12 Quotes from Ernest Hemingway On Writing

One of the last literature courses I had to take for my undergraduate degree was either a class on Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway (what great picks right?) Honestly, I wasn’t enthusiastic about either. To me, they were both dead old dudes who had written boring books that the academic community said we should read to be “intellectual individuals”. I had never read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or anything by Twain, nor had I read or heard of anything by Hemingway.

Yet I still pursued an English degree. What a joke.

I ended up choosing the Hemingway class because I felt it would be the easier class. Twain’s works with themes like racism and slavery weren’t an appealing headache for me. I just wanted a cute class that I could slide by in. A class that I could just read boring literature that was easily “Googlable” and not think too much. I mean, it was my senior year and I was already taking too many classes on history, politics, and global affairs (international relations minor has entered the chat).

Little did I know that the class, The Life and Works of Ernest Hemingway , would be a class that’d completely transform me as an aspiring writer.

But that’s a story for another day….

I just finished reading Ernest Hemingway On Writing, a book that I had checked out from the library back in March (cue the beer-bug quarantine) which I ended up not reading until recently. Upon finishing it, I knew I wanted to create this post to share some of the more raw, real, and frankly un-hyped and overused quotes by the complicated writer known as Ernest Hemingway.

Ernest Hemingway On Writing is a compilation of selected letters, correspondences, interviews, and other writings by Ernest Hemingway. The collection was compiled and edited by Larry W. Phillips, a writer and journalist. Ernest Hemingway On Writing was published in 1984 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, an American publisher in New York City.

Here are 12 of my favorite excerpts, statements, and remarks Hemingway made on writing.

#1: “I believe that basically you write for two people; yourself to try to make it absolutely perfect; or if not that then wonderful. Then you write for who you love whether she can read or write or not and whether she is alive or dead.” to Arthur Mizener, 1950 Selected Letters, p.694 (pg. 14)

This one hit home for me because I just lost my grandmother mid-August, a woman who encouraged and inspired me to pursue writing as a serious potential career. She’d tell me how excited she was to one day read my writings and that I should send them to her when I was finished with anything. I never did. I never sat still long enough and never believed in myself enough. It’s one of the few regrets I’ll have in life. This quote assured me though. It’s never too late to write. You can always write in honor of the reader who’ll never read the piece.

#2: “Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. but when you get the damned hurt use it-don’t cheat with. Be as faithful to it as a scientist- but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.” to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1934 Selected Letters, p. 408 (pg.19,20)

This statement reminded me of something Kurt Cobain (guitarist/singer of American rock band Nirvana) said about thanking tragedy. Oftentimes it’s our trials and tribulations that mold us as artists and writers. It’s the source that forces us to create, reflect, and grow outside of all the comforts and things we thought we knew about the world.

#3: “The hardest thing in the world to do is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn…” By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, p. 183 (pg. 26)

Trying to write about the human experience is difficult. It’s subjective and in the eye of its beholder. One person’s truth is another person’s lie. Understanding of the world, at least from the human perspective, is ever-changing. What we think we know about the world now may not hold true in the future. It takes a lifetime to talk about life, otherwise how can someone talk about it if they haven’t experienced the fullness of it? I found this quote to be a beautiful depiction of that fact.

#4: “I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened into action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. In writing for a newspaper you told what happened and, with one trick and another, you communicated the emotion aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I think I was working very hard to get it.” Death in the Afternoon, p.2 (pg.28-29)

What drew me to this quote was the beginning. Part of the human conditioning is the domestication of our emotions. It can be hard to truly write about something when you’re filtering your feelings when you’re supposed to be honest. Human beings are reactionary creatures to actions. It’s hard to separate our reactions from the actions because what we remember is determined by how we felt about what we saw more than what our senses actually picked up.

#5: “Writing and travel broaden you ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up.” to Harvey Breit, 1950 Selected Letters, p.700 (pg. 51)

#6: “It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was sort of day in the story.” Moveable Feast, p.5 (pg.53-54)

The imagery of this quote just sent me to a place of peace. Before the world wore a mask and went into social distancing, I’d always go to cafés and just write and read for hours. Cafés are just this magical place where introverts can taste society yet still be in their shell. It’s a place where a writer can pursue the lonely life without feeling so alone. Like…who doesn’t enjoy just vibin’ in a café every now and then?

#7: “The more I’m let alone and not worried the better I can function.” to Grace Hall Hemingway, 1929 Selected Letters, p. 296 (pg. 56)

A complete polar opposite to the point made above, but a valid and true statement nonetheless. In a world with social media and constant information feeding into our brains, it’s necessary to sometimes just be alone.

#8: “My temptation is always to write too much. I keep it under [control] so as not to have to cut out crap and re-write. Guys who think they are geniuses because they have never learned how to say no to a typewriter are a common phenomenon. All you have to do is to get a phony style and you can write any amount of words.” to Maxwell Perkins, 1940 Selected Letters, p.501 (pg.77-78)

If anyone’s had to write something for critiquing/grading then you know how hard it is to have to be limited to a word count.

Writer’s write. I’ve always struggled, both academically and creatively, to write just the right amount. I leave out “personally” because I can write as much as I want in my journal and/or for my own eyes. The struggle comes when you write for someone else and you have to write plainly enough for them to understand and short enough to hold their attention. People’s attention spans in a digital world is about as big as an atom.

#9: “It is necessary to handle yourself better when you have to cut down on food so you will not get too much hunger-thinking. Hunger is good discipline and you learn from it. And so long as they do not understand it you are ahead of them. Oh sure, I thought, I’m so far ahead of them now that I can’t afford to eat regularly. It would not be bad if they caught up a little.” Moveable Feast, p.75 (pg.114-115)

This quote would have been one I wouldn’t have understood had I not gone through a bad experience of food poisoning. I got sick mid August and remained sick until the beginning of October. Food poisoning that became to a bacterial infection, at least, that’s what the GI specialists speculate. By the time I saw a specialist (healthcare headaches anyone?), I was already in the recovery stage.

I hardly ate. I basically lived off rice and toasted bread. I lost nearly 20 pounds (18-19lbs) and had undergone a complete change in my digestion system. Foods that once appealed to me didn’t and my coping mechanism of emotional eating was taken (still says hello sometimes though).

Being in a state of not being able to eat taught me a lot about my body and behavior. What it also taught me was my drive and determination. You’d be surprised how much you’re willing to change if you’re desperate and think you’re dying.

Overall, I think of that experience as a form of “fasting” and it must be how monks and/or spiritual people when they have a state of enlightenment.

#10: “I do not wish to squawk about being hit financially any more than I would squawk about being hit physically. I need money, badly, but not badly enough to do one dishonorable, shady, borderline, or “fast” thing to get it. I hope this is quite clear.” to Alfred Rice, 1948 Selected Letters, p.655 (pg.116)

As a recent college graduate with credit card debt, the burden of money is almost always at the forefront of my mind. Whether it be about thinking about moving out of my parents, paying for grad school next year, or even considering financing a new laptop because it’s an essential tool for my future; money is a thought that’s always there. However…

What we are and aren’t willing to do for money showcases our integrity and character. What more is there to say?

#11: “I’ve always thought that only one thing mattered, you own career, and like a general in battle I would sacrifice anything to my work and I would not let my self be fond of anything I could not lose. But now I have learned that you have no success while you are alive; the only success that counts while you live is making money and I refused that. So I am going to work for success after I am dead and I am going to be very careful of the troops {family} and have no casualties that I can help and I am going to take pleasure in the things that I have while I have them.” to Mrs. Paul Pfeiffer, 1936 Selected Letters, p.436 (pg.117)

There’s this pattern in history where the most important, influential, and/or powerful figures are one’s that are not really celebrated or revered until after they’ve died. Also, I couldn’t help but respect Hemingway’s consideration towards his family.

Writers desire their work to be shared and interpreted by however the readers’ read it. What they don’t desire if for the world to analyze their literary works based on their personal lives. This was one of Hemingway’s biggest pet peeves.

#12: “You must be prepared to work always without applause. When you are excited about something is when the first draft is done but no one can see it until you have gone over it again and again until you have communicated the emotion, the sights and the sounds to the reader, and by the time you have completed this the words, sometimes, will not make sense to you as you read them, so many times have you re-read them. By the time the book comes out you will have started something else and it is all behind you and you do not want to hear about it…All the critics who could not make their reputations by discovering you are hoping to make them by predicting hopefully your approaching impotence, failure and general drying up of natural juices…” By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, p.185 (pg.139)

This is one of my favorite statements, one that brings the discussion of writing full-circle.

Writing can never be done for the applause. Anyone who wants to become a writer for that reason won’t make it. Writing is one of the most difficult artistic endeavors to pursue because it requires a disciplined mind and soul of simple self-fulfillment. Self-fulfillment that comes from writing alone and writing without caring if the piece ever sees the light of day.

Where to Buy:

Amazon ($12.64 paperback || $24.00 hardcover || $11.99 kindle edition)

Barnes & Noble ($16.00 paperback || no hardcover option || $11.99 nook edition)

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