In today’s Journal
* Topic: Rewriting and Hemingway
* Of Interest
* The Numbers
Topic: Rewriting and Hemingway
Once again, a writer gave me a topic to write about here. Screenwriter MGP wrote to ask, “Why do you think rewriting is so embedded in the writing community?”
He went on to talk about Hemingway and the allegation that the great writer “rewrote the last few sentences of Farewell to Arms 39 times.” Then MGP wrote, “in the article itself the writer uses that as ‘inspiration’ to allow himself to write sloppy and ‘fix’ it later.”
My response to the direct question was succinct: Rewriting is so embedded in the writing community because we’re taught in junior high, high school, and college—by people who do NOT write fiction—not to trust our creative subconscious.
We’re taught that rewriting is a necessary part of the process. Unfortunately, most writers never break out of that silliness and learn to trust themselves. The memory of the English or Lit teacher’s voice is too loud.
Writing is the only job I know in which aspirants will actively seek advice from people who do not practice in the field (for example, so-called developmental editors or book doctors) or writers have no significant accomplishments in the field. Think about that.
Every single major fiction writer I know of (say writers with over 35 or 40 novels) follows Heinlein’s Business Habits for Writers (Heinlein’s Rules), including Rule 3: “You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.” Harlan Ellison later added, “And then only if you agree.”
Of course, today, if you aren’t frightened half to death and can bring yourself to indie-publish, there are no publishing-house editors with whom to agree.
As for the article MGP quoted, obviously the author of that article poked around until he found a quote that, in his mind, supported what he wanted to do. How very sad that he couldn’t simply write the way he wanted to without feeling a need to justify it. I suspect Hemingway would have laughed at him, if he’d noticed him at all.
Consider how easy it would have been for that same author to cite the business habits of another great writer, the aforementioned Robert A. Heinlein.
Then again, what could Heinlein possibly know? Heinlein published only 32 novels, 59 short stories, and 16 collections plus a few screenplays, etc. That’s compared with the great Ernest Hemingway who, according to Wikipedia, published “seven novels, six short story collections, and two nonfiction works” during the thirty years from the mid-20s to the mid-50s.
I should add that Hemingway himself often said things that were outrageous, simply because it was fun for him to watch baby writers soak it up. He was, as MGP wrote, “fluffing up his process.” For example, he sometimes said he often wrote drunk, or that he wrote standing up to be in touch with his manhood (the weight of his testes hanging down). And 99% of it was bullshit.
And he was a legend, a legend that really took hold only after the publication of his last short novel, The Old Man and the Sea. But because he was a legend, of course other people routinely made up things about him to support or inflate that legend. He was such a great writer/storyteller, for example, that he MUSThave rewritten those last few lines 39 times. Again, I suspect that’s all BS.
DWS claims that Hemingway wrote into the dark, but frankly I don’t believe that either. After all, he wrote for thirty years but published only those 7 novels and 6 short-story collections plus some nonfiction. The math doesn’t add up. You can’t write into the dark but at a snail’s pace.
That doesn’t mean he didn’t write from the creative subconscious. I’m sure he did. But he saw himself as writing “art” (elevated literary stuff, aiming for awards, etc.). So after he’d written a scene or a sub-scene, he polished it (conscious, critical mind) to bring the writing up to his own elevated standard.
Hemingway was known for his very spare “iceberg” writing style. And being known for it, he felt a need to live up to it. He often said to be a writer you have to write “one true sentence, the truest sentence you know.” So when he stopped writing for the day, in his own mind he had produced the best work he could up to that point, a series of those “truest” sentences.
Note that I’m not saying you can’t produce great stories while trusting yourself and writing into the dark. After all, we’ll never know whether Hemingway’s work would have been just as good or maybe better if he hadn’t so thoroughly messed with it.
It’s always better not to elevate “writer” to a “calling” of some sort. It’s better to simply accept “writer” as what we do, then show up to work and do it. I’ve written into the dark since April 2014, yet a few of my short stories, at least one novella and at least one novel have been compared favorably by readers with Hemingway’s work and style. All of that without me rewriting anything 39 times. Or even one time.
So I think the key to being comfortable in the chair is to write the way you want to, trust yourself and your process, and allow readers (not yourself and not other writers) to judge your work.
By the way, if you’ve never read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and if you’d like to, you can find the first publication of it in the September 1952 issue (page 34) of Life Magazine.
I also recommend Ken Burns’ documentary.
Talk with you again later.
See “11 Facts About Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea” at https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/64363/11-facts-about-hemingways-old-man-and-sea.
See “Ernest Miller Hemingway” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway.
See “Ernest Hemingway bibliography” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway_bibliography.
The Journal…………………………………… 960 words
Writing of WCGN 5: Tentative Title (novel)
Day 1…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXXX
Total fiction words for October……… XXXX
Total fiction words for the year………… 623282
Total nonfiction words for October… 10960
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 176920
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 800202
Calendar Year 2021 Novels to Date…………………… 13
Calendar Year 2021 Novellas to Date……………… 1
Calendar Year 2021 Short Stories to Date… 3
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 66
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 217
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31
Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.