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Hemingway’s Advice on Writing, Ambition, the Art of Revision, and His Reading List of Essential Books for Aspiring Writers

“In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better.”

Hemingway’s Advice on Writing, Ambition, the Art of Revision, and His Reading List of Essential Books for Aspiring Writers

“As a writer you should not judge. You should understand,” Ernest Hemingway (July 21, 1899–July 2, 1961) counseled in his 1935 Esquire compendium of writing advice, addressed to an archetypal young correspondent but based on a real-life encounter that had taken place a year earlier.

In 1934, a 22-year-old aspiring writer named Arnold Samuelson set out to meet his literary hero, hoping to steal a few moments with Hemingway to talk about writing. The son of Norwegian immigrant wheat farmers, he had just completed his coursework in journalism at the University of Minnesota, but had refused to pay the $5 diploma fee. Convinced that his literary education would be best served by apprenticing himself to Hemingway, however briefly, he hitchhiked atop a coal car from Minnesota to Key West. “It seemed a damn fool thing to do,” Samuelson later recalled, “but a twenty-two-year-old tramp during the Great Depression didn’t have to have much reason for what he did.” Unreasonable though the quest may have been, he ended up staying with Hemingway for almost an entire year, over the course of which he became the literary titan’s only true protégé.

Samuelson recorded the experience and its multitude of learnings in a manuscript that was only discovered by his daughter after his death in 1981. It was eventually published as With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba (public library) — the closest thing to a psychological profile of the great writer.

Hemingway (left) and Samuelson fishing and talking in Key West.
Hemingway (left) and Samuelson fishing and talking in Key West.

Shortly after the young man’s arrival in Key West, Hemingway got right down to granting him what he had traveled there seeking. In one of their first exchanges, he hands Samuelson a handwritten list and instructs him:

Here’s a list of books any writer should have read as a part of his education… If you haven’t read these, you just aren’t educated. They represent different types of writing. Some may bore you, others might inspire you and others are so beautifully written they’ll make you feel it’s hopeless for you to try to write.

This is the list of heartening and hopeless-making masterworks that Hemingway handed to young Samuelson:

hemingway_readinglist

  1. The Blue Hotel (public library) by Stephen Crane
  2. The Open Boat (public library) by Stephen Crane
  3. Madame Bovary (free ebook | public library) by Gustave Flaubert
  4. Dubliners (public library) by James Joyce
  5. The Red and the Black (public library) by Stendhal
  6. Of Human Bondage (free ebook | public library) by W. Somerset Maugham
  7. Anna Karenina (free ebook | public library) by Leo Tolstoy
  8. War and Peace (free ebook | public library) by Leo Tolstoy
  9. Buddenbrooks (public library) by Thomas Mann
  10. Hail and Farewell (public library) by George Moore
  11. The Brothers Karamazov (public library) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  12. The Oxford Book of English Verse (public library)
  13. The Enormous Room (public library) by E.E. Cummings
  14. Wuthering Heights (free ebook | public library) by Emily Brontë
  15. Far Away and Long Ago (free ebook | public library) by W.H. Hudson
  16. The American (free ebook | public library) by Henry James

Not on the handwritten list but offered in the conversation surrounding the exchange is what Hemingway considered “the best book an American ever wrote,” the one that “marks the beginning of American literature” — Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (public library).

Art by Norman Rockwell for a rare edition of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Art by Norman Rockwell for a rare edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Alongside these edifying essentials, Hemingway offered young Samuelson some concrete writing advice. Advocating for staying with what psychologists now call flow, he begins with the psychological discipline of the writing process:

The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time… Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.

Then, echoing Lewis Carroll’s advice on overcoming creative block in problem-solving, Hemingway considers the practical tactics of this psychological strategy:

The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the interesting place and you know what is going to happen next, go on from there and stop at another high point of interest. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of interesting places and when you write a novel you never get stuck and you make it interesting as you go along. Every day go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing and when it gets too long, read at least two or three chapters before you start to write and at least once a week go back to the start. That way you make it one piece. And when you go over it, cut out everything you can. The main thing is to know what to leave out. The way you tell whether you’re going good is by what you can throw away. If you can throw away stuff that would make a high point of interest in somebody else’s story, you know you’re going good.

He then returns to the psychological payoff of this trying practice:

Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself. That’s the true test of writing. When you can do that, the reader gets the kick and you don’t get any. You just get hard work and the better you write the harder it is because every story has to be better than the last one. It’s the hardest work there is. I like to do and can do many things better than I can write, but when I don’t write I feel like shit. I’ve got the talent and I feel that I’m wasting it.

When Samuelson asks how one can know whether one has any talent, Hemingway replies:

You can’t. Sometimes you can go on writing for years before it shows. If a man’s got it in him, it will come out sometime. The only thing I can advise you is to keep on writing but it’s a damned tough racket. The only reason I make any money at it is I’m a sort of literary pirate. Out of every ten stories I write, only one is any good and I throw the other nine away.

Hemingway tempers this with a word of advice on ambition, self-comparison, and originality:

Never compete with living writers. You don’t know whether they’re good or not. Compete with the dead ones you know are good. Then when you can pass them up you know you’re going good. You should have read all the good stuff so that you know what has been done, because if you have a story like one somebody else has written, yours isn’t any good unless you can write a better one. In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better, but the tendency should always be upward instead of down. And don’t ever imitate anybody. All style is, is the awkwardness of a writer in stating a fact. If you have a way of your own, you are fortunate, but if you try to write like somebody else, you’ll have the awkwardness of the other writer as well as your own.

Hemingway shows off a 324-pound blue marlin as Samuelson (far left) admires it.
Hemingway shows off a 324-pound blue marlin as Samuelson (far left) admires it.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Neil Gaiman’s magnificent commencement address on the only adequate response to criticism, Hemingway cautions Samuelson about the petty jealousies that arise with success:

When you start to write everybody is wishing you luck, but when you’re going good, they try to kill you. The only way you can ever stay on top is by writing good stuff.

With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba brims with the celebrated writer’s wisdom on literature, life, and the creative experience. Complement it with Hemingway on knowledge and the dangers of ego and his short, spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech, then revisit the essential reading lists of Joan Didion, Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Byrne, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Patti Smith.

BP

The Best of Brain Pickings 2015

The paradoxical psychology of why we fall in love, what maturity really means, how our emotions affect our immune system, the transformative power of solitude, and a year’s worth more.

After the annual reading list of the 15 finest books of the year, it’s time for the annual look back upon the best of Brain Pickings this year — “best” being a hybrid measure of the articles you read and shared most ardently, and those I took the greatest pleasure in writing. Please (re)enjoy, and here’s to a vitalizing new year.

1. Why We Fall in Love: The Paradoxical Psychology of Romance and Why Frustration Is Necessary for Satisfaction

Read the article here.

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2. 9 Learnings from 9 Years of Brain Pickings

Read the article here.

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3. Love, Lunacy, and a Life Fully Lived: Oliver Sacks, the Science of Seeing, and the Art of Being Seen

Read the article here.

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4. Nietzsche on How to Find Yourself and the True Value of Education

Read the article here.

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5. Patti Smith on Time, Transformation, and How the Radiance of Love Redeems the Rupture of Loss

Read the article here.

6. The Science of Stress and How Our Emotions Affect Our Susceptibility to Burnout and Disease

Read the article here.

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7. Desert Solitaire: An Uncommonly Beautiful Love Letter to Solitude and the Spiritual Rewards of Getting Lost

Read the article here.

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8. A Rap on Race: Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s Rare Conversation on Forgiveness and the Difference Between Guilt and Responsibility

Read the article here.

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9. Mary Oliver on What Attention Really Means and Her Moving Elegy for Her Soul Mate

Read the article here.

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10. The Heart and the Bottle: A Tender Illustrated Fable of What Happens When We Deny Our Difficult Emotions

Read the article here.

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11. In Defense of Boredom: 200 Years of Ideas on the Virtues of Not-Doing from Some of Humanity’s Greatest Minds

Read the article here.

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12. Virginia Woolf on Why the Best Mind Is the Androgynous Mind

Read the article here.

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13. How to Love: Legendary Zen Buddhist Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on Mastering the Art of “Interbeing”

Read the article here.

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14. The Soul of an Octopus: How One of Earth’s Most Alien Creatures Illuminates the Wonders of Consciousness

Read the article here.

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15. Creative Courage for Young Hearts: 15 Emboldening Picture Books Celebrating the Lives of Great Artists, Writers, and Scientists

Read the article here.

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16. Ursula K. Le Guin on the Sacredness of Public Libraries

Read the article here.

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17. Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Anger, Forgiveness, and What Maturity Really Means

Read the article here.

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18. Beatrix Potter, Mycologist: The Beloved Children’s Book Author’s Little-Known Scientific Studies and Illustrations of Mushrooms

Read the article here.

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19. Rilke on How Great Sadnesses Bring Us Closer to Ourselves

Read the article here.

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20. Poet Jane Kenyon’s Advice on Writing: Some of the Wisest Words to Create and Live By

Read the article here.

Step into the time machine of timeless reading with the best Brain Pickings articles of 2014.

BP

Hope in the Dark: Rebecca Solnit on the Redemptive Radiance of the World’s Invisible Revolutionaries

“The grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect…”

Hope in the Dark: Rebecca Solnit on the Redemptive Radiance of the World’s Invisible Revolutionaries

I think a great deal about what it means to live with hope and sincerity in the age of cynicism, about how we can continue standing at the gates of hope as we’re being bombarded with news of hopeless acts of violence, as we’re confronted daily with what Marcus Aurelius called the “meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.”

I’ve found no more lucid and luminous a defense of hope than the one Rebecca Solnit launches in Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (public library) — a slim, potent book penned in the wake of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq; a book that has grown only more relevant and poignant in the decade since.

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

We lose hope, Solnit suggests, because we lose perspective — we lose sight of the “accretion of incremental, imperceptible changes” which constitute progress and which render our era dramatically different from the past, a contrast obscured by the undramatic nature of gradual transformation punctuated by occasional tumult.

Each of our lifetimes brims with personal evidence of these collective cultural shifts: At the time I was born, no one imagined that the Cold War would end and a girl raised in communist Bulgaria would make a life for herself reading and writing about books in English while facing the Manhattan skyline; a mere decade ago, it seemed inconceivable that a distributed tribe of strangers would raise a million dollars for refugees in another part of the world via an instantaneous global communication system of 140-character neo-telegrams; just a couple of years ago, it was hard to imagine that the day would come when all of us would be able to marry the people we love.

Solnit writes:

There are times when it seems as though not only the future but the present is dark: few recognize what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital, but by dreams of freedom and of justice — and transformed by things we could not have dreamed of… We need to hope for the realization of our own dreams, but also to recognize a world that will remain wilder than our imaginations.

In a sentiment that parallels the relationship between dark matter and ordinary matter in the formation of the universe, Solnit offers the perfect metaphor for the source of our tenuous grip on hope:

Imagine the world as a theater. The acts of the powerful and the official occupy center stage. The traditional versions of history, the conventional sources of news encourage us to fix our gaze on the stage. The limelights there are so bright they blind you to the shadowy spaces around you, make it hard to meet the gaze of the other people in the seats, to see the way out of the audience, into the aisles, backstage, outside, in the dark, where other powers are at work. A lot of the fate of the world is decided onstage, in the limelight, and the actors there will tell you that no other place matters.

Art from Maurice Sendak's take on Nutcracker
Art from Maurice Sendak’s take on Nutcracker

In a passage that calls to mind Simone Weil’s memorable words — “When someone exposes himself as a slave in the market place, what wonder if he finds a master?” — Solnit adds:

What is onstage is a tragedy, the tragedy of the inequitable distribution of power and of the too-common silence of those who settle for being audience while paying the price of the drama. Traditionally, the audience is supposed to choose the actors, and the actors are quite literally supposed to speak for us. This is the idea behind representative democracy. In practice, various reasons keep many from participating in the choice, other forces — like money — subvert that choice, and onstage too many of the actors find other reasons — lobbyists, self-interest, conformity — to fail to represent their constituents.

GeorgeLauri1916

Hope, Solnit observes, dies when we choose to watch the unfolding drama in resignation and abdicate all responsibility, pointing a blaming finger at those in the limelight. (Lest we forget, Joseph Brodsky put it best: “A pointed finger is a victim’s logo.”)

She considers the disposition of the hopeless:

They speak as though we should wait for improvement to be handed to us, not as though we might seize it. Perhaps their despair is in some ways simply that they are audience rather than actors.

Our most radiant horizon of hope, Solnit argues, lies in the darkness beyond the limelight:

The grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect, in the people you have not yet heard of who will be the next Cesar Chavez, the next Noam Chomsky, the next Cindy Sheehan, or become something you cannot yet imagine. In this epic struggle between light and dark, it’s the dark side — that of the anonymous, the unseen, the officially powerless, the visionaries and subversives in the shadows — that we must hope for. For those onstage, we can just hope the curtain comes down soon and the next act is better, that it comes more directly from the populist shadows.

Hope in the Dark is an immensely invigorating read in its entirety. Complement it with E.B. White’s elevating letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity, Albert Camus on how to ennoble our spirits in dark times, and Viktor Frankl on why idealism is the best activism, then revisit Solnit on how we find ourselves by getting lost, what reading does for the human spirit, how modern noncommunication is changing our experience of time, solitude, and communion, and her beautiful manifesto for the spiritual rewards of walking.

BP

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