Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hemingway and My Writer's Heart

by Julie Coulter Bellon

In the new issue of Writer’s Digest, they had a snippet of an interview done with Ernest Hemingway right before his death in 1961. I am including a little of what he had to say because he expresses some things that I have felt as a writer but never seemed to be able to quite nail down.

Interviewer: "How long can you actually be productive on a daily basis? How do you know when to stop?"

Hemingway: "That’s something you have to learn about yourself. The important thing is to work every day. I work from about seven until about noon. Then I go fishing or swimming, or whatever I want. The best way is always to stop when you are going good. If you do that you’ll never be stuck. And don’t think or worry about it until you start to write again the next day. That way your subconscious will be working on it all the time, but if you worry about it, your brain will get tired before you start again. But work every day. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail."

This really hit home to me. I loved how he talked about stopping when you are going good because then you will never be stuck. I usually think once I’m in the groove I better not stop because then I’ll lose it. Perhaps this is why I do get stuck!

The second point he made that I identified with was when he talked about your subconscious working on the story all the time if you’re not consciously worrying about it. I must say my best ideas have come to me at the oddest times, and always when I’m not thinking about writing. It’s tough though because I am a chronic worrywart and I tend to put a lot of myself into my writing.

However, the most interesting thing about Hemingway’s answer was his use of "get up and bite the nail," in regards to writing every day. I know it’s just an expression, but what a visual! I mean, I’m sure that sometimes it can be several different things, since how you’ll feel about your writing could depend on the day, but biting a nail could be something to get over with, a habit, something bitter, doing something daring or maybe a little dangerous, a walk on the wild side or perhaps just proving that you can do it. And isn’t that how sitting down to write can be? I loved that little visual.

Hemingway went on to say, "When you write, your object is to convey every sensation, sight, feeling, emotion, to the reader . . . when you walk into a room and you get a certain feeling or emotion, remember back until you see exactly what it was that gave you the emotion. Remember what the noises and smells were and what was said. Then write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling you had.

"And watch people, observe, try to put yourself in somebody else’s head. If two men argue, don’t think who is right and who is wrong. Think what both their sides are. As a man, you know who is right and who is wrong; you have to judge. As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand."

Several writers I know write in public for that very reason. When they get stuck, they simply watch the people around them—their gestures, their facial expressions and then they are able to incorporate that into their story and characters. When it feels real to the writer, it will generally feel real to the reader.

I love how Hemingway described how to breathe life into your writing---put emotions, sensations, and feelings into your work. Let the reader hear the noises and smell the smells just as you did. Bring them along for the experience.

I thought the most profound thing Hemingway said in that paragraph was that a writer should not judge, but understand. Isn’t that partly why we write? To understand and highlight different aspects of the human condition? To seek ways to show different perspectives, reactions, and opinions in situations that could happen? Of course we all want to entertain and to uplift, certainly, but also to make sense of the world and events that surround us and express the stories that are clamoring to be told?

Hemingway’s little interview touched something in my writer’s heart. You see, being a writer, for me, gives me the opportunity to explore my imagination, to take my readers with me as an ordinary person in extraordinary situations. Writing can be noble, visceral, liberating or heartbreaking, but most of all, writing is where I learn things about me and the world around me, where I can find my truest self at times and for that I am grateful.


At 8/23/2007 7:04 PM, Blogger Anne Bradshaw said...

I really enjoyed this, Julie. Thanks for letting us into Hemingway's writer mind--and yours. I'm going to try his method of stopping before I get frustrated and achy sitting here typing. Makes a lot of sense. Hope I have the power to get up and leave when on a roll. Takes some kind of faith to trust things will still be rolling later.

At 8/23/2007 7:09 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Anne, that's what I thought! It would take a lot of effort for me to stop if I'm on a roll and hope it will come back. I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels that way could be hard to follow!

At 8/23/2007 10:46 PM, Anonymous marlene said...

I've actually tried stopping when I'm going good--not necessarily on purpose but when my family called--and it does work for me. When I stop because I'm not sure where I'm going or how it is going I find it much harder to get myself back at the computer and also to actually start writing. I've even been known to get in extra writing time if I knew I was coming back to something that was really flowing, so it does seem to work for me--if I have control of my schedule enough to stop and start when I want to.

At 8/24/2007 12:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I thought the most profound thing Hemingway said in that paragraph was that a writer should not judge, but understand."

This is very important to me as a writer. There is nothing more tiresome to me than a lily-white protagonist who never slips up, who never does something he/she regrets profoundly. Slipping up, after all, is one aspect of the human condition that unites us all, and a character who doesn't say or do the wrong thing once in awhile seems hollow. However, we should never judge our wayward protagonist too harshly--the point of writing a novel, after all, is to create, cultivate, and redeem a textured character.

A lot of writers fall into the trap of writing autobiographical characters, relegating those who do things they would never do to cardboard cutout villain status. I think that it is so much more challenging and fulfilling to create believable protagonists who are, at the end of the day, nothing like ourselves!

-Meredith L. Dias

At 8/24/2007 9:16 AM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

I loved this interview, too, Julie. I loved his way of explaining what we basically call "show not tell" through observations. I differ in that I have to think ahead to what I'll be writing next. Considering how much I dislike Hemmingway, this interview almost redeemed him in my eyes. :)

At 8/24/2007 12:27 PM, Blogger Janette Rallison said...

See, this is why I am not Hemingway. It drives me crazy to stop when things are rolling, and my subconcious doesn't seem to be doing it's job very well. I find I'm always ahead if I spend a few mintues during the day thinking about my plot instead of waiting until it's time to write again.

But I love what he said about observing people and rooms--that's definitely something I need to work on.

At 8/24/2007 2:39 PM, Anonymous Jennie Hansen said...

I always loved Hemingway's writing style, but it is annoying that he never really ended his stories. I wasn't too impressed by him as a person either, but took it as a compliment when an English teacher compared some dialog I'd written to Hemingway's style. He dressed like a scruffy bum, seldom shaved, had bleary red eyes, and talked and walked like he'd had a few too many. He probably had. I actually met Papa Hemingway a number of times. He used to hunt quail on our farm and a neighbor boy dated his granddaughter. I got yelled at once for sitting in "Papa's chair" at a little dive outside of Ketchum when I was fifteen or sixteen. I thought the bar tender was referring to my age and my long blond hair when he yelled "Goldilocks get out of Papa's chair." (By the way I was only in the bar because the restaurant side was full and the waitress sent a dozen or so of us kids into the bar side to be seated since the bar was almost empty.) Oh, I work better when I leave something not quite finished when I stop writing. It makes starting again much easier.

At 8/24/2007 6:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this.

The classic interview with Hemingway was with George Plimpton, a founder of Paris Review and a character in his own right. This interview was published in 1958 in the Paris Review. Hemingway manipulated this interview, as Lillina Ross had spent two days with Hemingway in 1950, and wrote a profile of Hemingway published in the New Yorker. This piece, as Ross said, showed Hemingway "as he was, in his uniqueness and with his vitality and his enormous spirit of fun intact." Many readers took it as Ernest the drunk, Papa the buffoon, and not Hemingway as the deep artist he was. (This piece by Ross is availble seperately, Portrait of Hemingway, by Modern Library Paperbacks.) Hemingway in his interview with Plimpton was trying to show another side.

Hemingway said something similar to what Julie quoted above:

Hemingway: "When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty by filing. As when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anthing until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through."

Plimpton: "Can you dismiss from your mind whatever project you´re on when you´re away from the typewriter?"

Hemingway: "Of course. But it takes discipline to do it and this discipline is acquired."

Fortunately, the interviews of the Paris Review have have published, available from Picador, and there is much ore there. Small excerpts from many of them are at their site, While there, you may want to listen to their superb audio selections. Listen to Lewis Lapham and Timothy Dalton reading from the Plimpton interview (under "Hemingway," under "Audio"). As well Plimpton was a great storyteller, and reads two great stories there. As Vonnegut said at a farewell toast to Plimpton (also there to be listened to): "Good night sweet prince. Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

At 8/24/2007 10:54 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Anon, thank you for that extra insight. Hemingway had so many profound ideas for writers and genuinely seemed interested in helping others in de-mystifying the writing process. I really appreciate the links as well and intend on visiting them. Thanks again!

Jennie, that's so incredible that you had those experiences with him! I'm envious. Thanks for sharing!

At 9/09/2007 6:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For more information on Ernest Hemingway, visit this great web site: Timeless Hemingway.


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