On Hemingway and Writing Tricks

Lately, and of no real surprise, I’ve been on an Ernest Hemingway kick. I discovered that a restored edition of A Moveable Feast is forthcoming. My contribution to Peter David’s round-robin Twilight parody was two thousand words of quality imitation Hemingway entitled “Santora,” complete with bullfights, wine, villas, and cryptically coded sex.

Of course, what did any of that have to do with Twilight? Nada.

In any event, I pulled out A Moveable Feast a few days ago, and I’ve been reading it this week on the train. I’m not taking the book in any sort of order, mainly because the book itself isn’t in any sort of order. At least, not the order Hemingway had intended. I want to hit the “good parts,” like William Goldman’s version of S. Morgenstern’s The Princess Bride, basically.

Some of A Moveable Feast is Hemingway, the mature writer nearing sixty, looking back at the twenty-five year-old Hemingway, just starting out and learning his craft. He expounds at length about his method, how he would sit in a Parisian cafe, drink rum, and observe the people around him as he wrote in his notebooks, until eventually the words overtook him and he became merely their conduit as the words reached the page.

Hemingway offers some writing insight early in the book:

But sometimes where I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.

There’s something about the way Hemingway wrote, not the short, declarative style that I adopted for “Santora,” but the actual act — pen to paper — that I find appealling. I cannot write like that all the time (nor would I wish to), but I have found that the process of taking pen in hand and applying it to paper forces me to engage with the words differently. The phrasings feel more considered, more precise. When I feel “jammed,” I’ll take pen to paper, scratch out ideas, and now that I have given myself a springboard I’ll return to the keyboard and take that as it goes.

Another technique I use when I feel “jammed” is to write in Notepad or write an e-mail to myself. Just close out Microsoft Word completely. This is a psychological trick, pure and simple. Working with Word can be overwhelming. Too many functions, too many fonts to use. Either the program itself distracts me, or in lieu of writing I fiddle with my typography or line-spacing, giving me the feeling of productivity with actually being productive. Worse, I sometimes feel that, working in Word, every word has to be perfect. Writing in Notepad strips away all of those distractions and hang-ups away; the writing doesn’t have to look perfect, the writing doesn’t have to be perfect, the writing only has to be.

Or I’ll write something wonky. Like “Santora.” ;)

Writers have tricks. Hemingway burned orange peels. I write in Notepad. It’s all about the psychology.

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