A few words about Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms and the short stories of Ernest Hemingway are old friends. So when I recently saw Ken Burns’ three-night documentary on Ernest Hemingway, I was reminded that maybe this would be a good time to visit with them again.

When it comes to Ernest Hemingway, I don’t love him because he loved bullfighting. I don’t love him because he loved fishing and hunting. I don’t love him because he wanted to out-macho every man, and many of the women, he met. And he was always drinking, drinking, drinking.

Many of us have seen or heard the quote mis-attributed to Hemingway, “Write drunk, edit sober.” Who could write drunk the way Hemingway wrote? Nobody, not even Papa Hemingway. Whoever came up with that that quote did not know Hemingway very well.

That was the lifestyle, the celebrity, the legend. That’s why so many readers and so many critics find fault with him. They’re criticizing his lifestyle and the subjects he chose to write about.

For me, it’s the writing. It is the writing that makes Hemingway Hemingway. From the first time I read The Old Man and the Sea, I loved how he could word a sentence.

When Gabriel Garcia Marquez saw Hemingway in Paris in the late 1950s, he could think of only one word to honor Hemingway with. “Maestro.” That was how much Hemingway and his sentences meant to Garcia Marquez. He was saying what the many writers would want to say to their Papa. Of Hemingway, Joan Didion once wrote in the New Yorker, “This was a man to whom words mattered.”

He preferred the basic Anglo-Saxon words of the English language over the Latinized words the English stole from the French. He wrote simple declarative sentences with strong nouns and even stronger verbs.

When he began writing with that style, it was a new way for writers to speak to American readers. Studying Cezanne and sitting at the feet of Gertrude Stein, the young Hemingway took on a literature that was loaded with fancy-dancy words and overly descriptive adjectives and gave writers a new way to speak to an audience.

Because words mattered to Hemingway, he was constantly in search of the “one true sentence.” Ask any writer who cares about their craft. They will tell you what a young writer told his agent, according to Francine Prose in her wonderful Reading Like a Writer. “What he really cared about, what he wanted most of all was to write…really great sentences.”

Later Prose writes, “I’ll hear writers say that there are other writers they would read if for no other reason than to marvel at the skill with which they can put together the sort of sentences that move us…”

Those are the kind of sentences Hemingway wrote. Again and again and again. And it’s why writers pay attention.

Just read the opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms. “In the late summer of that year we lived in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.” Wonderful.

In the opening of Hills Like White Elephants, ” It’s the same poetic rhythm: “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads hung across the open door to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building.” So specific, so descriptive.

He can summarize a story in the opening sentence such as the one that opens the short story, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. “It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.” Again and again there is a magic to his writing that few others can give me.

Or the opening sentence of The Old Man and the Sea: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

God, I love those sentences.

The Maestro

”Once writing has become the principal vice and the greatest pleasure, only death can put an end to it.” Ernest Hemingway.

I decided early on that I could do a lot worse than to learn the story telling trade from Ernest Hemingway. Add a bit of Scott Fitzgerald, some Shakespeare and a few licks from Dickens, throw in a helping of the King James Bible, and I could be one heck of an writer.

But Ernest Hemingway, he was the one I really took to for my writing teacher. Who else would begin a chapter, much less a book, with these words: “Then there was the bad weather”? What other writer would take the chance of being a laughingstock? Yet there the sentence is, laying on the page, a perfect beginning to “A Moveable Feast” about his years in Paris. There are the words, clear and simple and saying all that is needed to be said in an opening sentence. They make me want to read more. They make me think I am not at the beginning of the story but in the middle of something. Which is always a good place to begin.

Now you may be thinking that I read Hemingway to imitate him. I do not. If I did, it would come off as very bad Hemingway. No, I read him to discover the excesses in my own prose, my authorial commentary, my character’s thinking when he should be doing, an excessive passive voice, and anything to avoid the action. It all has to go, including my favorite little ditties that bear witness to excess. What more could I want to say than “Then there was the bad weather”? I just wish I had said it. It is kind of like Dickens beginning “David Copperfield” with the first chapter titled “I Was Born”.

I’ve never considered “The Sun Also Rises” as his best work. Oh, it’s okay Hemingway but not really first class. He has too too many scores he wanted to settle. With Henry James, with James Joyce, with H. L. Mencken, maybe even Gertrude Stein. It is not nearly as good as his short stories. But he had been talked into believing that the only way he could be considered a “real” writer was to write a novel. It is “A Farewell to Arms” where Hemingway really shines.

The opening paragraph is one of the best in American literature, up there with “Moby Dick” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. It opens this way: “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plains to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.” Very little latinized English and a hell of a lot of Anglo Saxon.

Some darned fine writing. And there are so many other examples of this writing. Things like: “It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.” Or “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” He makes it look so simple, so easy to write prose that well that he has fooled many a writer into thinking the can do it, and never do. Some come close but most fail, and fail miserably.

And one of the things I love about Hemingway is the theme that seems to move through much of his fiction. That theme is loss. The loss of sexual potency in “The Sun Also Rises”, the loss of the love of your young life in “A Farewell to Arms”, the loss of your dignity in “The Short Happy LIfe of Francis Macomber”, the loss of not just a fish but of a living in “The Old Man and the Sea”. Loss is written all over Hemingway’s fiction. The question he keeps asking is: How do you face loss, the devastating kind which can suck a life dry? I don’t think he ever came up with an answer but he came close in “The Old Man and the Sea”. You accept it, and you accept it with dignity.

Oh sure, there is machismo, the macho world of the hunter and the bullfighter and the soldier. But none of those people are winners. Much of his fiction is about losers, about men who suffer great loss and soldier on. Underneath all that machismo is a sensitive soul for which Hemingway gets little credit. You see, he was constantly playing a bluffing game and he got away with it most of the time. I think the bluff is why feminist critics don’t like Hemingway. I also think that his sensitivity is what attracted quite a number of women to him, and women who were strong and independent like the war correspondent Martha Gelhorn who became his third wife. They saw beneath the machismo and the bluff. They saw a very sensitive soul.

At the beginning of this blog post, I referred to Hemingway as Maestro. I got that from the great Columbian writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In the late 1950s, Marquez was in Paris and walking down one of the boulevards. He looked across the street and there was Hemingway with his lady. Marquez struggled with the words of what he would say to the great writer. Finally he could only get one word out. ” ”Maaaeeestro!” Hemingway acknowledged the young writer by turning and calling out, ”Adiooos, amigo!’

For me, Hemingway is the master and I will always be his pupil. And that is why I continue to read him.

J. D. Salinger and Me

So there I am half asleep, sprawled out in my bed with the covers pulled over me. I duck my head under the covers because I am not sure I am seeing what I am seeing. After all it is early morning and I am still in a fog. I am always this way before I’ve had my first five cups of coffee in the morning.

I stick my head back out from under my covers, and yep, he’s there. It’s none other than Jerome David. I am talking the world-famous J. D., author of “Catcher in the Rye”. I recognize him from the jacket pictures. He’s as young as he once was. Somehow he’s dropped all those years since he died and he’s back to his youthful genius of a self. He’s standing at the end of my bed and he’s puffing on a cigar. I’m thinking it’s a Cuban cause they’re not banned from importing them in the hereafter. He’s halfway through the stogie and he is frowning at me.

“So you didn’t care for Catcher in the Rye?” he asks, his foot propped up on the end of my bed.

“What? Who?” I ask from my prone position.

He sits his foot back down on the floor. “I asked you if you didn’t like my book. You responded with a what and a who. Who the hell do you think it is? It sure isn’t that son-of-a-bitch Hemingway. What an asshole. Papa indeed. I never much cared for him. Now Scott Fitzgerald, there was a writer who could write.”

“Go away.” I rub my eyes and turn over on my side, hoping that this is a nightmare and I will wake up soon.

“I will not go away. You’ve got a lot of gall not liking my book. I did some damned good writing with that book. Not as good as later but still it’s a great book, even if I say so myself, and you don’t like it. Who the hell are you?”

I turn over and face Salinger. “I am the fellow who is telling you to get out of here. That’s who.”

“It’s all about alienation, you know?”

“I. Know. That.”

“Oh, you do. Well, I guess you were never a teenager, suffering from all that teenage angst, were you?”

Now I am mad. How dare this s.o.b. come into my bedroom and tell me I was never a teenager suffering from teenage angst. I had more teenage angst in my little toe than his spoiled prep school kid had in his whole body. Holden Caulfield’s biggest problem was that he had one hell of a chip on his shoulder.

“That book is all bullshit. Pure All American bullshit.”

“Bullshit. What do you mean bullshit? I worked my butt off on that book for over ten years. Put my whole life into it and you say it is bullshit.”

“That’s what I say. I read it in high school and I just didn’t get it. I understand Hemingway’s Old Man. He was fighting for survival. I understand the Joads. They were fighting for survival. I understand Gatsby. He was fighting for romance. And, as far as angst, existential angst, goes, I understand Camus’ Stranger. He didn’t mourn his mother the way he was expected to. And he was condemned for it. But Holden Caulfield, all he was fighting for was to be an asshole. I kept wanting to say, ‘Get a life.'”

I can see Salinger clearly now. I’m awake and I can see the fake Buddhist with his hands in a fist. He crushes that cigar against the bottom of my foot.

“Oh. That hurt. Thought you were a Buddhist. You’re going to screw up your karma, you know.”

He ignores my Buddhist comment. Somehow I knew he would. “Critics. That’s why I gave up on a public life. Became a hermit. You’re all full of shit. A big bag of shit. Here I am, the world-famous J. D. Salinger, standing at the foot of your bed, trying to give you the benefit of the doubt. Trying to give you some insight into my brilliance. And all you can do is insult me. Why do I even care? But that’s my problem. I care too damned much. If you only knew how much blood I sweated into that book. Trying to make every word perfect.”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” I say. “I didn’t say the writing wasn’t good. It was. Damned good. Some of your best. But it was so wasted over that Holden Caulfield. Thing is that I’ve known people who complained about their good fortune their whole lives. In my book that’s Holden Caulfield. I just don’t care one iota about those kind of people. Never did. Never will.”

“But that’s not the point,” Salinger goes on. “He brought out the best in me. I guess you just don’t get it. But a lot of other teenagers did. And still do. That’s why it’s so popular. Not that I wrote it to be popular. I didn’t. I wanted to call attention to what it felt like to be a teenager in fifties America. I hit the nail on the head. That’s why I went into seclusion. I got tired of all that hero worship. Like I had the answers to all of life’s questions. I was good, but I wasn’t that good. I had more questions than answers. Anyway I tired of it.”

Suddenly he had a martini in his hand. Where the martini came from I did not know.

He noticing me noticing his martini. “Shaken, not stirred. The way I like it. You know, Ian Fleming got that from me. We were at a party once. I had been invited down to Jamaica by some friends. I was thinking that the Glasses would be Jamaican. Who do you think shows up at this party? Ian Fleming. We were talking when I asked for a martini. When I said shaken not stirred, he said, ‘Oh, I can use that.'” He took a sip from his martini. “Mmmm. That’s good.”

“So you think,” I say, “Holden Caulfield was like every teenager in America at that time?”

“I don’t know about every teenager but it sure was the way I felt. I must say that all those people coming to me and telling me that I had saved them, that was a little too much. Like I am a Messiah or something. If you want stories about messiahs, read ‘Stranger in a Strange Land.'”

I am wide awake now. “Well, I am sorry I offended you with my comment. It’s just my opinion. You can take it for what it’s worth. Every writer has the write to create whatever character he wants. And every reader has the right to not like that character. Personally I liked your stories much more. Thought you had great insight into how children saw the adult world and how they communicated that. ”

Then I realize I am talking to myself. The mirage, or was it a mirage, a hallucination, well, it’s gone. Since I am awake already, I throw off the covers and jump out of bed. Oh, I cry out. My right foot hurts. I sit on the side of the bed and take a look at the bottom of my foot. There’s a burn mark there all right. It can’t be. It just can’t be.

The Writing Touch

To all you Nanowrimers out there, I raise my glass and sing this song:

It took me near
a half century.
I read all the books.
There were so many.

You’d think I’d have
the Writing Touch
but all my stories,
they’re not so much.

My Protagonist
is such a klutz,
he loses the girl
to a weasel of a wuss.

My Gatsby don’t
gat at all,
my tall-in-the-saddle
a wee bit small.

My Moby Dick
wasn’t a whale,
just a goldfish
all white and pale.

My Huck Finn
on a river raft
sank with a hole
in the craft.

My James Bond
He’s in reverse;
Mister Goldfinger
gave him a curse.

My Don Quixote
never left home,
My Emma died
an old maid alone.

I wrote about peace,
wrote about war,
but all my battles
were such a bore.

So don’t stop like me
when the draft ain’t fine.
Keep on at it,
make the sparkle shine.

Surviving Nanowrimo # 8: Write your story

WHAT SHOULD I WRITE

Take a look at the top 10 books on Google list of bestselling fiction for 2020  What do you see?

I am looking at the October 11th list. I see romance, literary, coming-of-age, historical, dystopian, suspense, horror, fantasy, and humor. If you go back and look at the lists for other years, you would probably find different categories. One thing is for sure. No category dominates over a period of years. Some are old pros at the bestseller lists; some newbies. And some of these were written by pantsers, some by plotters.

What is this telling you and me? That anything we want to write has the possibility of having a readership. The important thing is that the story has well-drawn-out characters who have a story to tell.

There is one thing I would say. Usually, but not always, the novels on the list are not the writer’s first novel. Some write ten, fifteen, twenty novels before they get lucky. Be prepared to be in for the long haul and even if you don’t make it to the bestseller list, there’ll be readers who can’t wait for your next one.

Once you’ve finished your first nanowrimo novel, edit it through three or four edits till you’ve dressed it up in its Sunday best. Have some other people read it and give you feedback. Then send it out to agents or publish it on Amazon’s kindle. Once that’s done, start on your next novel.

So write what you want to write. Fall in love with your characters. But not so much you won’t be able to send them through hell. And have a hell of a good time doing it.

WHEN THE NOVEL IS FINISHED

This is very important. When the novel is finished, I take some time off from the book. Maybe a month. Maybe two months. I go write another novel. After a while, I go back to your novel and read it straight through. The first thing I realize is that your novel is crap. But I don’t give up on it. All first drafts are.

So what do I do then? Now it’s time to outline the novel. I use a book like Save the Cat Writes a Novel. Why do I need a guide? Because I may have left out some essential things.

I am working on a noir novel called The Man Without a Tie. Using Jessica Brody’s book, I realized I had not introduced the antagonist early enough.

Once I have done the outline, I re-write the novel based on the outline. That’s the second draft. A third draft is to correct grammar, take out stuff and add stuff. A fourth draft is to spiff up the novel in its Sunday best. Then I turn it over to a Beta Reader for feedback.

But this is my process. If you have a process, use it. If not, try this one.

REMEMBER

One of the most important thing I have learned, writing this blog: My job is not to save the world. My job is to entertain the reader. If I am not entertaining the reader, I probably will not have readers. Advise is cheap. There is so much of it out there in the world you can get it at bargain basement prices. Or not pay for it at all.

If I can bring a little joy, laughter or tears to my audience, I’ve done my job as a creative artist. Don’t believe me about this. Look at the most popular writer in the English language, Shakespeare. It’s been over four hundred years since he died and he is still selling. His plays are performed all over the world.

FAVORITE WRITING BOOKS

I have read hundreds of books on writing. From this experience, I have learned a great deal. But after a while, they begin to repeat themselves. So I am going to suggest ten that I’ve found very useful:

1.Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury
2.This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley
3.Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody
4.The Weekend Novelist: Learn to Write a Novel in 52 Weeks by Robert Ray and Bret Norris
5.Mastery by Robert Greene
6.Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing
7.The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway
8.What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund
9.Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
10.On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

AND FIINALLY

This is my eighth post on the Nanowrimo experience. These insights have come from participating six times. Each time has taught me a little more about how to write a novel.

It’s my hope these insights have helped. If they didn’t, it’s okay. The important thing is to encourage you to get out there and write that novel in November. You never know. It might end up on the bestselller list.