Posts Tagged ‘Ernest Hemingway’

Writing: Sketch and Fill, Write, Write, Prune, Sitting, Standing, Morning, Afternoon or Night

May 30, 2016
Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

 

I write in the afternoon, like everybody else” asserts Dylan Thomas in the in the Caedmon Collection, a fantastic set of recordings of the poet’s live readings which are introduced by Billy Collins.

This would be a curious comment coming from most writers, but Thomas was a notoriously late drinker. Actually, he was a round-the-clock drinker.  In one of his introductions, Collins laments the foibles of Thomas, who was often confused, lost, and inebriated across America during the early 1950s.  (My dad had tickets to a see Thomas at Bridges Auditorium in Claremont, CA; sadly, as on many other occasions, Thomas was unable to make the show.)

I’m pretty sure most writers write in the morning when the mind is fresh. Many writers such as Kurt Vonnegut had to wake early to write before hitting the day job. Kafka would come home from his job at the insurance agency and nap so he could write when everyone else had gone to sleep and the house was quiet.

Ernest Hemingway’s approach to writing is strongly influenced by Freud.  Hemingway sees creativity as a sort of gas tank that is constantly being refueled by the subconscious mind. Hemingway recommends against allowing the brain to run on empty.

Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start. (Ernest Hemingway On Writing 42)

I don’t know if Graham Greene was familiar with Ernest Hemingway’s philosophy of writing, but he certainly practiced it. Greene had some sort of system that informed him exactly when he had written five hundred words. And that’s how much he wrote every morning, even if had to stop mid-sentence. Pretty soon after that he would start drinking, but this isn’t going to be another post about the inebriated scribbler, is it?

Writers write all sorts of ways: before breakfast, after dinner, dictating, typing, long-hand, short-hand, hunched over a keyboard, sitting up in bed, or standing up. Standing up is how Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, on a desk that his descendants later sold (along with 130 slaves) to pay off the Great Man’s debts after he died. Jefferson heartily enjoyed the finer things in life, particularly French wine. (Spendthrift Jefferson provides a stark contrast to frugal George Washington who made provisions in his will to leave Martha with a healthy estate and to also grant* manumission to all of his slaves.)

I have a theory that there are basically two types of prose-writers: Sketch and Fill writers and Write, Write, Prune, writers.

I’m a Sketch and Fill writer. I prefer to write in the morning and revise later in the day or during the evening. As my writer’s gas tank nears empty, I often begin to make notes on what I’m going to write about when I return to the keyboard with a fresh brain.

* to boldly split your infinitive is often the more poetic thing to do

by Richard W. Bray

The Hemingway Defense

July 7, 2012

William Faulkner

According to William Faulkner, it is permissible for an artist to engage in all manner of malfeasance and loutish behavior because “An artist is a creature driven by demons.”

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies. (h/t Ta-Nehisi Coates)

It is common for supermacho bibulous writers such as Faulkner, Kingsley Amis, Ernest Hemingway and Christopher Hitchens to confuse self-avoiding cowardice and self-destruction with courage and an intrepid dedication to art. Amis, for example, wrote entire books celebrating the wonders of alcohol. Hitchens thought that crawling into a bottle every day was something to boast about and he was dismissive of people who lack the requisite foolishness to become nicotine addicts. In the sick, sad world of Christopher Hitchens, teetotaling joggers are the real losers.

Stephen King, a man who knows a thing or two about both writing and substance abuse, has a name for the hyper-masculine variety of denial celebrated by various dipsomaniacal American authors: The Hemingway Defense.

as a writer, I am a very sensitive fellow, but I am also a man, and real men don’t give into their sensitivities. Only SISSY-men do that. Therefore I drink. How else can I face the existential horror of it all and continue to work? Besides, come on, I can handle it. A real man always can.*

King explicitly rejects all such poppycock. He argues that “[t]he idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.”

Unlike writers such as Faulkner who lack the necessary self-awareness to confront their “demons,” when given the choice, Stephen King wisely selected his health and his family over the bottle. Thus he has no use in mythologizing the inebriated scribbler.

Substance abusing writers are just substance abusers—common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons.

Faulkner asserts that it is perfectly natural and wholly acceptable for a writer to be a scoundrel because a true artist “is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.”

Sadly, people who think like Faulkner have gotten existence precisely backwards. As King notes, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

William Faulkner notwithstanding, no art is essential to humanity, and no poem, not even one as lovely as “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” is worth the well-being of a single old lady. Humanity will grope along with or without any particular work of art, and Earth will continue to abide long after we’re gone no matter what we do. It is expressly because everything we do is ephemeral that the artist’s humanity is of far greater value than anything he could possibly create.

Perhaps it is a longing for a false sense of immortality that leads people to engage in such diseased thinking. But it’s important to remember that although Hamlet will continue to live on for as long as humanity is extant, William Shakespeare is just as dead as the fellow buried next to him. As Groucho Marx pithily noted: “What has posterity ever done for me.”

Only love conquers death.

*All Stephen King quotations are from his marvelous memoir On Writing

by Richard W. Bray