sometimes, and you have to scratch for every thing. So yes, you can wind up writing a sentence, and having nothing more, so you carve on it, hoping that the process itself will carry you to the next sentence, and often enough it does and sometimes it leads you farther and farther astray, either because the material is not enough to sustain itself or because you see that you have to go in another direction even though what you had was fine.
F: The two chapters omitted from Islands in the Stream about Roger driving toward the West.
EH: Yes. And of course sometimes the story comes easily and you don’t have to fight it but you can just stay receptive to it and when you have it you go back and work it. But except for The Old Man and the Sea, I never had one write itself. I always had to work, and sweat, and pray, and suffer my doubts.
F: So that one insight that came to me – that you were having to wait for it to come to you – was that accurate?
EH: Sometimes, yes, other times less so. But it is an important realization. I always told people, writing was very hard for me, but they didn’t seem to believe it. I suppose they thought I was complaining about the work of it, I don’t know.
F: But what was hard was –
EH: Moving a feeling or an incident or a personality or a transformed memory or, sometimes, an idea, into a story. Stories have characters, and action, and dialogue or monologue, and different kinds of incidents. None of that is given to you, usually. You have to feel your way to how you are going to present it.
And part of the problem is that it only gets revealed to you a little bit at a time, and you have to be alert and not miss any of it. You had to stay poised but not active. You know the feeling.
F: I do. I just wouldn’t have thought to associate the two.
EH: That’s because you write fluently but less intricately. I won’t call it superficial, but it is more automatically produced than worked on. When you obtain a coherent product, you don’t work it and re-work it, and you don’t look at it from many sides the way I had to. You don’t consider the rhythms and the sounds of the words and the cues provided by the environment. All this is because you write as an intuitive rather than as a sensory person living in the world. You write more an idea of the world than the world around you, because most of your world is in your mind.
F: I couldn’t have put it that way, but that sounds right.
EH: Well, what was hard for me was living in both worlds. I was getting my ideas from wherever ideas come from, and I could then clothe them from my experience, but then I’d be waiting for the next installment and I could get that only by functioning as an intuitive. Nobody I knew would have put it that way, but I think Archie [MacLeish] would have understood particularly, because surely he worked that way.
F: What you said about my writing you could have said about Fitzgerald’s, I suppose.
EH: I could say it about most people’s. Why do you think my work was different? Why did it have such deep appeal even to people who might have preferred not to find it appealing? My job was to describe the world so it was unmistakable. My stories were never trivial in intent even if they were trivial subjects being considered.
F: Well, that’s pretty nearly a morning’s work. We can still start where we intended to, I hope.
EH: I’ll be here. And if not tomorrow, whenever.
F: Okay.

10 thoughts on “Why writing was hard for Hemingway

  1. How interesting — this makes me think of a writer who is now all but forgotten: Harry Sylvester — who was a friend of Hemingway.

    Sylvester was on his way to becoming a major literary figure of the 20th Century, but then suddenly just chucked it all and spent the last 40 years of his life living as an obscure bureaucrat in Washington D.C.

    There is something about Sylvester that captivates me, as in, why did he give it all up? — was writing just too difficult, too painful, too soul wrenching, too thankless, not worth the hassle?? Lord knows it’s brutally hard work.

    I recall Kurt Vonnegut bemoaning in an essay the fact that most writers are eventually entirely forgotten anyway, even once great writers.

    I love to troll the hoary archives of Project Gutenberg and occasionally read an extremely obscure book — one I read recently was “Mushroom Town” by British author Oliver Onions (Yes that was his real name until he changed it!) — but, I mean, what a fabulous novel, but I wager I’m the only guy on the planet who has read it in the past decade.

    Sorry to digress … but dare I ask .. can we have any information from EH on Harry Sylvester?? I apologize if I’m am being too bold to ask …

    1. Not too bold, but you are evidently close to Sylvester for some reason. Your work with Ken Kesey shows that you know how to make contact: why don’t you contact him whether or not I ask Papa about him?

  2. I think you got a little confused here Frank. I am the one who has the link with Kesey (Afterlife Conversations with Ken Kesey, on iBooks).

  3. Well, Ken Kesey are both “Kens” and we both have the same “KK” initials!

    But I also appreciate your suggestion, Frank, that I contact Harry Sylvester. I may do just that. I have been honing my skills considerably in this area … also Frank, you work here is encouraging me to began posting some information from a certain other … let’s just call him a “major historical figure” … on my own blog.

    Thanks for being an inspiration and setting such an incredible example with your courage to put your work out there … and taking the risk … showing us the way … doing this kind of work, and especially putting it out there, is not something I want to do lightly at all … it has to have that sense of authenticity, and to resonate …

    1. Well, you know, it may just be a certain reckless disregard, or possibly I’m not too bright in certain ways. But I’m glad if it’s helpful.

      BTW you might want to look at Paul’s book, it’s very good.

  4. Paul’s book subject matter is like catnip for me — I would be eager to give it a read and review it for my book review site. This is exactly the kind of title I want to have a lot more of on my site. Also, I have a very high “power ranking” as an Amazon “Top Reviewer” if that helps, but the latter would only help if the book is available via Amazon.

    Paul, is there any other place I might obtain a copy other than iBooks?

    1. Hi Ken,

      I get a sense that the other ‘Ken’ has got his finger in this pie. As you will see when you read the book (which I can send you as a PDF copy) Ken Kesey, Frank and me seem to be linked in all sorts of complicated ways.

      It’s like Frank always has his door open a little, so odd messages drift through from time to time that often have nothing to do with what he thinks he is thinking.

      Contact me on: wbedivere@gmail.com and I’ll send you the PDF.

      1. “It’s like Frank always has his door open a little, so odd messages drift through from time to time that often have nothing to do with what he thinks he is thinking.”
        🙂 Couldn’t have put it better myself!

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