How to write like Hemingway: Excerpts from ‘A Moveable Feast’

Ernest Hemingway writer

I had the pleasure of finally reading Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’, which is a narrative biographical account of his years in Paris as a young writer. I wanted to learn more about this great writer’s practices, habits and rules to see whether I might be able to one day replicate his genius. Probably not, but it’s a fascinating read with some little tips here and there for writers.

If one wishes to write like Hemingway, one should bear the following in mind:

“After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day.”

“I had a bottle of kitsch that we had brought back from the mountains and I took a drink of kirsch when I would get toward the end of a story or toward the end of the day’s work. When I was through working for the day I put the notebook, or the paper, away in the drawer of the table.”

“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 you 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.”

“…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 as good and severe discipline.”

“…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.”

“In the spring mornings I would work early while my wife still slept.”

“When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written, to keep my mind from going on with the story I was working on. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing that you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in my body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again. 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. To keep my mind off writing sometimes after I had worked I would read writers who were writing then [i.e. contemporary writers].”

“But, Hemingway, don’t worry about what they will bring [earn] now. The point is that you can write them.”

“I know. I can write them.”

After cutting a planned ending to a story, in which the protagonist hanged himself:

“[I had a] new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.”

“…I knew too that I must write a novel. I would put it off though until I could not help doing it. I was damned if I would write one because it was what I should do if we were to eat regularly. When I had to write it, then it would be the only thing to do and there would be no choice. Let the pressure build. In the meantime I would write a long story about whatever I knew best.”

“What did I know best that I had not written about and lost? What did I know about truly and care for the most? There was no choice at all. There was only the choice of streets to take you back fastest to where you worked … I sat in a corner [of a café] with the afternoon light coming in over my shoulder and wrote in the noitebook. The waiter brought me a café créme and I drank half of it when it cooled and left it on the table while I wrote.”

“The story was about coming back from the war but there was no mention of war in it.”

“When you are twenty-five and are a natural heavyweight, missing a meal completely makes you very hungry. But it also sharpens all of your perceptions, and I found that many of the people I wrote about had very strong appetites and a great taste and desire for food, and mots of them were looking forward to having a drink.”

“[Ezra Pound, the poet] was the man I liked and trusted the most as a critic then, the man who believed in the mot juste – the one and only correct word to use – the man who had taught me to distrust adjectives … and I wanted his opinion on [Dostoyevsky] who almost never used the mot juste and yet had made his people come alive at times, as almost no one else did.”

“Evan Shipman, who was a very fine poet and who truly did not care if his poems were ever published, felt that it should remain a mystery.

“We need more true mystery in our lives, Hem,” he once said to me. “The completely unambitious writer and the really good unpublished poem are the things we lack most at this time. There is, of course, the problem of sustenance.”

On the cold winters of Paris:

“Alone there was no problem really when you got used to it. I could always go to a café to write and could work all morning over a café créme while the waiters cleaned and swept out the café and it grew gradually warmer.”

“I said that I did not believe anyone could write any way except the very best they could write without destroying their talent.”

“Since I had started to break all my writing down and get rid of all facility and try to make instead of describe, writing had been wonderful to do. But it was very difficult, and I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel. It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.”

“I was getting tired of the literary life, if this was the literary life that I was leading, and already I missed not working and I felt the death loneliness that comes at the end of every day that is wasted in your life.”

“My training was never to drink after dinner nor before I wrote no while I was writing.”

“That fall of 1925 [F. Scott Fitzgerald] was upset because I would not show him the manuscript of the first draft of ‘The Sun Also Rises’. I explained to him that it would mean nothing until I had gone over it an rewritten it and that I did not want to discuss it or show it to anyone first.”

“I rewrote the first half of the manuscript [in Schruns] … and showed it to Max Perkins of Scribner’s and then went back to Schruns and finished rewriting the book. Scott did not see it until after the completed rewritten and cut manuscript had been sent to Scribner’s at the end of April. I do not remember when I showed finished things to him first that year nor when he first saw the proofs on the rewritten and cut versions. We discussed them. But I made the decisions.”

On the frustrations of writing in a café:

“When you would hear someone say, “Hi, Hem. What are you trying to do? Write in a café?”

Your luck had run out and you shut the notebook. This was the worst thing that could happen. If you could keep your temper it would be better but I was not good at keeping mine then and said, “You rotten son of a bitch what are you doing in here off your filthy beat?”

“You shouldn’t write if you can’t write. What do you have to cry about it for? Go home. Get a job. Hang yourself. Only don’t talk about it. You could never write.”

“In the early days writing in Paris I would invent not only from my own experience but from the experience and knowledge of my friends and all the people I had known, or met since I could remember, who were not writers.”

“My first son, Bumby, and I spent much time together in the cafés where I worked when he was very young … and when there were too many people at the Closerie de Lilas for us to work well or I thought he needed a change of scene I would wheel him in his carriage or later we would walk to the café on the Place St.-Michel where he would study the people and the busy life of that part of Paris…”

“Everyone had their privates cafes where they never invited anyone and would go to work, or to read or to receive their mail.”

“In writing there are many secrets too. Nothing is ever lost no matter how it seems at the time and what is left out will always show and make the strength of what is left in. Some say that in writing you can never possess anything until you have given it away or, if you are in a hurry, you may have to throw it away. In much later times than these stories of Paris you may not have it ever until you state it in fiction and then you may have to throw it away or it will be stolen again. They say other things but do not pay them too much attention.”

“There are the secrets that we have that are made by alchemy and much is written about them by people who do knot know the secrets or the alchemy. There are many more explainers now than there are good writers. You need much luck in addition to all other things and you do not always have it.”

Ernest Hemingway writer



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