Friday, April 29, 2016

Writing inspiration: Hemingway again

From David Brooks's column on Hemingway's house in Cuba, with commentary in italics (I know it's David Brooks, but give it a chance):

1. When you see how [Hemingway] did it, three things leap out. The first is the most mundane — the daily disciplines of the job. In the house, there is a small bed where he laid out his notes and a narrow shelf where he stood, stared at a blank wall and churned out his daily word count. Sometimes it seems to have been the structure of concrete behavior — the professional routines — that served as a lifeline when all else was crumbling.

Worth remembering, those "daily disciplines of the job." This has been a tough week at Northern Clime, but the routines--even writing when I could manage it--have helped. 

2. Second, there seem to have been moments of self-forgetting. Dorothy Sayers has an essay in which she notes it’s fashionable to say you do your work to serve the community. But if you do any line of work for the community, she argues, you’ll end up falsifying your work, because you’ll be angling it for applause. You’ll feel people owe you something for your work. But if you just try to serve the work — focusing on each concrete task and doing it the way it’s supposed to be done — then you’ll end up, obliquely, serving the community more. Sometimes the only way to be good at a job is to lose the self-consciousness embedded in the question, “How’m I doing?”

Dorothy L. Sayers has a good point. Ultimately, you have to write what you think or know or believe is true, which is what Hemingway always talked about--"the true gen." You have to do what's right and focus on the task at hand even if some necessary unhappiness results. "Serve the work."  You're not going to be applauded, but if you're protecting others, or your work, you need to keep going.  

And if others don't like what you're doing or writing, think about it: what's their perspective or interest? Where are they coming from? Is their opinion valid, relevant, and ethically in tune with what you're trying to do? Do they wish you and your work well, or do they have a different agenda in mind? 

Maya Angelou once said,  "When people show you who they are, believe them." Their response to your work or your actions is conditioned by who they are, just as yours is. Believe who they are, and consider whether the power you're giving them over your words or actions is warranted.  

3. Finally, there was the act of cutting out. When Hemingway was successful, he cut out his mannerisms and self-pity. Then in middle age, out of softness, laziness and self-approval, he indulged himself. But even then, even amid all the corruption, he had flashes when he could distinguish his own bluster from the good, true notes.

Flashes, yes, although there's still a lot of bluster and self-pity in some late Hemingway. What he seems to have hated is that for stretches he couldn't distinguish the false from the true or, even worse, when he knew what he was writing was false and couldn't write truly (a Hemingway phrase). Valerie Hemingway's Running with the Hemingways gives a good account of some of those last years, when it seems that no one dared to stand up to him. Standing up to Hemingway might have made him unhappy, but it might also have resulted in better and truer work. 


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I don't often agree with David Brooks, but at least he's not the most obnoxious, gross conservative out there. When he's talking about writing/literature, I actually do agree with him ... often. Last year, he wrote about new romantics in the computer age, and I actually felt hopeful.

I'm interested in things about creative writing these days, because I'm doing more of it than anything else. And I often give myself permission to write plainly, because I tell myself, "hey, Hemingway did it," and then I go on. The good news is that I have had some success publishing while saying, "hey, Hemingway did it," so perhaps I owe the old misogynist a hat tip.

Earnest English said...

Fie, thanks so much for that link! I don't know what to make of the fact that I agree with David Brooks(!) on this, but I agree that students and society at large has been pushed in favor of the practical at the expense of ideals. (How much of this is fear, based on the recent recession, and how much of this is good old-fashioned American anti-intellectualism? Who can tell?) I teach at an institution that particularly lauds the practical and disdains anything theoretical or idealistic and was just this morning bemoaning the fact that the courses I teach don't introduce students to the world of ideas. (In Fall, I'll be teaching two sections of Practical 101, which I typically don't like, and so I have been thinking about ways for me to like it more, which, I think, includes introducing students to the world of ideas and more creative expression. I'm not sure how to do that, but the David Brooks piece helps me with that somehow.) All this to say: thanks for the this at this particular moment!

And Undine, I love the stuff on writing! LOVE IT!

undine said...

Fie--you've had a lot of success with creative writing! I feel the same way: just because Hemingway said it doesn't make it wrong.

Thanks, Earnest English!