Ernest Hemingway’s Advice to Aspiring, Young Writers (1935)

Here in the twen­ty-twen­ties, a hope­ful young nov­el­ist might choose to enroll in one of a host of post-grad­u­ate pro­grams, and — with luck — there find a will­ing and able men­tor. Back in the nine­teen-thir­ties, things worked a bit dif­fer­ent­ly. “In the spring of 1934, an aspir­ing writer named Arnold Samuel­son hitch­hiked from Min­neso­ta to Flori­da to see if he could land a meet­ing with his favorite author,” says Nicole Bianchi, nar­ra­tor of the InkWell Media video above. “The writer he had picked to be his men­tor? Ernest Hem­ing­way.”

What Hem­ing­way offered Samuel­son was some­thing more than a lit­er­ary men­tor­ship. “This young man had one oth­er obses­sion,” Hem­ing­way writes in a 1935 Esquire piece. “He had always want­ed to go to sea.” And so “we gave him a job as a night watch­man on the boat which fur­nished him a place to sleep and work and gave him two or three hours’ work each day at clean­ing up and a half of each day free to do his writ­ing.” To Hem­ing­way’s irri­ta­tion, Samuel­son proved not just a clum­sy hand on the Pilar, but a fount of ques­tions about how to craft lit­er­a­ture — some­thing Hem­ing­way gives the impres­sion of con­sid­er­ing eas­i­er done than said.

Nev­er­the­less, in the Esquire piece, Hem­ing­way con­dens­es this long back-and-forth with Samuel­son into a dia­logue con­tain­ing lessons that “would have been worth fifty cents to him when he was twen­ty-one.” He first declares that “good writ­ing is true writ­ing,” and that such truth depends on the writer’s con­sci­en­tious­ness and knowl­edge of life. As for the val­ue of imag­i­na­tion, “the more he learns from expe­ri­ence the more tru­ly he can imag­ine.” But even the most world-weary nov­el­ist must “con­vey every­thing, every sen­sa­tion, sight, feel­ing, place and emo­tion to the read­er,” and that requires round after round of revi­sion, so you might as well do the first draft in pen­cil.

As far as the writ­ing itself, Hem­ing­way rec­om­mends read­ing over at least your last two or three chap­ters at the start of each day, and repeats his well-known dic­tum always to leave a lit­tle water in the well at the end so that “your sub­con­scious will work on it all the time.” But all will be for naught if you haven’t read enough great books so as to “write what has­n’t been writ­ten before or beat dead men at what they have done.” Don’t com­pete with liv­ing writ­ers, whom Hem­ing­way saw as propped up by “crit­ics who always need a genius of the sea­son, some­one they under­stand com­plete­ly and feel safe in prais­ing, but when these fab­ri­cat­ed genius­es are dead they will not exist.”

The video focus­es on a series of men­tal exer­cis­es Hem­ing­way explains to Samuel­son. Recall an excit­ing expe­ri­ence, such as that of catch­ing a fish, and “find what gave you the emo­tion, what the action was that gave you the excite­ment. Then write it down mak­ing it clear so the read­er will see it too and have the same feel­ing you had.” Remem­ber con­flicts and try to under­stand all the points of view: “If I bawl you out try to fig­ure out what I’m think­ing about as well as how you feel about it. If Car­los curs­es Juan think what both their sides of it are. Don’t just think who is right.” When oth­er peo­ple talk, “lis­ten com­plete­ly. Don’t be think­ing what you’re going to say.”

Under­ly­ing this char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly straight­for­ward advice is the com­mand­ment to find ways out of your own head and into the per­spec­tive of the rest of human­i­ty. The nec­es­sary habits of obser­va­tion can be cul­ti­vat­ed any­where: at sea, yes, but also in the city, where you can “stand out­side the the­atre and see how peo­ple dif­fer in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars.” In the event, Samuel­son nev­er did become a nov­el­ist, though he did write a mem­oir about his year under Hem­ing­way’s tute­lage. What­ev­er the expe­ri­ence taught Samuel­son, it brought Hem­ing­way to a res­o­lu­tion of his own: “If any more aspi­rant writ­ers come on board the Pilar let them be females, let them be very beau­ti­ful and let them bring cham­pagne.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

7 Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion

The (Urban) Leg­end of Ernest Hemingway’s Six-Word Sto­ry: “For sale, Baby shoes, Nev­er worn”

Ernest Hem­ing­way Cre­ates a Read­ing List for a Young Writer (1934)

28 Tips for Writ­ing Sto­ries from Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkn­er, Ernest Hem­ing­way & F. Scott Fitzger­ald

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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