Books, Quotes, Writing

Ernest Hemingway, quotes, and an excess of words

Ernest Hemingway fishing in Key West, 1928.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

“Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”

“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”

“There is no friend as loyal as a book.”

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”

There are probably other writers that are as endlessly quotable as Ernest Hemingway, but he is certainly one of the most quotable authors ever. Just like his writing, many of his quotes are direct, to the point, and hide a lot of depth and meaning in very few words.

In my late 20s especially, I was obsessed with Hemingway’s books and life, and he is still one of my favourite authors. Even though his celebrity status seems to emphasize his “macho-ness” (all that hunting and fishing and drinking), I never got that from his books. Men and women, and the world they live in, are complex and nuanced in his writing, and there is not a lot of testosterone-charged posturing and posing.

As a writer, what I mainly appreciate about Hemingway is his style: that controlled and sparse, but not at all barren, way of writing that dispenses with anything that is superfluous. It’s so easy to write too much when you’re working on a book or a story, especially these days when most of us write on computers, rather than by hand or on a mechanical typewriter.

Many years ago when word processors had just started taking over the world from the typewriters, a publisher-friend told me that the manuscripts he received were getting longer and wordier every year. When it’s easy to write the words, it is also easy to produce too many of them, and not think properly of what words to choose, and whether all of those words are actually needed.

While I don’t condemn writers who use lots of words and write long stories and books (there’s a place for that too, of course), I know that my own writing improves when I try to reign myself in and keep my writing more focused and less wordy. An example to consider is Hemingway’s response when challenged to write a short story in six words:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

This was obviously a writer who would have ruled Twitter, if he had wanted to do so.

Hemingway received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1954. The banquet speech he wrote for that occasion (which was read by U.S. ambassador John C. Cabot because Hemingway couldn’t attend)  is another great example of his writing style and personality:

For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

My three favourite Hemingway books:

  1. The Old Man and the Sea
  2. The Snows of Kilimanjaro
  3. A Farewell To Arms

If you’re looking for a great biography, Carlos Baker’s “Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story” is excellent.

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