“From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of. But what about all the reasons that no one knows?” -Ernest Hemingway
Today we are celebrating Ernest Hemingway’s birthday here at rethinked …* Other than being a great and completely superfluous excuse for gorging ourselves on cupcakes, it is a splendid time to reflect on some of his insights on the creative process. Here are some of my favorite quotes from his 1958 interview with the Paris Review.
eat [cup]cakes, reflect, create & rethink …*
– On the Feeling Tones of the Creative Process –
When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.
– On Knowing When to Stop –
But if you stopped when you knew what would happen next, you can go on. As long as you can start, you are all right. The juice will come.
– On Solitude, the Passing of Time & the Creative Act –
The further you go in writing the more alone you are. Most of your best and oldest friends die. Others move away. You do not see them except rarely, but you write and have much the same contact with them as though you were together at the café in the old days. You exchange comic, sometimes cheerfully obscene and irresponsible letters, and it is almost as good as talking. But you are more alone because that is how you must work and the time to work is shorter all the time and if you waste it you feel you have committed a sin for which there is no forgiveness.
– On Enhancing One’s Craft By Learning From Other Fields –
I put in painters, or started to, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers. You ask how this is done? It would take another day of explaining. I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.
– On the Artist – Audience Relationship & the Need For a Work of Art to Stand Alone –
Read anything I write for the pleasure of reading it. Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading.
A sensible question is neither a delight nor an annoyance. I still believe, though, that it is very bad for a writer to talk about how he writes. He writes to be read by the eye and no explanations or dissertations should be necessary. You can be sure that there is much more there than will be read at any first reading and having made this it is not the writer’s province to explain it or to run guided tours through the more difficult country of his work.
– On the Only Constant of the Creative Act Being Change & Movement –
Sometimes you know the story. Sometimes you make it up as you go along and have no idea how it will come out. Everything changes as it moves. That is what makes the movement which makes the story. Sometimes the movement is so slow it does not seem to be moving. But there is always change and always movement.
– On Competition –
I used to try to write better than certain dead writers of whose value I was certain. For a long time now I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can.
– On Reminding Oneself that Creating Something Out of Nothing Is Always Difficult & Often Involves Some Degree of Despair –
I read them [his own novels] sometimes to cheer me up when it is hard to write and then I remember that it was always difficult and how nearly impossible it was sometimes.
– On the Importance of Observing & Soaking Up Experience –
If a writer stops observing he is finished. But he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful. Perhaps that would be true at the beginning. But later everything he sees goes into the great reserve of things he knows or has seen.
– On His Principle of the Iceberg –
If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.
First I have tried to eliminate everything unnecessary to conveying experience to the reader so that after he or she has read something it will become a part of his or her experience and seem actually to have happened. This is very hard to do and I’ve worked at it very hard.
Anyway, to skip how it is done, I had unbelievable luck this time and could convey the experience completely and have it be one that no one had ever conveyed. The luck was that I had a good man and a good boy and lately writers have forgotten there still are such things. Then the ocean is worth writing about just as man is. So I was lucky there. I’ve seen the marlin mate and know about that. So I leave that out. I’ve seen a school (or pod) of more than fifty sperm whales in that same stretch of water and once harpooned one nearly sixty feet in length and lost him. So I left that out. All the stories I know from the fishing village I leave out. But the knowledge is what makes the underwater part of the iceberg.
Source: Ernest Hemingway, The Art of Fiction No. 21. The Paris Review, Spring 1958