Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Writing: What writers can learn from Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway is one of the most revered American writers of the twentieth century. Nearly everyone has read at least one of his books. (You were probably forced to read Hemingway in high school, as his novels and short stories are mainstays of high school literature courses.)

While Hemingway is valuable to readers, there is also a lot that you can learn from him as a writer. Hemingway mastered the “short, declarative sentence”—and this is a key characteristic of his style. Hemingway’s novels also provide examples of how the writer can mine his or her life experiences for story ideas. However, this last trait was also one of Hemingway’s limitations, as we’ll see.

The short, declarative sentence

Hemingway was originally a journalist for the Kansas City Star; he later worked as a foreign correspondent in Paris.

His first experiences with professional writing, therefore, involved journalistic nonfiction—a medium that eschews long, complex sentence structures and flowery vocabulary. This training shaped Hemingway’s style as a fiction writer. Hemingway’s style is unadorned and minimalistic. His sentences are usually short, straightforward, and to the point.

This aspect of Hemingway is best explained through example. Below is the opening paragraph of his short story, “In Another Country”:

“In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore. It was cold in the fall in Milan, and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powder in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind, and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.”

And below is the opening passage of A Farewell to Arms:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house 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.
The plain was rich with crops; there were many orchards of fruit trees and beyond the plain the mountains were brown and bare. There was fighting in the mountains and at night we could see the flashes from the artillery. In the dark it was like summer lightning, but the nights were cool and there was not the feeling of a storm coming.”

Some of these sentences are long, of course. But they are also simple and straightforward. Compare the above Hemingway passages to the opening passage of Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s novel of 1925:

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.  
For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer's men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning--fresh as if issued to children on a beach. 
 What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, "Musing among the vegetables?"--was that it?--"I prefer men to cauliflowers"--was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace--Peter Walsh. He would be back from India one of these days, June or July, she forgot which, for his letters were awfully dull; it was his sayings one remembered; his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness and, when millions of things had utterly vanished--how strange it was!--a few sayings like this about cabbages.”

Mrs. Dalloway was published the year before Hemingway published The Sun Also Rises—his first major novel. Hemingway’s style, therefore, was unique when it first appeared on the early twentieth century literary scene—which was still heavily influenced by the books of the nineteenth century.

Hemingway’s dialogue is similarly terse and unaffected. You will find no long soliloquies or melodrama. Hemingway writes dialogue more or less like people talk.

Hemingway knew how to use a snippet of dialogue to reveal complex subterranean situations and emotions. Consider the following passage of dialogue from “Hills Like White Elephants”.

In this story, a man and a woman are sitting in at a table in an outdoor café in Spain, staring at a row of foothills. On the surface they are talking about the hills, but their words suggest an underlying conflict:

"They look like white elephants," she says. 
"I've never seen one," the man says, and drinks his beer. 
"No, you wouldn't have." 
"I might have," the man says. "Just because you say I wouldn't have doesn't prove anything."

There is a lot more going on here than topographical observations; and this turns out to be one of Hemingway’s most emotionally jolting stories. It isn’t very long, but it packs a punch. (Read “Hills Like White Elephants” for yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.)

Why is Hemingway’s work (in particular, his style) so instructive for anyone who wants to write fiction?

The main reason is that most writers love words—often they love them a little too much. At some point, most writers become so enamored with words that their love of words gets in the way of telling the story.

When you sense that you might be falling into that trap, the reading of a few Hemingway short stories can quickly cure you of it. Hemingway proves that is possible to tell million-dollar stories without using fifty-cent words.

(I don’t mean to imply, by the way, that it’s a bad idea to develop an extensive vocabulary, or to hone your powers of description. Hemingway’s minimalist style has certainly had its detractors over the years. However, writers (especially those who aspire to write literary fiction) more frequently err in the direction of over-embellishment, rather than excessive minimalism.)

“Write what you know.”

This was one of Hemingway’s dictums. True to his philosophy, Hemingway repeatedly turned the raw experiences of his life into fiction.

As we’ll examine below, Hemingway had a lot of interesting experiences that seemed ready-made for fiction: He put himself in the middle of multiple wars (one as an ambulance driver, and several others as a correspondent). He lived in Paris, and spent time in Madrid and other romanticized European capitals.

This doesn’t imply that Hemingway lacked creativity, mind you. Plenty of men and women have had interesting, dramatic experiences without ever writing a novel. My grandfather experienced naval combat during World War II. Some of his experiences were quite intense—but he spent his productive years as a supervisor in a Ford plant. My grandfather—wonderful man though he was—was no Ernest Hemingway.

Moreover, while some of Hemingway’s fiction involves dramatic physical conflict, not all of it does. One of his best-known short stories, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is a tale about an old man in a very mundane setting: a café. There is no physical danger, no spies or soldiers, and no femme fatales. But “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is nevertheless a very strong short story, for some of the observations it makes about the universal human need for security and familiarity.

Hemingway, then, was an astute observer: He was always on the lookout for “material”.

But while this tendency has an upside, it also has a downside. The downside is that every one of Hemingway’s major works was dependent on something that he had actually experienced. Some of his novels, in fact, contain thinly disguised autobiographical elements.

Hemingway in WWI 

For example:
  • A Farewell to Arms: Hemingway, like the main character in this book, was wounded in WWI. The tragic relationship in the novel mirrors Hemingway’s own unhappy wartime romance with a nurse in a military hospital.
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls: This is a novel about the Spanish Civil War, a conflict that Hemingway was personally involved in as a correspondent.
  • The Old Man and the Sea: Hemingway spent a great deal of time in Cuba, where he often went fishing.
  • The Sun Also Rises: This is a “Lost Generation” tale about American expatriates in Paris during the post-World War I years. Hemingway lived in Paris during this time; and the main character—Jake Barnes—has a personality that is very similar to Hemingway’s. The other characters in the book—Brett Ashley, Mike Campbell and Robert Cohn—have been traced to individuals who hung out with the author during his Paris years.

Hemingway with friends in Paris during the mid-1920s

This reliance on personal experience can work if you have a life like Ernest Hemingway’s. But what if your “day job” consists of processing claims for an insurance company, or working as an accountant?

An absolutist adherence to the principle of “write what you know (and only what you know)” therefore creates severe limitations—for individual authors, and for literature as a whole.

If every writer insisted on writing only from experience, most genre fiction would disappear: There would be no science fiction, and no horror. (Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818)—perhaps the first example of modern genre fiction—was based on a dream.) Say goodbye to Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein.

Few crime procedurals are written by ex-cops. Nor are many espionage novels penned by ex-spies. This would mean no Michael Connelly, no Tom Clancy, and no Vince Flynn.

Historical fiction would also be out. No contemporary writer can claim to have “experienced” the distant past. We would therefore lose the work of John Jakes, Edward Rutherford, and James Michener.

“Write what you know (and only what you know) is also physically exhausting (and sometimes dangerous) for the writer who feels compelled to constantly seek out new and exciting experiences to write about. More than one young man volunteered for hazardous military service in WWII, Korea, or Vietnam with the hopes of having a Hemingwaylike experience that could become the basis of a book. Some of these young men succeeded. (Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn comes to mind here.) But what about the ones who never lived to write their stories?

Hemingway’s peripatetic lifestyle suggests an ongoing quest for fresh material. Hemingway moved around a lot; and he had a distinct preference for high-testosterone, risky forms of recreation. (Of sports Hemingway said, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”)

I recommend that every aspiring writer read Hemingway. He has much to teach you (especially if you find yourself overly enamored with words). It is important, however, to remember that imagination—and not just experience—often becomes the stuff of great fiction.