Revisiting Hemingway

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.

Hamingway Stamp

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.



Filed under Writing

8 responses to “Revisiting Hemingway

  1. Great post!!! I have to look through my vast library and see if I haveany Hemingway books. The movies you named are all classics!!


  2. Peggy

    Choosing a master like Hemingway to study can only lead to more success for you. I admire your work. Have you seen or read the latest fiction “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain? It is about Ernest and his beloved wife Hadley while they lived in Paris. Duh? The social life, circle of friends (Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald) and Ernest’s struggle to ‘find his voice’ create a challenge for Hadley and the marriage. “The Sun Also Rises” was based on this Paris adventure.


  3. Peggy

    Ok, this is off topic, but I just had two patrons in my library raving about the Dixie Cash book collection. Everyone I have given/recommended the books to have come back raving about how upbeat, fun and enjoyable they are to read. With the fires and drought this season, Dixie Cash certainly helped us regain our smiles. Are you sure Dixie Cash is gone forever?


    • Hi, Peggy …..

      Thanks for writing about Dixie Cash, who is still dear to my heart and my sister’s.

      Okay, this is a long-winded reply, but it’s actually a condensed answer.

      I think Dixie’s gone, gone, gone. We lost our publisher because book sales just weren’t high enough and their marketing department believed the public didn’t want to read about Debbie Sue and Edwina anymore. As you might or might not know, a publisher’s marketing department has enormous clout. I sometimes think they have more clout than the editors.

      Our editor wanted us to think of something new with new characters. My sister and I tossed that around a little, but didn’t come up with anything they liked. .

      Our agent believed Debbie Sue and Edwina weren’t dead and wanted us to seek another publisher, which meant we would have basically had to start over. And my sister’s heart just wasn’t in it. Added to that, she got a job offer (a *real* job) she couldn’t refuse and moved to Tulsa. So I think the possibility of more Dixie Cash books is really remote.

      My sister and I have always believed that marketing mistakes were made with the Dixie Cash books. It’s a very long story, but basically, they should have never been published as hardback or trade paperback books. They should have remained mass market paperbacks like the first book was. But, when you sell to a New York publisher, you’ve given up your rights to the book except for royalties. You almost give up the right to have an opinion and you definitely give up the right to have your opinion acted on.

      So that’s it in a nutshell. I’m sorry, too. The stories were fun to write and the characters were fun to write about. They got a little raunchy and we got a few negative complaints about that, but most people enjoyed the books. We never presented them as Pulitzer Prize winners or great literature. They were always intended to give a few laughs.


  4. Caroline Clemmons

    I can hear an editor saying, “Japan isn’t a selling topic,” and “War films are so grim,” and “an injured hero would never sell–he needs to be alpha.”

    I’m sure early editors made mistakes, too, but it seems to me to be more prevalent now. Probably that’s because now it affects my pocketbook!


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