The latest non-fiction book I’ve read is “Write like Hemingway” by R. Andrew Wilson, PhD. I had a hard time getting into it because I found it dull at first and it wasn’t telling me anything new. However, I stuck with it (which I usually don’t do these days) and found the last half much more interesting than the first. I found quite a few precious little kernels to cling to in my own writing.
Years ago, I read many books both about and by Ernest Hemingway. His real life was as interesting as his fiction. He was indeed a storybook character. He was a restless adventurer and according to his various biographers, a consummate liar, which, I suppose, is a good thing for a fiction writer.
Reading about him again caused me to think of the fact that his stories were the very first adult stories I read in my life. When I was a little kid in West Texas, we had no TV, had radio reception only occasionally and telephone service hit or miss. But plenty of books were around and Ernest Hemingway’s and John Steinbeck’s books were among them.
Over time, I’ve forgotten many of the books I read years ago, so after I finished “Write like Hemingway, I set off on a new mission. I dug out an old book of Hemingway’s stories and started re-reading. I began with “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” which only reminded me of how I, and most other authors who are writing these days, fall short. I had forgotten what a distinctive writer he was.
If you haven’t read “Kilimanjaro,” you’ve missed a sterling example of “less is more,” for which Ernest Hemingway is famous. In fact, his “iceberg theory” of storytelling is what revolutionized fiction into what we know today. He expanded Mark Twain’s writing advice from “Write what you know” to “Write what you know, but not all that you know.”
“Kilimanjaro” is a short story, which is what Hemingway wrote mostly. He authored a few novels, but his common venue was magazines, thus he produced short stories or what they used to call “serials” for longer stories that lasted over several issues. Perhaps that circumstance helped him paint vivid pictures in the simplest and fewest words.
Simplicity and not many words is what pacing in a novel is all about. Pacing is what he mastered. And pacing is the bane of my existence as an author.
He also mastered the use of the most profoundly descriptive nouns, used few adjectives and almost no adverbs. William Faulkner once said of Hemingway’s writing that he didn’t know any words that had more than four letters (and he didn’t mean swear words).
Hemingway’s ability to say volumes with few words is a technique few other authors have been able to emulate. I’ve tried to think of modern writers who can do characterization, description of settings and narrative as succinctly as Ernest Hemingway did. I read a lot, but I can think of no one, certainly not me. So I have a new perspective on my own writing.
This is why I try to read books about the craft of writing constantly, so that I will either learn new things or recall old things I’ve forgotten. Good books on the craft usually inspire me. I can now apply what I’ve re-learned from my revisit to Hemingway to my own work-in-progress. Maybe it will be better. And better is always better. By the time I finish reading this book of Hemingway’s short stories, my writing might be fantastic. <smile> Not that I would ever compare myself to Ernest Hemingway, mind you.
Meanwhile, I’ve started to think about the movies that were adapted from his stories.
“The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner; “For Whom the Bell Tolls” with Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman; possibly his greatest, “The Sun Also Rises” with Ava Gardner and Tyrone Power; “A Farewell to Arms,” first with Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper, then later with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones; “The Killers” with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner.
Those are all great old movies with great stars and I’ve seen all of them, I think, but now I’d like to see them again. Have you seen these movies? And if so, do you remember if you perceived Ernest Hemingway’s genius?
In today’s chaotic publishing market, I wonder if he could even get published. Some teeny-bopper editor might think his work is too “gritty” or “outside the market,” or “not a good fit for their line-up.” Or, God forbid, there are no vampires or werewolves.