Ernest Hemingway: The Art of Talented Writing
I’ve always hated the word “talent”.
When I hear people say “I’m not talented”, this is what they sound like in my head:
“I’m not good enough, and I’m too lazy to figure out why. To make myself feel better, I will blame it on talent.”
The word “talent” is a smoke bomb.
Say you have two tennis players, Sarah and Britney. The girls both started at age 10, both spend 4 hours a day practicing, and both have the same coach. Yet, Sarah always loses to Britney.
Britney is more talented.
Convincing? Not to me. There are hundreds of potential reasons for Britney’s success. Strength. Power. Confidence. Stamina. Motivation. We don’t know what makes success happen, so we freeze and say, “Oh, Britney is talented.”
Talent = “I don’t know”.
The Talent Excuse
The same thing happens in writing.
Here is Hemingway on the qualities of a great writer:
First, there must be talent, much talent. Talent such as Kipling had. Then there must be discipline. The discipline of Flaubert. Then there must be the conception of what it can be and an absolute conscience as unchanging as the standard meter in Paris, to prevent faking. Then the writer must be intelligent and disinterested and above all he must survive. Try to get all these in one person and have him come through all the influences that press on a writer. The hardest thing, because time is so short, is for him to survive and get his work done.
Everywhere I look, I see writers preaching the same gospel: Hard work helps, but you’ve got to have talent.
This doesn’t satisfy me. I want to know what’s going on behind the smoke screen. What makes a Hemingway, Kipling or Flaubert? Is it a bad childhood? Hard work? Their breakfast cereal?
The first decent answer I found was in About Writing, a collection of writing advice by Hugo award-winning author Samuel R. Delany.
Here’s Delany on talented writing:
Good writing and talented writing are not the same. […] If you start with a confused, unclear, and badly written story, and apply the rules of good writing to it, you can probably turn it into a simple, logical, clearly written story.
The talented writer can explode, as with a verbal microscope, some fleeting sensation or action, tease out insights, and describe subsensations that we all recognize, even if we have rarely considered them before; that is, he or she describes them at greater length and tells more about them than other writers.
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere.
Delany has taken “talent”, which means nothing, and given us something tangible to work on.
According to Delany, talented writers can capture and describe “fleeting sensations or actions” better than other writers. How do we learn to do this? Is the skill only open to the geniuses and the talented?
I don’t think so.
In Ernest Hemingway on Writing, the legend talks about how writers can train themselves:
1. Observe the Emotion
“Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what 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 the 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 that you had. That’s a five finger exercise.”
2. See It From Their Perspective
“Then get in somebody else’s head for a change. If I bawl you out try to figure what I’m thinking about as well as how you feel about it. If Carlos curses Juan think what both their sides of it are. Don’t just think who is right. As a man things are as they should or shouldn’t 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.”
3. Listen, Truly Listen
“Listen now. 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. When you’re in town stand outside the theatre and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousands ways to practice. And always think of other people.”
In these three steps, Hemingway is really saying one thing:
Find what makes you feel. Then, share it with the reader.
Now that’s something I can work on.
I don’t know if I’m talented. I don’t know what that word means. But here’s what I do know: As soon as I believe I don’t have it, it’s all over.
For more Hemingway wisdom, see Hemingway on Writing — a collection of the the legend’s advice pulled from a lifetime of publications and private letters.