Learning to Write for the Right Reasons

Early this week, a friend linked to this interview with Ernest Hemingway for the Paris Review in 1958. The interview reveals with surprising detail Hemingway’s habits and how he felt about his own work, his contemporaries, and how he felt about being a writer and the act of writing itself. The interview is long – probably longer than most are willing to read online in one sitting, but I was lost in it and did in fact read it all at once.
I was especially interested in his writing routine. Hemingway used a desk in his bedroom, chest-high, and he stood. He stood and wrote, first by hand with pencil and onion-skin paper, then by transcribing those pieces with a typewriter. Each morning at dawn he would wake, and sometimes without leaving the room would get up, walk over to the desk and stand and write for hours. He also charted how many words he wrote per day:
“He keeps track of his daily progress— ‘so as not to kid myself’—on a large chart made out of the side of a cardboard packing case and set up against the wall under the nose of a mounted gazelle head. The numbers on the chart showing the daily output of words differ from 450, 575, 462, 1250, back to 512, the higher figures on days Hemingway puts in extra work so he won’t feel guilty spending the following day fishing on the Gulf Stream.”
Second, I was captivated by how he felt about the act of writing itself,
Many times during the making of this interview he stressed that the craft of writing should not be tampered with by an excess of scrutiny— ‘that though there is one part of writing that is solid and you do it no harm by talking about it, the other is fragile, and if you talk about it, the structure cracks and you have nothing.’
As a result, though a wonderful raconteur, a man of rich humor, and possessed of an amazing fund of knowledge on subjects which interest him, Hemingway finds it difficult to talk about writing—not because he has few ideas on the subject, but rather because he feels so strongly that such ideas should remain unexpressed, that to be asked questions on them ‘spooks’ him (to use one of his favorite expressions) to the point where he is almost inarticulate.”
And later:
Could you say how much thought-out effort went into the evolvement of your distinctive style?
‘That is a long-term tiring question and if you spent a couple of days answering it you would be so self-conscious that you could not write. I might say that what amateurs call a style is usually only the unavoidable awkwardnesses in first trying to make something that has not heretofore been made. Almost no new classics resemble other previous classics. At first people can see only the awkwardness. Then they are not so perceptible. When they show so very awkwardly people think these awkwardnesses are the style and many copy them. This is regrettable.’”
The day after reading this interview and beginning to question all sorts of things about whether I’m a successful writer if I write about writing as often as I write for the sake of writing and whether I should develop some sort of weird habit like standing while I write in order to make my brain think more writerly, literary thoughts, I read Jeff Goin’s The Writer’s Manifesto.
Short and sweet and far less complicated then Hemingway, Goins call-to-action is simple, yet bold: write for the right reasons. Write because you love to write; do not write because you love to be read.
And this is at the heart of the writer’s struggle. Maybe you’re not like me and don’t sit around lamenting that wondering if you’ll never ever be a Hemingway a good writer that is widely read and well liked. But truth be told, each of us, when we’re passionate about something enough to want to do it and only it forever, we will at some point become aware that an audience is watching us. And suddenly we realize that we’re no longer dancing like no one is watching, but moving in anticipation of how the audience will interpret our movements. We’re no longer doing it because we love it, but doing it to be loved by others. And make no mistake; the battle is not about what people actually think about our work, so much as it is about what we think they think about our work. The problem is us. If we’re doing what we love for the love of it, because we are called and we are gifted and we are fulfilling our purpose, there will be support for us.
There is a lot of reverse psychology and subtlety involved in creativity. You have to open the door quietly, without letting your conscious become suddenly aware that the subconscious has entered the room and taken over. No sudden movements. You have to train yourself, slowly, assuredly, to let the two work in tandem or they will be at war with one another – the logical versus the seemingly irrational, intrinsic nature of portraying truth through art.
So, many thanks to the brilliant writers out there, whose writing for the sake of writing helped me battle my own insecurities this week:
If you haven’t already done so, get yourself a free copy of The Writer’s Manifesto by Jeff Goins by signing up here. It’ll be the best 10 minutes of your day and the best encouragement you’ve received in awhile.
Read more interviews in the Paris Review archives here [60 years’ worth!], but start with Ernest Hemingway, The Art of Fiction No. 21 circa 1958, especially if you’re a writer.
Shauna shares her writing routine.
A true kindred spirit, Katy shares her own struggles with starting again.
Despite the need to write for the sake of writing, if you blog and expect to gain readership, you have to post consistently. [A lesson I’m working on.]
And of course, a big thank you to Mr. Z., forever the voice in my head that brings me back to my foundation: Don’t Think. Just Write.
Who has inspired you this week?
[Image found here.]