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.