Inspiration from Papa

Eman Srouji2By Eman Srouji

Recently I added a new literary challenge to my bucket list: to read all of Hemingway’s work. Ernest Hemingway happens to be my favorite author (and favorite alcoholic writer at that!), and I recently had the pleasure of reading his memoir A Moveable Feast. I was talking to one of my friends about it, and he admitted to me that he has read every single thing Hemingway has written, a challenge I immediately accepted.

I began to think about how easily I fell in love with Hemingway’s writing the first time I read anything he wrote, which happened to be “Hills Like White Elephants.” I was in awe at how he captured emotions through actions, how relatable his writing was, and the dialogue, oh, how I love his use of dialogue. He once said that he wanted “to strip language clear, lay it bare to the bone,” and he did just that. In A Moveable Feast, which I highly recommend, we get an inside look into Hemingway’s time spent in Paris, but more importantly, he gives us advice on writing, words of wisdom that he used for his own, words that have helped my writing immensely and held the dreaded writer’s block at bay. Nonetheless, here are my four favorite pieces of advice Ernest Hemingway gives on writing:

  1. Stop writing before you empty your well. Hemingway writes, “I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.” With this advice in mind, I began a short story a few weeks ago (one I hope to enter into the Hemingway flash fiction contest), and I always know what is coming next because I, as Hemingway puts it, “had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.” The times I have exhausted my writing always lead to me staring at a blank page as I have a mini crisis of what to write; this brilliant piece of advice has completely eliminated this writer’s block crisis. Leave a sentence unfinished, a conversation at a pause, a character’s description half way complete, a thought off the page and you will always have a jumping off point.
  2. Write one true sentence. If and when Hemingway could not get a new story going, he would think to himself as he looked out at Paris, “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.” It could be any kind of true sentence, something you saw, felt, heard. If you’re like me and you love to eaves drop (and keep a list of the best ones), write it down and see where it takes you. I’ve found this helps so much even if it is just to get the creative juices a-flowing.
  3. Stop thinking about it when you’re not writing it. Hemingway treated writing as his work, and like every kind of work, you need a break. In his room in Paris he “learned not to think about anything that [he] was writing from the time [he] stopped writing writing until [he] started again the next day.” Whenever I think constantly about one of my pieces, I find that I sit down to continue it, and all of the sudden, I don’t know what to write about. I’ve taken away my work’s beautiful ability to fuel itself, to have my characters create themselves. It becomes manipulated with no room to be its own. Not thinking about it, preoccupying my time and mind with books, swimming, music is necessary.
  4. Read it over. This is probably the one I struggle to follow the most, but I’ve found that when I read over a piece before continuing to work on it, I can better little pieces like dialogue, character description, word choice, really anything that could be better and help point my piece in the right direction. Hemingway realized he “would not know truly how good until [he] read it over the next day.” Reading it over is so important and can make a good story into a great one.

Ernest Hemingway was a man who distrusted adjectives, a man who realized there is plenty to learn everywhere, a man who was happy with writing one good paragraph a day. Just one! That’s all! He truly is Papa, and his writing wisdom has made a lovely difference for my writing and how I feel about my writing. So stop writing before you empty your well. When in doubt, write one true sentence (which you heard from your professional eaves dropping skills). Stop thinking about your work when you’re not writing. And read it over, every time, read it over.