If you get stuck just write like Hemingway
March 9, 2013
If you’ve seen the fantastic movie The Silver Linings Playbook, you will recall the scene early in the movie when Bradley Cooper’s character finishes a book and, in a rage, throws it out the second-story window of his bedroom.
That book was Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
Whether you like Ernest Hemingway’s writing or not, you have to admit that his work marked a tipping point for the novel, a dividing line from any style that came before it.
I have loved Hemingway’s work since I discovered it in my teens or early twenties.
The common wisdom is that he wrote in choppy, staccato bursts and shied away from long descriptive passages that so often characterized the established writers of his day. Of course, he and Faulkner had a running feud about this very issue.
I return to A Farewell to Arms annually or at least bi-annually and read it cover to cover. Each time I realize how off-target many remarks about Hemingway’s style are. To be sure, his work is full of jabs and punches from his career as a reporter, but there is much more to his writing. I haven’t done an empirical study, but my sense is that the average word count in a Hemingway sentence is no less than the average word count in the other novels of his day.
His style should be judged by the power of his words, not their number. By that standard, he is a master.
These occasional posts focus on the writing style of great authors as a window into the mechanism that gave, or gives, their work such lasting appeal.
In this series, I have used the first paragraph of several books to introduce the author. But when I opened the jacket on my copy of A Farewell to Arms, I found a note to myself about a particular paragraph. So that is the one I chose. I repeat. This is one paragraph from Hemingway.
That night in the hotel, in our room with the long empty hall outside and our shoes outside the door, a thick carpet on the floor of the room, outside the windows the rain falling and in the room light and pleasant and cheerful, then the light out and it exciting with smooth sheets and the bed comfortable, felling that we had come home, feeling no longer alone, waking in the night to find the other one there, and not gone away; all other things were unreal. We slept when we were tired and if we woke the other one woke too so one was not alone. Often a man wishes to be alone and a girl wishes to ve alone too and it they love each other they are jealous of that in each other, but I can truly say we never felt like that. We cold feel alone when we were together, alone against the others. It has only happened to me like that once. I have been alone when I was with many girls and that is the way that you can be most lonely. But we were never lonely and never afraid when we were together. I know that the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness had started. But with Catherine there was almost no difference in the night except that it was an even better time. If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
I don’t know that I can add much to that.
(Stephen Woodfin is an attorney and author of six novels.)