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Writing That One True Sentence
Random thoughts about Ernest Hemingway, the writer—not the myth.
“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer's radar and all great writers have had it.” —Ernest Hemingway.
NOWADAYS, IF YOU MENTION Ernest Hemingway’s name amongst younger artists or writers, there’s a lot of groaning and the misquoting of oft-repeated truths and untruths about the author’s larger-than-life persona.
This isn’t surprising when an artist has fashioned his or her mythology in his or her’s lifetime, as Hemingway did. The largeness of his talent spilled over in every direction and invited praise and attack in equal measure.
Conventional behavior often deadens the life of an artist. Convention and art are antithetical. Unfettered trial-and-error living becomes the go-to method for most artists. If we’re honest, it’s what we envy about artists—their freedom to be and live beyond the bubble of quotidian life.
In our age of nuance-free, political correctness (and its attendant thought policing), Hemingway is considered a toxic relic. A feminist’s nightmare. A vestige of threadbare attitudes related to masculinity.
Suppose you’ve studied Hemingway’s biography (the writing of which he went out of his way to confound constantly) with an open mind. You flinch at all of the tyrannical behavior and misogyny. But you also place the man in his cultural moment. You bring context to your appraisal. And then, you set that aside and simply consider the writing. You separate the artist from his art.
This is especially so if you are a writer. Or you appreciate good writing, or you aim to become a good writer. It’s impossible to learn about good writing without bumping into the colossus of Hemingway.
Stylistically, as a reader, he may not be your thing. Fair enough. But as a writer interested in moving images between brains, which is a writer’s job, he’s a master. It goes like this, as the novelist John Calendo put it:
“I have a picture in my mind, and I need to get my picture out of my brain and into yours. That’s, in essence, what good writers do.”
The thing about Hemingway is that he learned how to generate that ‘transference’ within a deliberately minimal lexicon. You might think, well, big deal. But, Hemingway also did something more akin to music-making while crafting his sentence. And music, the freest and most mysterious art form, does not employ language to do what music does. So if a writer pulls that off—well, fuck!
Hemingway constructed a way of charging the image that moved from his brain into yours with emotion. This is why if you ever read interviews with notable writers from some decades back (now considered relics themselves), they will talk about how in their early days of becoming a writer, they would study and restudy Hemingway’s sentences to try and track how he did what he did with his sorcery.
He once said of his approach:
“I am trying to make, before I get through, a picture of the whole world or as much of it as I have seen. Boiling it down always, rather than spreading it out thin.”
Joan Didion said that when she was younger and aspiring to write, she would pick different Hemingway stories and then type and retype them, trying to see if she could capture what was happening. And perhaps she might be able to do the same—not by copying his style but by tracking the rhythmic beats in his sentences.
Hemingway gave a clue as to how he did what he did when he said if he was ever stuck—marooned in the process of writing a book or story, he knew that all he’d need to do to move forward was to write: “One true sentence.”
The catch in this idea is the word true. And he meant that not as an absolute notion of truth, but the truth as germane to his life experience—something he’d experienced, overheard, or thought about greatly in his private moments. If that sentence were truthfully imbued, it would release him back into his writing.
Which is to say he was prefiguring the entry of his imagination into yours. He felt that, at an unconscious level, readers sensed this too about truth in writing—that there was something alive in a true sentence. And that dear reader is golden.
So that is the weird alchemy of Hemingway. His bare-bones declarative sentences often use only one or two-syllable words, sentences that initially seem pedestrian or ho-hum. Still, as a Cancer with a Leo Mercury, Hemingway was a standalone talent for delivering all-encompassing emotional punches with the simplest of lexicons.
And with a Virgo Mars sitting on his Virgo ascendant, he’d a merciless eye for spotting and killing off the superfluous. Especially unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. Hemingway trusted his reader’s imagination to take the simplicity of his sentences and fashion their own parade of images as the story moved forward. And as we all know it’s an absolute joy when our imagination is involved in life in an active rather than a passive mode.
It’s been said that his writing is incantational. And, yes. Most spell-casting is. Consider the opening paragraph of A Farewell To Arms. I’ve read and reread this a thousand times, and goddamnit, I’m transported, every time, to stand in the boots of the observer who is recounting this moment. And to feel what he is feeling.
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
As Joan Didion points out, there’s only one three-syllable word in the entire paragraph—the word afterward. Proust would write fifteen or sixteen pages of minute minutia to corner a memory, a feeling, a condition that matched, by volume, the emotional tenor that Hemingway captures with a handful of sentences.
More beguiling, is the feeling that the paragraph conjures. A feeling that resides in the heart of the universal. And it is the heart that connects each of us in the human predicament. The mind, to lay out demarcations, forever battles with others—my opinion, my view, my way versus yours. (But mostly the mind battles with itself).
This has very little to do with the subject or the context of the above paragraph. It’s the conveyance of the tenderness and vulnerability of life that the words weave up and off the page. And how nature, as beauty and beast, is the stage set we each occupy in life.
In that paragraph, a human looks out on the world with fresh eyes, not layers of preferences, concepts, or rationales—that’s to say, the way most of us view the world out of habit. And so we stand there with the observer and something clicks in us, way down deep, that goes, “Oh yes, I feel this too.”
Didion called Hemingway’s sentences: “…smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.” Can’t you feel that? (Obviously, she was a good student).
It’s not that Hemingway is a better writer than Proust. That’s not my argument. It’s just this: If you’re a writer, you’d want to be curious about how Hemingway did what he did while distancing yourself from his mythology. That’s all.
It occurs to me that in the post-tech age culture, that second-hand opinions have usurped what should be our natural, unencumbered response to art. All kinds of art. I think about this every time an artist friend tells me about attempting to land an agent or show her work at a gallery. Inevitably the first question she’s asked is how many followers she has on Instagram.
But back to the point I was making: If while studying a painting by Picasso, I can’t shake from my mind what I know about his terrible foibles, well, that’s tragic.
Of course, I’m projecting my preference at you because, as a writer, I’m always curious about good writing and how it might happen. And as I sit down to write—so I learn. And because as a writer, I like to share ideas with others (readers). In this case, it’s about getting that one thing out of my head and into yours.
So, it took me decades to become involved with Hemingway as a focused study because, well, like many, I’d been influenced by his bad press—and my father was in many ways similar to Hemingway. They both came into manhood during the post-WWI and pre-Great Depression years. So my childhood familiarity with my dad’s aggravating machismo doubled my distancing from Hemingway. I lived with a guy like that, and one go-round was enough for me. And yet I’d never read a story or book by Hemingway. How sad.
The other thing about Hemingway—and this is where I sense the Cancerian part of his nature (where the Sun and Venus reside in his chart)—is that he cared deeply about the reader. He was devoted (is that the right word?) to creating within the reader a place of pure space. So there is only the reader and her imagination. (No sinkholes).
Once you start to read a Hemingway book, you aren’t, after three or four pages, having to pass your mind through the scrim of the writer. This is a fascinating feat by an author—to not superimpose the writer’s ego over the reader’s experience.
Why is this? Because authors have big ones. Egos. They long to leave marks and memories in the reader’s head. The central relationship in the writer’s world is with herself. Writing, or rather forging good writing, is the loneliest occupation on earth. (If I recall correctly I think Hemingway said that).
Opening photograph: Ernest Hemingway, 1939 by photographer Llyod Arnold. Public Domain.
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