Hemingway’s cure for writers block

Writing tips from beyond the grave

Linda Caroll
Dec 10, 2019 · 6 min read
photo from pixabay

ntil Hemingway was almost 6, his mother dressed him as a girl, in ruffled dresses and bonnets to match his older sister Marcelline.

Freud be damned, not everything can be blamed on mothers, but years later, his sister would write a tell-all confirming that their mother dressed the two of them as ‘twins’ and they’d have tea parties and play with dolls.

Marcelline and Ernestine, his mother called them, and he hated her.

His father was a country doctor that mostly looked the other way, even posing for family photos with their “two” little girls. Except weekends, when he’d put Ernest in pants and take him out into the wilderness to learn hunting, fishing and hiking and teach him how to act like a boy.

When he was almost 6, his mother finally allowed him to dress as a boy. A mostly somber little boy, he loved nature and the wilderness and would grow into both a talented and prolific writer — and a very troubled man.

Later, when asked if there was a prerequisite to being a writer, Hemingway said “a troubled childhood.

I don’t know that a troubled childhood is a prerequisite for writing, but still.
He won a Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for writing.

If you’d asked him for advice on being a writer…

Most probably, he would have told you to study journalism.

He wasn’t a strong student, so when he graduated from high school, he went straight to work. His family knew someone at the newspaper and so he was offered a job as “cub” journalist for the Kansas City Star. He was 17.

Journalism is where he learned his stripped-down writing style.

He once said, “On the Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.

In later years, Joyce Carol Oats would praise his simple writing style.

The early stories of Hemingway are very wonderful for young writers because they’re beautifully crafted, almost skeletal — there’s nothing extraneous in them.

— Joyce Carol Oates

Like most writers, he struggled…

We think of Hemingway as the award winner — Pulitzer, Nobel prize. The man of so much acclaim. But in reality, those came so much later.

He wasn’t a winner right out the gate. Before the awards, there were 20 years slogging it out in the writing industry. Book after book.

The book that won the Pulitzer was his 16th.

When he won the Nobel prize, no one knew he’d be dead in 6 short years.

The short Nobel acceptance speech reflected his years of struggle. He said for a writer, every book is a new beginning where he gets to try again for something that is beyond attainment.

Writing tips from beyond the grave…

Unlike many superstar writers, Papa Hemingway didn’t write a book about writing while he was alive.

After his death, 5 books would be published posthumously as the manuscripts he left behind were edited and sent to press.

The second book published posthumously was A Moveable Feast — a memoir, r, cobbled together of his rough manuscript and notes, that finally gave insight into his writing process and his struggles.

In reverse order of importance, I think…

3. He wrote long hand.

With pencil. On paper. He believed that this gave him another chance to correct his work later, when he was typing it out. Which meant less editing when it came to the editing stage.

2. He stopped writing when he knew what came next…

He reasoned that if he knows what comes next, he won’t have trouble starting again the next day.

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…

— Ernest Hemingway

1. One true sentence

Perhaps you’ve seen this floating around the internet.


Some people think it’s a writing methodology. It never was. It was only ever a way to begin when one story ended and the next wasn’t there yet.

…sometimes when I was started on a new story and I could not get 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 you know.’

So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.

Hemingway’s “one true” sentences…

I became curious, once I realized this tip was how he started a new book, or a new story. That’s what Google is for. A few for your enjoyment…

  1. An old man with steel rimmed spectacles and very dusty clothes sat by the side of the road — Old Man at the Bridge
  2. The strange thing was, he said, how they screamed every night at midnight.
    — On the Quai at Smyrna
  3. It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending nothing had happened.
    — The short happy life of FrancisMacomber
  4. He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in he tops of the pine trees.
    — For Whom the Bell Tolls
  5. He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. — The Old Man and the Sea

I feel like I’m learning about opening strong. Hope you do, too.

Thanks for reading! ❤

As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.

— Ernest Hemingway

The complete works of Hemingway, in case you’re interested…

1923: Three Stories and Ten Poems (Short Story Collection)
1925: The Torrents of Spring (Novel)
1925: In Our Time (Short Story Collection)
1926: The Sun Also Rises (Novel)
1927: Men Without Women (Short Story Collection)
1929: A Farewell to Arms (Novel)
1932: Death in the Afternoon (Nonfiction)
1932: The Snows of Kilimanjaro (Short Story Collection)
1933: Winner Take Nothing (Short Story Collection)
1935: Green Hills of Africa (Nonfiction)
1937: To Have and Have Not(Novel)
1938: The Fifth Column and the First 49 Stories (Short Story Collection)
1940: For Whom the Bell Tolls (Novel)
1947: The Essential Hemingway (Short Story Collection)
1950: Across the River and Into the Trees (Novel)
1952: The Old Man and the Sea (Novel) — Pulitzer Prize winner
1953: The Hemingway Reader (Short Story Collection)
1960: The Dangerous Summer (Nonfiction)

1962: Published Posthumously: Adventures of a Young Man (Novel)
1964: Published Posthumously: A Moveable Feast (Nonfiction)
1970: Published Posthumously: Islands in the Stream (Novel)
1972: Published Posthumously: The Nick Adams Stories (Short Story Collection)
1986: Published Posthumously: The Garden of Eden (Novel)

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Linda Caroll

Written by

20 years in design and marketing. Get writing and marketing tips on Fridays at https://lindac.substack.com/

The Partnered Pen

MPP friends writing about life, love, and everything else in between together.

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