Featuring original manuscripts and rare archival photos and films, the series promises new insights into Hemingway’s creative process behind such masterpieces as A Farewell to Arms and the short stories “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and (my favorite!) “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” With voice-overs by Jeff Daniels, Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Patricia Clarkson, and Mary-Louise Parker, viewers can look forward to a series comparable to Burns’ other masterpieces.
Beginning April 5, I’ll be glued in front of the TV with mojitos at hand.
One of my coping mechanisms when stuck on a manuscript is to read outstanding posts on writing I’ve saved over the years. This morning, I revisited this advice from K.M. Weiland:
One of the best rules of thumb for showing instead of telling is to never name an emotion. Love, hate, happiness, sadness, frustration, grief—they all might be easily recognizable emotions. They might even all be emotions that will immediately get a point across to a reader. But by themselves the words lack the ability to make a reader feel what we are trying to convey.
This insight shook the mental cobwebs that had been holding me back. Weiland’s right — the most stirring and uplifting prose succeeds obliquely, rousing the reader to silent awe or trembling fear. A few examples:
“Some nights in the midst of this loneliness I swung among the scattered stars at the end of the thin thread of faith alone.” – Wendell Berry
“The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.” — Flannery O’Connor
“I sat up straight and as I did so something inside my head moved like the weights on a doll’s eyes and it hit me inside in back of my eyeballs. My legs felt warm and wet and my shoes were wet and warm inside. I knew that I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there.” — Ernest Hemingway
Not only do these examples evoke intense reactions, they do so indirectly. As Weiland advises, the best writing shows rather than tells. Emily Dickinson was on the same track when she proposed that we tell the truth, but tell it slant.
I believe these passages soar for us because they appeal to more than just our logical selves. The neocortex, that is, the rational brain, processes language, but it connects to other parts of the brain as well. The limbic system interprets facts as emotions, and triggers the reptilian brain, which in turn shoots reactions to the body. So if you read Stephen King alone at midnight, you start peeking outside the window and maybe sweat a little. That’s the three parts working together. And we love it.
Good writing, then, achieves unity of mind and body, a sorely needed experience in an age that fractures and alienates.
Many of the submissions Joe Ponepinto has turned down for his literary journal appeared to have everything going for them — tension, good characterization, an interesting premise — yet they just didn’t work. He had to reject stories that hit all the right buttons, but failed to resonate.
Writing as both an editor and author, he tells us what’s wrong with technically sound but lifeless submissions:
In short, the writer is present in every sentence, hunched over the reader’s shoulder, which is why so much in these stories sounds like explanation, like the writer worrying that readers won’t “get it” unless they lay out paragraphs of background info. As Elmore Leonard famously said, it sounds like writing.
How do you create writing that doesn’t sound like writing? Yes, you have to hit all the right buttons, including pacing, characterization, theme, plot points, tension, etc, but you have to do it without the reader seeing you do it. And you can only do that when you don’t think about those technicalities. As Ponepinto puts it, “You have to internalize the conventions of creative writing so that you know them without thinking about them.”
Or, as Ernest Hemingway advised, “Write drunk, edit sober.”
The goal is what the Japanese call zanshin, the state of total awareness made possible by unselfconscious mastery of your craft. There’s only way to get there, and that is to practice the techniques of your craft until they enter your subconscious. In karate class, we had to practice basic skills repeatedly until they became second nature. In a tournament (or, more urgently, a street fight) you cannot win if you obsess over methodology. (How did sensei tell me to block a low punch?)
Martial arts require unconscious mastery and total focus, attributes that are invaluable in every aspect of life, including writing. Here’s what Wannabe Bushcrafter counsels about mastering the sling:
Your mind must be completely clear. Try to not think about anything when slinging. Distracting thoughts absolutely kills accuracy. …
Now here is the hard part! You need to practice, A LOT. You need to practice every single day for hundreds of days. Practice until your arm and back are sore, practice until thick hard calluses form on your release fingers. Practice until your muscles, your eyes and your mind become one. Practice until you are able to consciously purge all thoughts from your mind at a moment’s notice.
For writers, that means we must read a lot and write a lot.
I’ve been busy during our global time-out. I’ve been reading new fiction, as well as re-reading old favorites, including Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, a series of vignettes of Hemingway’s early days as an author while starting a family in 1920s Paris.
This little book cannot be drained; every time I read it, I discover more treasures. And if the honorable Mr. Leonard were alive, I could tell him Hemingway displays a wicked sense of humor in A Moveable Feast.
Let’s look at a few examples.
The metaphor that links the book’s poignant scenes together is the sumptuous food and drink of Paris. Here’s how Hemingway launches our little tour:
As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.
That should whet any appetite. It certainly works for me.
Hemingway depicts Paris as a sprawling, lusty muse for all artists. In those days, he knew no greater joy than parking himself at a little café and setting a freshly sharpened pencil to his notebook. Pure writerly bliss. But every paradise has its snake, and for Hemingway, it’s the aggressive follower:
“Hi Hem. What are you trying to do? Write in a café?”
Your luck had run out and you shut the notebook.
Other artists, and especially writers, cannot evade Hemingway’s sharp, scrutinizing eye:
Wyndham Lewis wore a wide black hat, like a character in the quarter, and was dressed like someone out of La Boheme. He had a face that reminded me of a frog, not a bullfrog but just any frog, and Paris was too big a puddle for him.
F. Scott Fitzgerald and his melancholic wife Zelda get much scrutiny. Scott and Zelda had what you could call a rough and tumble, bittersweet relationship. When Zelda informs Scott she considers his, um, manhood inadequate, Scott looks to Hemingway for reassurance, which he kindly offers:
“You’re perfectly fine,” I said. “You are O.K. There’s nothing wrong with you. You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened. Go over to the Louvre and look at the people in the statues and then go home and look at yourself in the mirror in profile.”
“Those statues may not be accurate.”
“They are pretty good. Most people would settle for them.”
Whether you’re a long-time fan of Robert E. Howard or a newcomer, you’ll enjoy this series on Howard’s stories at Black Gate. I love the premise of this project:
Welcome to a brand new, Monday morning series here at Black Gate. Join us as a star-studded cast of contributors examine every original Conan story written by Robert E. Howard: and tell you why THAT is the best of the bunch. Read on!
Think Conan stories are for kids, or are little more than escapist fiction? Think again. Here’s a piece I wrote for the Abbeville Institute on the depth of meaning lurking in the shadows of Howard’s Conan tales. And the thought-provoking worldview Howard infused into these highly entertaining pieces are supercharged with forceful, visual writing reminiscent of Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, and Ernest Hemingway. As Stephen King put it, “Howard’s writing seems so highly charged with energy that it nearly gives off sparks.” Author James Scott Bell once said of Howard, “His writing was big and wild and full of action.” Enjoy!
“The rejection slip is very hard to take on an empty stomach. There were times when I’d sit at that old wooden table and read one of those cold slips that had been attached to a story I had loved and worked on very hard and believed in, and I couldn’t help crying.”
– Ernest Hemingway
Here’s an inspirational scene from one of my favorite movies, Midnight in Paris. Gil Pender, a young writer on vacation in Paris, climbs into a cab at the stroke of midnight, and when he gets out, he finds himself in 1920s Paris, where he encounters many literary and artistic legends. In the following clip, Gil gets to discuss writing with Ernest Hemingway. Gil can’t resist asking for a small favor:
Gil: Would you read it?
Ernest Hemingway: Your novel?
Gil: Yeah, it’s about 400 pages long, and I’m just looking for an opinion.
Ernest Hemingway: My opinion is I hate it.
Gil: Well you haven’t even read it yet.
Ernest Hemingway: If it’s bad, I’ll hate it because I hate bad writing, and if it’s good, I’ll be envious and hate it all the more. You don’t want the opinion of another writer.
Gil: You know what it is? I’m having a hard time getting somebody to evaluate it.
Ernest Hemingway: You’re too self-effacing; it’s not manly. If you’re a writer [slams table with his fist], declare yourself the best writer.
Ha! Yeah, that sounds like Ernie. And he’s right: It takes more than a little self-confidence to put your heart into a story and hit that “Send” key. You don’t know what the person judging your work is going to think. That’s scary — definitely not for the weak of heart.
Jami Gold recently addressed this in a great blog post titled “What Helps You BE a Writer?”:
Outside of any writing skill that we may or may not have, we also bring other aspects of ourselves to the writing-journey table. We might have personality traits that help us want to be a writer, such as a love of storytelling or a desire to entertain, educate, or inspire others.
Or we might have personality traits that help us stick with writing, even during the bad times. As Delilah mentioned in her post, stubbornness (tenacity, perseverance, determination, etc.) ranks high in many of the replies.
We might have enough of an ego that we think others are interested in what we have to say. Or we might have a desire to prove ourselves worthy of being listened to.
Jami and Ernie are on to something: If you’re going to write, go big. Go brazen. And keep going.