Help from Hemingway

Ever wonder why you chose the writer’s life? Seems like there are easier ways to make a living. It’s a tough life. Yet, what binds writers together is how remarkably similar this life is for all of us. We all face the same struggles:  how to start every story, how to end every story, how to wrestle through the middle, how to survive rejection, how to survive period, how to generate ideas, how to find inspiration, how to hit the deadline, and how to find an agent, editor and publisher. The list goes on.

Just how do we live this life we fantasized about? It’s not an easy question, so I sought inspiration from the icons:  Ernest Hemingway (pictured above),  John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, James Michener, and Ray Bradbury. In fact, I had lunch with each of them and we discussed the writing life. Okay, I didn’t literally have lunch with them, instead I researched their lives for weeks from books and articles during my lunch hour. So, you might say, I took them to lunch. (And a funny thing happened; they spoke to me about this life we all are trying to live.)

What did they tell me? What did I learn? And who resonated with me most? They all spoke passionately about the writer’s life but I think Hemingway helped me the most because he spoke so deliberately about his work and his schedule. “The important thing is to work every day,” he said. “I work from about seven until noon. Then I go fishing or swimming, whatever I want…but work everyday. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail.”

Bite on the nail? Could you paint a better word picture of the tedious nature of the writing life?

Rod McKuen, a popular poet whose books have sold 65 million copies, immediately understood my bout with the loneliness and isolation of the writer’s life. “Writing is the loneliest occupation in the world,” he reminded me. After sharing his early struggles as a poet, he left me with these encouraging words, “The world needs writers. We will always be necessary. There are few professions that can claim that distinction.” His words restored my sense of purpose and value as a writer.

A week later, I reserved a secluded booth in a Chinese restaurant. I ordered sweet and sour chicken, an egg roll and a Coke and listened to what Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, had to say about getting the first draft down and letting the subconscious fuel my writing. “I do the first draft as quickly and as passionately as I can, let it dance out of the subconscious. If you interfere in any way you destroy it. Let your subconscious come out into full light and say what it has to say.”

I realized I need to take his advice because too often I let my “inner editor” edit my work before my subconscious has a chance to fully express itself and spill my thoughts across the page.

In the weeks that followed, I continued to study Hemingway and Faulkner, both winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Yet once again, it was Hemingway that spoke to my soul and seemed to scold me for a mistake I made repeatedly. “Never talk about a story you’re working on. If you tell it, you will never write it. You spoil the freshness. Writers should work alone, then talk.”

How many times have I “talked out” my novel ideas and then lost the motivation to write them out? Too often.

I learned a lot from these classic writers, yet I was encouraged by the thought that their pearls of wisdom were captured in interviews and articles written by writers similar to you and me.

When you find yourself discouraged with the writer’s life, I hope you will find inspiration by studying the lives of these icons of literature. For me, there was nothing more inspirational than feeling like I was being “mentored by the masters” over lunch.


Your Turn:  Tell me one thing you learned from a writing mentor.

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