I recently read a very good book by Ernest Hemingway called A Moveable Feast about his early years in Paris in the twenties when he hung out with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein. He wrote this book in the late fifities, so most of the proceedings have a thin gauze of memory over them. However, his eye and ear for detail and people is clear, and there are moments when the prose just soars. There are also a few moments which made me laugh out loud.
He talks a great deal about writing and trying to be a writer. During the twenties, he was struggling both to find his voice in sentences and to make money. He talks openly about the distractions along with the joy of writing himself to another place and time.
It's not a perfect book, and I do not consider Hemingway a perfect writer. However, when he's in his flow, he's very very good. Putting on my writing professor hat and knowing that there are a lot of writers on the happy robot, I decided to turn the rest of this column over to Mr. Hemingway and how he became a writer.
From A Moveable Feast:
It was wonderful to walk down the long flight of stairs knowing that I'd had good luck working. 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. But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, "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." So finally I would write one true sentence and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.
It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to do it. Going down the stairs when I had worked well, and that needed luck as well as discipline, was a wonderful feeling and I was free then to walk anywhere in Paris.