Hemingway Writing Advice

one of the descendants of Hemingway’s messed-up, inbred, extra-toe cats in Key West

In a 1935 Esquire piece, Hemingway, already playing the preening dickhead, gives some writing advice that I think is clear-eyed and well-expressed.

Writing room in Hem house in Key West

The setup is a young man has come to visit him in Key West, and Hemingway has given him the nickname Maestro because he played the violin.

MICE: How can a writer train himself?

Y.C.: Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exact it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you that emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion, what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling you had. Thatʼs a five finger exercise. Mice: All right.

Y.C.: Then get in somebody elseʼs head for a change If I bawl you out try to figure out what Iʼm thinking about as well as how you feel about it. If Carlos curses Juan think what both their sides of it are. Donʼt just think who is right. As a man things are as they should or shouldnʼt be. As a man you know who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.

Mice: All right.

Y.C.: Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Donʼt be thinking what youʼre going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When youʼre in town stand outside the theatre and see how people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.

Mice: Do you think I will be a writer?

Y.C.: How the hell should I know? Maybe youʼve got no talent. Maybe you canʼt feel for other people. Youʼve got some good stories if you can write them. Mice: How can I tell?

Y.C.: Write. If you work at it five years and you find youʼre no good you can just as well shoot yourself then as now.

Mice: I wouldnʼt shoot myself.

Y.C.: Come around then and Iʼll shoot you.

Mice: Thanks.

This article is behind a paywall at Esquire but I found it reprinted on the website of Diana Drake, who has story by credit on the film What Women Want.


Boston (England)

There’s a lot of crime fiction about Boston, America, but is there any about Boston, UK?  I went looking and was directed to the works of Colin Watson, who writes about a fictional town, Flaxborough, which is based on Boston (UK version)?

I can’t say it was totally compelling to me but cheers to Colin Watson.

Watson was the first person to successfully sue Private Eye for libel, for an article in issue 25 when he objected to being described as: “the little-known author who . . . was writing a novel, very Wodehouse but without the jokes”. He was awarded £750.


Critics on critics on critics

This review in the New York Times, by Vivan Gornick of Adam Gopnik’s “At The Strangers’ Gate” caught my attention.

Critics have taken aim on Adam Gopnik before.  To which New Yorker editor David Remnick says:

‘The day any of these people write anything even remotely as fine and intelligent as Adam Gopnik will be a cold day in hell.'”

The key to this memoir might be when the author reveals he graduated high school at age fourteen.  He’s a boy genius.

This is kind of Young Sheldon the book.

The book has some good stories in it.  Adam Gopnik tells about how a guy who came to one of his lectures on Van Gogh.  This guy had an axe to grind and it was this: why did Vincent never paint his brother Theo?

My favorite part of the book was Gopnik’s discussion of Jeff Koons.  Gopnik is illuminating on the topic of Jeff Koons.  Here is Koons talking to Gopnik at a party.

(I added the potato because while it may not be strictly legal to electronically reproduce pages of books, if I include them in an original work of art, that’s gotta be allowed, right?)


When you lied on your CV

The source of that photo is Tasmanian sheep farmer Charlie Mackinnon, who said of the dog:

She was an absolute legend, worked all day.

Funny story told in Jay McInerney Paris Review interview:

MCINERNEY

I felt like I had really arrived because—well, it was The New Yorker. But it was the fact-checking department. I wanted to be in the fiction pages, but still. It actually paid pretty well, and I was seeing great writers like John McPhee and John Updike coming to visit William Shawn. J. D. Salinger was still calling on the phone. There was a terrific buzz about the place. But it was also a little depressing. There were all these unwritten rules. Like, for instance, if you were a fact-checker, you didn’t speak to an editor or writer in the hall—it just wasn’t done. Also, it turned out I wasn’t very good at it. And ten months after I got there, I was fired, and left ingloriously with my tail between my legs.

INTERVIEWER

How bad were you?

MCINERNEY

My biggest mistake was to have lied on my résumé and said that I was fluent in French, which I wasn’t. So when the time came to check a Jane Kramer piece on the French elections, it was assigned to me, and I had to call France and talk to a lot of people who didn’t speak English. That was really my downfall. And of course I couldn’t admit to anyone that I had this problem. Jane Kramer discovered factual errors just before publication. Nothing earth shattering, but you would think that I had . . .


Bellow

Bracing for Amis too is a late essay of Bellow’s, ‘Wit Irony Fun Games’ – ‘quite possibly the last thing he ever wrote’ – that insists that ‘most novels have been written by ironists, satirists, and comedians’. Amis concludes, ‘The novel is comic because life is comic.’

Readin’ that line in this review of Martin Amis, The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump – Essays and Reportage, 1986–2016, by Christian Lorentzen over on Literary Review

So I says, let’s get a copy of this late essay of Bellow’s and see what he has to say.  I’ve never read much Saul Bellow.

Sure enough it’s pretty good!  Here in “Wit Irony Fun Games” he talks about Lincoln’s humor:

This, in an essay about FDR, gives backstory I didn’t know to the story of the attempted assassination:

In this essay, Bellow says his famously controversial comment about “who’s the Tolstoy of the Zulus” was all a misunderstanding:

He likes Zulus, and Papuans as well:

Papuans probably have a better grasp of their myths than most educated Americans have of their own literature.  But without years of study we can’t begin to understand a culture very different from our own.  The fair thing,, therefore, is to make allowance for what we outsiders cannot hope to fathom in another society and grant that, as members of the same species, primitive men are as mysterious or as monstrous as any other branch of humankind.


In your eye, cop!

INTERVIEWER

When did you begin reading adult fiction?

KING

In 1959 probably, after we had moved back to Maine. I would have been twelve, and I was going to this little one-room schoolhouse just up the street from my house. All the grades were in one room, and there was a shithouse out back, which stank. There was no library in town, but every week the state sent a big green van called the bookmobile. You could get three books from the bookmobile and they didn’t care which ones—you didn’t have to take out kid books. Up until then what I had been reading was Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and things like that. The first books I picked out were these Ed McBain 87th Precinct novels. In the one I read first, the cops go up to question a woman in this tenement apartment and she is standing there in her slip. The cops tell her to put some clothes on, and she grabs her breast through her slip and squeezes it at them and says, “In your eye, cop!” And I went, Shit! Immediately something clicked in my head. I thought, That’s real, that could really happen. That was the end of the Hardy Boys. That was the end of all juvenile fiction for me. It was like, See ya!

(Stephen King over at the Paris Review)


John Ashberry

I’d rather read John Ashberry’s obituary than any of his poems.  This is because like most people I prefer story to poetry.

He once wrote poems in French and then translated them back into English in order to avoid customary word associations. (The poems are called, of course, “French Poems.”)

In an interview with The Times in 1999, Mr. Ashbery recalled that he and some childhood playmates “had a mythical kingdom in the woods.”

“Then my younger brother died just around the beginning of World War II,” he added. “The group dispersed for various reasons, and things were never as happy or romantic as they’d been, and my brother was no longer there.” He continued, “I think I’ve always been trying to get back to this mystical kingdom.”