Hemingway Techniques

  I’ve been enjoying Ernest Hemingway again lately, and he fills me with admiration. What makes his writing so unique and powerful? Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story by Carlos Baker provides some insights.

Hemingway hated metaphors, similies, and adjectives. They were too cheap and easy, so he used them sparingly. Instead of describing life for a reader, his goal was to “make life” so that the reader could actually live it. And yet, his stories are far from simple. They contain deep insights that a reader feels.

After his wife Hadley lost a suitcase with all his early writing, (and I would hate to have been Hadley at that point!), he began again in his 20s. It took a while to get over it, and when he began writing again, his first story was “Out of Season.” In this story, he’s having trouble because a guide is trying to get him to fish when it’s illegal. At the same time, he’s arguing with his wife about other things, and she caps off her comments with “Of course you haven’t got the guts to just go back. Of course you have to go on.” Hemingway never explains or describes what’s going on, but it’s there, clear as day. As Baker says, he’s “developing two intrinsically related truths simultaneously, as a good poet does with a metaphor that really works. The confluence of emotional atmospheres is what gives the story its considerable distinction. This first successful use of it was the foremost esthetic discovery of Ernest’s early career.”

He does it again in one of my favorite stories, “A Day’s Wait.” His nine-year-old son is sick with fever, and because of a misunderstanding, he waits all day, thinking he’s going to die. At the same time, the father goes outside and enjoys hunting, not realizing what his son is going through. We also come to understand the character of the son as he faces his own death at such an early age. Reading this story just makes me feel good.

As a young man learning how to write in Paris, Hemingway began by writing “one true sentence.” Here’s one of my favorites:

  “I have stood on the crowded back platform of a seven o’clock Batignolles bus as it lurched along the wet lamp lit street while men who were going home to supper never looked up from their newspapers as we passed Notre Dame grey and dripping in the rain.”

Baker says, “He had set out in January to write one true sentence. By the end of May, he had managed to write six–declarative, straightforward, and forceful as a right to the jaw. After all the false starts, he was on his way at last.”

This is quite different writing from today’s popular novels, especially genre romance novels, that take common emotions and attempt to describe them to death. Both kinds of writing have their place, but occasionally dipping into Hemingway clears the palate and makes one feel whole.

*smiling, smiling, smiling*  I just love Hemingway!


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