To Write With Power You Must Find the Essence of Things

Little-known lessons from Hemingway on writing

Nick Wignall
Apr 11, 2019 · 7 min read
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Ernest Hemingway writing at a campsite in Kenya. Via National Archives & Records Administration, public domain.

As I worked on a draft for a new article about my writing process, I vaguely recalled a quote by Hemingway — something about writing drunk and editing sober. And so naturally, I scurried off to Google to find it, copy it, and paste it into my piece.

Thankfully, a thought slapped me across the face rather suddenly (the Muse is good for more than just inspiration):

I’m quoting Hemingway, but I don’t really know that much about him, either his work generally or his thoughts on writing. Sure, I read The Old Man and the Sea in 9th grade. And I see the same three quotes of his peppered throughout Medium articles about writing. But I don’t really know him as a writer very well. And it feels a little gross using a quote from him like this.

So I set out to actually read Hemingway.

I found a couple of little collections of his essays and letters, and spent a few hours meandering through them, trying to understand an author who has almost become a caricature of himself — you know, the guy who wrote short, direct sentences and talked a lot about hunting big game and drinking.

Thankfully, I discovered someone much richer than that: a man who — unsurprisingly, in retrospect — was a far fuller character than I had realized, in his thinking and writing generally, but more specifically, in his approach to his art.

What follows is a collection of my favorite quotes from the letters and essays of Ernest Hemingway on writing, along with my own brief thoughts on each. My hope is that they will provide a little more nuance in how we think about Hemingway the man and the craft of writing.

On Empathy

“I would like to be able to write understandingly about both deserters and heroes, cowards and brave men, traitors and men who are not capable of being traitors.”

Good writing is essentially descriptive, not moral.

On the Gift

“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have it.”

I suppose this implies that, as writers, we should from time to time be flexible enough to stick our heads up our own…

On Inspiration

“There’s no rule in how it is to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”

Hope for the Muse to show but don’t leave your dynamite at home.

On Diction

“Farewell is the best word I know in English.”

Every writer should have a favorite word.

On Procrastination

“Sometimes when I was starting a new story and 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.”

Whenever I see this passage quoted, they always include the “write one true sentence” bit but tend to leave off the part about the fire and the orange peels. Which is strange because I think that’s the most important part.

I imagine Hemingway sitting at his desk, staring at his typewriter, trying to think of what advice to give aspiring writers. But he’s stuck. Writer’s block. He’s procrastinating.

So he remembers that time when he tossed an orange peel into the fire and watched the blue flame emerge. That, at least, he knows is true. So that’s where he begins his advice, literally. That was his one true sentence that led to his now famous “Write one true sentence” quote.

On Worldliness

“Good writing is true writing. If a man is making a story up it will be true in proportion to the amount of knowledge of life that he has and how conscientious he is; so that when he makes something up it is as it would truly be.”

As writers, we ought to be in the world and experiencing it—not as a research project, but as a life well-lived.

On Feeling

“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.”

The key to communicating emotion is to write about the action that precipitated it.

On Listening

“When people talk, listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re 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.”

Quite the challenge, Old Man.

On Restraint

“I 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.”

Inspiration depends on deliberate restraint.

On Perseverance

“You just have to go on when it is worst and most helpless… go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.”

Action is the remedy for helplessness.

On Supplies

“The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, were all you needed.”

Minimalism of craft allows for freedom to see truly, and so, to make.

On Rhythm

“Am in sort of a better époque of working now and just remembered that I always work well in the Spring.”

It’s okay to have seasons and rhythms to your writing; it can’t be summer all year long.

On Making Love

“I have to ease off on making love when writing hard as the two things are run by the same motor.”

There’s a lot here: That love and writing share the same engine.

On Solitude

“Writers should work alone. They should see each other only after their work is done, and not too often then. Otherwise they become like writers in New York. All angleworms in a bottle, trying to derive knowledge and nourishment from their own contact and from the bottle.”

When you live, live. When you write, write.

On Brevity

“It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.”

Even if there are no laws of prose writing, best to act as if there are.

On Competitiveness

“Listen. There’s no use writing anything that has been written before unless you can beat it. What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasn’t been written before or beat dead men at what they have done.”

There’s a primal energy is framing writing as competition, as warfare.

On Good Writers

“The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain. That’s not the order they’re good in. There is no order for good writers.”

The 99th percentile is non-linear.

On Audience

“I believe that basically you write for two people; yourself to try to make it absolutely perfect; or if not that then wonderful. Then you write for who you love whether she can read or write or not and whether she is alive or dead.”

Write for wonder.

On Motivation

“Writing is hard business Max but nothing makes you feel better.”

There’s a profound psychological truth here: Better to think of feeling as an effect rather than a cause.

On Personal Tragedy

“Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it — don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist — but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happened to you or anyone belonging to you.”

Interesting proposition: True writing necessitates personal tragedy, but personal tragedy can never be the topic of true writing.

On Death

“Madame, all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true story teller who would keep that from you.”

Perhaps nothing gives life more meaning than death. And yet, how many of us have the courage to write about death?

On Critics

For Christ sake write and don’t worry about what the boys will say… if the book is good, is about something that you know, and is truly written and reading it over you see that this is so you can let the boys yip and the noise will have that pleasant sound coyotes make on a very cold night when they are out in the snow and you are in your own cabin that you have built or paid for with your work.

Let them yip.

On Essence

Hemingway is best known as a proponent of brevity and simplicity of writing.

But that’s not quite true to the man himself or his writing.

After spending an admittedly brief time reading his letters, essays, and other thoughts — many of which were about writing itself — I think Hemingway would rather be known as a proponent of essentialism.

I imagine he would say something like this:

More than anything else, the writer is charged with being in the world, observing it carefully, and sharing the essence of his or her experience. That is an act tinged with more than a little of the miraculous; by distilling experience down to the naked essentials, the writer is able to create something universally true and beautiful.

“I am trying to make, before I get through, a picture of the whole world — or as much of it as I have seen. Boiling it down always, rather than spreading it thin.”

— Ernest Hemingway in a letter to Mrs. Paul Pfeiffer, 1933

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Nick Wignall

Written by

Psychologist and blogger. I help people use psychology for meaningful personal growth:

Better Marketing

Marketing advice and case studies to help you market ethically, authentically, and effectively.

Nick Wignall

Written by

Psychologist and blogger. I help people use psychology for meaningful personal growth:

Better Marketing

Marketing advice and case studies to help you market ethically, authentically, and effectively.

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