Book Review: “Ernest Hemingway on Writing”


By Mohammed Michael Harfoush

Although Ernest Hemingway never published a single work explicitly addressing his thoughts on, and approach to, writing in a single, cohesive format, one can scour his existing body of work, as well as personal correspondences, and find source material for what could become a fairly comprehensive look into the methodology of one of America’s most renowned and celebrated authors.

This is exactly what Larry W. Phillips and Scribner have done in “Ernest Hemingway on Writing.” By researching and extracting Hemingway’s most insightful and enlightening thoughts and meditations on the writing process, from personal letters, published works, and various other sources, what they have collected is a broad and revealing philosophy on the craft of writing, that both new and experienced writers can learn from and enjoy.

“… writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else that I have ever done — so I do it. And it makes me happy when I do it well.” This quote typifies the attitude of this collection, and embodies the approach Hemingway took in his writing and his life. Paired alongside quotes like that above, are reflections such as, “there’s no rule on how it is to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.” It’s imagery such as this, that demonstrates Hemingway’s strong visuals weren’t reserved solely for his novels, but had a place in his everyday writing as well.

When it comes to injecting your own opinion into your writing, Hemingway has this to say; “as a man you know who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.”

In conducting interviews, Hemingway has this advice to offer. “Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice.”

Concerning punctuation, Hemingway states, “my attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. The game of golf would lose a good deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green. You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements.” Placing emphasis on the bare essentials and basics of prose writing was a hallmark of Hemingway’s style, and can be seen from analogies through this collection — the quote above serving as an example.

Some characteristically brash advice, that some may find a bit harsh, but highlights Hemingway’s self-deprecating sense of humor, can also be found in “Ernest Hemingway on Writing.” Hemingway has this to say about the use of dictionaries; “actually if a writer needs a dictionary he should not write. He should have read the dictionary at least three times from beginning to end and then have loaned it to someone who needs it. There are only certain words which are valid and similes (bring me my dictionary) are like defective ammunition (the lowest thing I can think of at this time).”

“Ernest Hemingway on Writing,” is full of more interesting and provocative perspectives on the art of writing than can be expressed here. Neatly categorized, with sources for all quotations cited throughout, “Ernest Hemingway on Writing” is an essential addition to any Hemingway fan’s library, and a rare, focused glimpse into the mind of a master of his craft.

As an excerpt from the book’s preface states, “some writers, as Hemingway said in Green Hills of Africa, are born only to help another writer to write one sentence,” and in a strange twist of fate, for many aspiring writers, due to this book’s existence, Hemingway may end up being just that to a whole new generation of writers.


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