Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Hemingway on the Art of Fiction

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 13, 2011

Many thanks to Jonathan Fields for forwarding this interview from the Paris Review, Spring 1958 issue, between Ernest Hemingway and (referring to himself only as “Interviewer”) George Plimpton, the magazine’s founder and editor. This is quite a famous conversation; I’ve read it myself a number of times over the years. If you haven’t been exposed to it, it’s definitely worth your time.

Here’s the link to the full interview. If I don’t get any cease-and-desist notes from the Paris Review (it’s still alive and well—click the link in the first sentence), we’ll post the continuation in this space next week.

INTERVIEWER

Are these hours during the actual process of writing pleasurable?

ERNEST HEMINGWAY

Very.

INTERVIEWER

Could you say something of this process? When do you work? Do you keep to a strict schedule?

HEMINGWAY

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

INTERVIEWER

Can you dismiss from your mind whatever project you’re on when you’re away from the typewriter?

HEMINGWAY

Of course. But it takes discipline to do it and this discipline is acquired. It has to be.

INTERVIEWER

Do you do any rewriting as you read up to the place you left off the day before? Or does that come later, when the whole is finished?

HEMINGWAY

I always rewrite each day up to the point where I stopped. When it is all finished, naturally you go over it. You get another chance to correct and rewrite when someone else types it, and you see it clean in type. The last chance is in the proofs. You’re grateful for these different chances.

INTERVIEWER

How much rewriting do you do?

HEMINGWAY

It depends. I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.

INTERVIEWER

Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

HEMINGWAY

Getting the words right.

INTERVIEWER

Is it the rereading that gets the “juice” up?

HEMINGWAY

Rereading places you at the point where it has to go on, knowing it is as good as you can get it up to there. There is always juice somewhere.

INTERVIEWER

But are there times when the inspiration isn’t there at all?

HEMINGWAY

Naturally. But if you stopped when you knew what would happen next, you can go on. As long as you can start, you are all right. The juice will come.

INTERVIEWER

Thornton Wilder speaks of mnemonic devices that get the writer going on his day’s work. He says you once told him you sharpened twenty pencils.

HEMINGWAY

I don’t think I ever owned twenty pencils at one time. Wearing down seven number-two pencils is a good day’s work.

INTERVIEWER

Where are some of the places you have found most advantageous to work? The Ambos Mundos hotel must have been one, judging from the number of books you did there. Or do surroundings have little effect on the work?

HEMINGWAY

The Ambos Mundos in Havana was a very good place to work in. This Finca is a splendid place, or was. But I have worked well everywhere. I mean I have been able to work as well as I can under varied circumstances. The telephone and visitors are the work destroyers.

INTERVIEWER

Is emotional stability necessary to write well? You told me once that you could only write well when you were in love. Could you expound on that a bit more?

HEMINGWAY

What a question. But full marks for trying. You can write any time people will leave you alone and not interrupt you. Or rather you can if you will be ruthless enough about it. But the best writing is certainly when you are in love. If it is all the same to you I would rather not expound on that.

INTERVIEWER

How about financial security? Can that be a detriment to good writing?

HEMINGWAY

If it came early enough and you loved life as much as you loved your work it would take much character to resist the temptations. Once writing has become your major vice and greatest pleasure only death can stop it. Financial security then is a great help as it keeps you from worrying. Worry destroys the ability to write. Ill health is bad in the ratio that it produces worry which attacks your subconscious and destroys your reserves.

INTERVIEWER

Can you recall an exact moment when you decided to become a writer?

HEMINGWAY

No, I always wanted to be a writer.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think the intellectual stimulus of the company of other writers is of any value to an author?

HEMINGWAY

Certainly.

INTERVIEWER

In the Paris of the twenties did you have any sense of “group feeling” with other writers and artists?

HEMINGWAY

No. There was no group feeling. We had respect for each other. I respected a lot of painters, some of my own age, others older—Gris, Picasso, Braque, Monet (who was still alive then)—and a few writers: Joyce, Ezra, the good of Stein . . . .

INTERVIEWER

When you are writing, do you ever find yourself influenced by what you’re reading at the time?

HEMINGWAY

Not since Joyce was writing Ulysses. His was not a direct influence. But in those days when words we knew were barred to us, and we had to fight for a single word, the influence of his work was what changed everything, and made it possible for us to break away from the restrictions.

INTERVIEWER

Could you learn anything about writing from the writers? You were telling me yesterday that Joyce, for example, couldn’t bear to talk about writing.

HEMINGWAY

In company with people of your own trade you ordinarily speak of other writers’ books. The better the writers the less they will speak about what they have written themselves. Joyce was a very great writer and he would only explain what he was doing to jerks. Other writers that he respected were supposed to be able to know what he was doing by reading it.

INTERVIEWER

You seem to have avoided the company of writers in late years. Why?

HEMINGWAY

That is more complicated. The further you go in writing the more alone you are. Most of your best and oldest friends die. Others move away. You do not see them except rarely, but you write and have much the same contact with them as though you were together at the café in the old days. You exchange comic, sometimes cheerfully obscene and irresponsible letters, and it is almost as good as talking. But you are more alone because that is how you must work and the time to work is shorter all the time and if you waste it you feel you have committed a sin for which there is no forgiveness.

INTERVIEWER

Who would you say are your literary forebears—those you have learned the most from?

HEMINGWAY

Mark Twain, Flaubert, Stendhal, Bach, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, Maupassant, the good Kipling, Thoreau, Captain Marryat, Shakespeare, Mozart, Quevedo, Dante, Virgil, Tintoretto, Hieronymus Bosch, Brueghel, Patinir, Goya, Giotto, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, San Juan de la Cruz, Góngora—it would take a day to remember everyone. Then it would sound as though I were claiming an erudition I did not possess instead of trying to remember all the people who have been an influence on my life and work. This isn’t an old dull question. It is a very good but a solemn question and requires an examination of conscience. I put in painters, or started to, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers. You ask how this is done? It would take another day of explaining. I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.

INTERVIEWER

Reading, then, is a constant occupation and pleasure.

HEMINGWAY

I’m always reading books—as many as there are. I ration myself on them so that I’ll always be in supply.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever read manuscripts?

HEMINGWAY

You can get into trouble doing that unless you know the author personally. Some years ago I was sued for plagiarism by a man who claimed that I’d lifted For Whom the Bell Tolls from an unpublished screen scenario he’d written. He’d read this scenario at some Hollywood party. I was there, he said, at least there was a fellow called “Ernie” there listening to the reading, and that was enough for him to sue for a million dollars. At the same time he sued the producers of the motion pictures Northwest Mounted Police and the Cisco Kid, claiming that these, as well, had been stolen from that same unpublished scenario. We went to court and, of course, won the case. The man turned out to be insolvent.

(Continued next Wednesday) …

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

13 Responses to “Hemingway on the Art of Fiction”

  1. nellskies
    July 13, 2011 at 11:30 am

    I really enjoyed reading this, thanks for publishing.

  2. July 13, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    This is good stuff!

  3. Sonja
    July 13, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    Awesome!!!

  4. July 14, 2011 at 3:33 am

    This was great to read. I did a term paper on Hemingway in high school back in the 70’s!! Thanks for sharing it.

  5. July 14, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    This gem wrapped in your intent with this series is remarkable.

  6. July 14, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Oh, brilliant. I’ve seen bits of this before, but never all of this.

    I blogged about TWoA today. Thanks again for sharing your genius.

  7. July 15, 2011 at 6:42 am

    This interview makes me feel naive in such a beautiful yet sad way. My first time reading it, I know it won’t be the last. A stirring in my heart indicates that I can only begin to grasp the dialogue. The part about the loneliness that accompanies this craft getting worse as one ages hurts because I feel it now and I’m not yet 30. But writing is under my skin; I’ll have to come to terms with my fate.

    • July 15, 2011 at 2:08 pm

      Ah, Brandy, to be not yet thirty! But I’m not sure I agree with Papa. The loneliness for him probably came from his own particular type of fame — and of the level he was trying to work at. So don’t get depressed. Not yet anyway.

  8. July 16, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    Thank you for this interview and for your extraordinary books. I just finished a painting about resistance:
    http://www.irenehardwickeolivieri.com/expo/luciddreams.htm

    • July 17, 2011 at 5:16 pm

      Irene, you’re ready to take on Hieronymous Bosch!

  9. July 16, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    “Once writing has become your major vice and greatest pleasure only death can stop it.”

    Yep. It has to be both.

  10. Yosra Mostafa
    July 21, 2011 at 3:43 am

    Visitors and calls are a writer’s worst enemy. But some organization and self discipline can help. It does get lonely sometimes, and you get everybody blaming you for not showing up more or answering their calls. But we try to make up later, and live with who we are.

    Thanks for sharing.

  11. nathan
    August 5, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Hemmingway is wack, but a great writer.