Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Write Like Hemingway

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed ...
as Ernest Hemingway once said.

I really loved this list of gems of writing wisdom gleaned from Hemingway posted by writing coach Joanna Young on the Confident Writing website :
  • 1 Start with the simplest things
  • 2 Boil it down
  • 3 Know what to leave out
  • 4 Write the tip of the ice-berg, leave the rest under the water
  • 5 Watch what happens today
  • 6 Write what you see
  • 7 Listen completely
  • 8 Write when there is something you know, and not before
  • 9 Look at words as if seeing them for the first time
  • 10 Use the most conventional punctuation you can
  • 11 Ditch the dictionary
  • 12 Distrust adjectives
  • 13 Learn to write a simple declarative sentence
  • 14 Tell a story in six words
  • 15 Write poetry into prose
  • 16 Read everything so you know what you need to beat
  • 17 Don't try to beat Shakespeare
  • 18 Accept that writing is something you can never do as well as it can be done
  • 19 Go fishing in summer
  • 20 Don't drink when you're writing
  • 21 Finish what you start
  • 22 Don't worry. You've written before and you will write again
  • 23 Forget posterity. Think only of writing truly
  • 24 Write as well as you can with no eye on the market
  • 25 Write clearly - and people will know if you are being true
  • 26 Just write the truest sentence that you know
  • 27 Remember that nobody really knows or understands the secret
Any of these you can particularly identify with?

If you need more writing inspiration, you might like to look back to this list of advice from Keroac.


rajan said...

Good one...Here's another from Issac Asimov:

1. You have to like to write
2. You can't write a bestseller just by deciding to write one
3. Don't drink or take drugs to write better
4. Stop writer's block before it starts
5. Cultivate an immunity to artistic temperament
6. Write broadly
7. Read
8. Remember ideas are free
9. Say what you mean the first time
10.Keep at it


Chet said...

And here are Kurt Vonnegut's, from his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, 1999):

(1) Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
(2) Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
(3) Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
(4) Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
(5) Start as close to the end as possible.
(6) Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
(7) Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
(8) Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Chet said...

Oh, my favourite from the Hemingway list is #22:

Don't worry. You've written before and you will write again.

It's the writer's version of "And this too shall pass." "This" being writer's block.

Very comforting.

Joanna said...

Hi Sharon, I'm glad you liked the list. I had fun compiling it from some of Hemingway's writing on writing :-)


bibliobibuli said...

thanks so much for it. and i really enjoyed your blog and will link it too. we need all the words of writely wisdom we can get here!

btw, i discovered your blog through blogfriends which is a very useful facebook app.

chet and rajan - very many thanks for the other inspiring lists. really love them.

Anonymous said...

I love Chet's list :) (5) and (6) are the best ever :)

Chet said...

The book Ernest Hemingway on Writing is mentioned in Joanna's original post. I found the title very familiar and went to check my ebook collection - I have a copy. Legit, too, epublished via eReader, which was recently bought over by Fictionwise.

Anonymous said...

Much of Hemingway's list is applicable only to someone who wants to write like Hemingway (i.e. in a very spare minimalist style), and, um, #20 makes me wonder how much he practised everything he preached :-) . But there's always much food for thought in all these lists; #24 should be true for every serious writer.

Many of you probably already know this one, but this short short story by Hemingway, which he is said to have called his best work, illustrated many of the principles in the list:

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

Breaks your heart in six words, doesn't it?

-- Preeta

bibliobibuli said...

well now that i finally have time to really think about the hemingway list (hectic day) have to say that i love points 16,19, 22, 26

but would like to question one or two of the others.

how do you know what the tip of the iceberg is until you've uncovered the whole thing? (i think of annie proulx and the immense amount she writes before she cuts away and cuts some more having found the essence of her story). maybe this should be excavate the whole but show the reader just the tip.

hemingway seems to think that you should write about what you know, and as we know peter carey the other day said just the opposite (and i'd go with carey)

21 "finish what you start" is very tough for me! i have lots of beginnings and few completed pieces.

Argus Lou said...

No. 24 is it. If you write well enough, your writing will find its reader and market (no matter how small).

bibliobibuli said...

preeta - maybe he meant "don't write when you're drinking"

okay, what would YOUR list of nuggets of writerly wisdom look like? (since you're clearly doing something right)

Anonymous said...

Alamak I haven't got nuggets lah, I am entirely and unashamedly nuggetless. I think the best advice is, take what you can from these other writers' lists, and leave what you can't use. Everyone can teach you something useful, but each writer is different so don't treat any of it like rules you MUST follow to reach your goal. What I've taken from other writers (so many have said these exact same things -- I'm not taking credit here!):

1) READ -- frothy entertainment is fine and we all need it, but make time for the "difficult" stuff, you know, the rich stuff that challenges you and makes you feel bad about your own writing;

2) Be brave enough to write what you don't know (absolutely agree with Carey here); do your research but don't let it turn into a crutch.

3) Write what matters, what you care about, what you want the world to know. Write for yourself and don't worry what The World will think.

4) Choose the more difficult thing every time. The bad thing that happens to the good person, the more flawed character, the less palatable emotion. I think literature should push both the writer and the reader into difficult emotional territory, but I'm not talking about cheap sentimentality. The line between sentimentality and real emotion is a tricky one to walk, but because of that too many writers shy away from emotion at all.

Enough stolen nuggets! I want to hear someone else's! Or I want someone to disagree with these, because one certainly could and that would make for an interesting discussion. I do like reading these lists, I have to say -- I always find at least one or two useful pieces of advice in every list.

-- Preeta

Burhan said...

My two cents worth is that some of these prescriptions by Hemingway have done a lot of harm to literature for the past 80 years, particularly literature written in English, and particularly United States American literature. These were the rules that were forced fed upon me in the early writing classes that I used to take while I was in the US.

Most of these advice, I believe, rely on a strong prejudice for a certain conceptions of ‘clarity’ and ‘simplicity’ - which are relative anyway, and subject to the operations of certain power structures. I sometimes wonder whether this particular school of United States American literary minimalism is really the function of a particular American sensibility of masculine reticence, stoicism, and of pragmatism (think hardboiled fiction).

When it comes to literature, there should really be no absolute preference for certain sorts of syntax, sentence, rhythms, tones, or styles of punctuation. Literature is free and this ‘Hemmingway’ doctrine has stifled the talent of many would-be creative writers. There is no absolute basis, I think, for this sort of minimalism to be called better, or truer, or more beautiful. There should be room for other styles.

Note that it is these prescriptions themselves that I disagree with, and not Hemingway's writing. Of course, it is difficult to say whether he is prescribing all of these absolutely, or if he is only describing his own literary sensibility. We are not talking about George Orwell, here, whom I think is a fascist when it comes to clarity).

Anonymous said...

Burhan -- yes, exactly. That kind of macho minimalism reigned in American letters for a while, but things are quite different now, more eclectic and open, I think thanks in large part to cross-pollination with other traditions (Latin American, South Asian, European). I'm with you -- I can appreciate Hemingway's writing, and even learn a few things from it, but I don't think *anyone's* writing should be used as a definitive prescription. Thankfully, you'd be hard pressed to find a creative writing teacher today who would say "write like this" (about any writer).

Anonymous said...

(oh that was me at 5:45 -- not that it matters really but I don't like to post anonymous comments. -- Preeta)

bibliobibuli said...

preeta - thanks so much. love your list esp the advice about choosing the most difficult thing every time

burhan - which other american authors do you think suffered particularly from this minimalism? have ignorant big gaps in my own reading. love cormac mccarthy's terseness for example.

maybe it is as a reaction to this that writing from other parts of the world has done so well in america. wouldn't it be fun to write the rushdie list of rules? (#1 leap off the edge)

preeta another question for you - did you find a particular style of writing pushed at you when you did your MFA?

Anonymous said...

Hi Sharon dear! I'm in the midst of a writer's block and this post and the replies are like gems to me. one always forgets the simplest form of writing when in desperation!!

I am supposed to write a piece on CLothes Connection, how clothes form us or we them and I hated all my opening paragraphs until I went back to my childhood where remembered scenes where I dug my mom's wardrobe and played dress-ups all afternoon.

Suddenly, I found a candid opening girls can all relate too and it's like eureka to me! Gee....why I had never thought of that??

Lesson learnt: Instead of trying to write ultra intellectual prose ( or hideously cliched ones), I should try to reach out to readers with something simple they could connect with.

Thanks again for the post!

Yvonne Lee

Anonymous said...

Sharon -- I've a longer answer coming to you later today, but the sort answer (and for any of your readers who are curious about MFA courses) is no, not in the least.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

SHORT answer, not sort :-), god, some days I can't type three words without a typo in one of them!

-- PS

bibliobibuli said...

hi yvonne - long time no hear! glad you found this inspiring. remember, you've written before and you will write again!

preeta - glad. was pretty sure that was what you would say anyway. ... and typos don't count in the comments.

Burhan said...

bibliobibuli: "which other american authors do you think suffered particularly from this minimalism?"

i don't want to name names here, but i think some new american authors today who are just starting out try too hard be minimalist and use it as a cruth instead of searching for a personal style. a merely minimalist style, in itself, i think, is not interesting (at least, not anymore, since understated prose is not longer a novelty to literature) and should not count as literature.

it's what you do with it, how you make it your own. we should not fetishize this view of 'nothingness' too much.

and there should also be room for a maximalist aesthetic. for example, for long, cascading sentences with lots of commas, and finely architectured in their rhythm, flow and unfolding - the prose of proust, mann, dickens, derrida, henry james etc.

i also think some east asian authors are also minimalist. one of the reasons is cultural rather that just following hemingway.

Burhan said...

crutch, instead of cruth.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so so much for Hemingway's list!