Hemingway’s Tips for Writers

A Moveable Feast Not long ago, I read The Paris Wife, Paula McLain’s bestselling novel about the first of Ernest Hemingway’s four wives.

The novel covers a remarkable period of time—Paris in the 1920s—when the Hemingways socialized with accomplished literary figures such as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, a group that came to be known as the “Lost Generation.”

I was so riveted by the interactions among these fascinating characters that I immediately downloaded A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s own account of his time in Paris as a struggling, unknown writer.

There were many things about the book that resonated with me, including Hemingway’s self-described habits for fruitful writing and I thought they might be of interest to other authors as well.

So here are a few tips that might help you get your “Hemingway” on…starting with a technique Ernest used to make sure the words kept flowing:

I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day…I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.

During this period, Hemingway worked in a small room on the  top floor of a hotel, a space he described as “warm and pleasant.” He would bring mandarin oranges and chestnuts to roast on the fire when he was hungry. And when he hit a stumbling block…

Ernest Hemingway (wearing a beret) sits by a fireplace in his apartment in Paris, France. (Papers of Ernest Hemingway. Photograph Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

Ernest Hemingway (wearing a beret) sits by a fireplace in his apartment in Paris, France. (Papers of Ernest Hemingway. Photograph Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)


I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”  So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.

Hemingway spent a lot time in Paris cafes socializing with other members of the “Lost Generation.” He and his wife, Hadley, also traveled, attending the bull fights in Spain and going skiing in Austria. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway outlines how not taking his work home with him was an important part of his creative process.

It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped.

(Papers of Ernest Hemingway. Photograph Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

(Papers of Ernest Hemingway. Photograph Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

And when he was satisfied he’d done a good day’s work, Hemingway rewarded himself with long walks through the city, which seemed to refuel his creativity.

Going down the stairs when you had worked well, and that needed luck as well as discipline, was a wonderful feeling and I was free then to walk anywhere in Paris…I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.

Like Hemingway, I think most writers have their own ways of overcoming writer’s block and ensuring productivity.

Sometimes, when I’m stuck, I find moving away from the computer and taking a shower helps shakes things loose in my mind. I don’t know what it is about the shower—maybe it’s because it’s essentially a mindless activity—but I’ve worked out many plot points there!

What about you? Please feel free to share any techniques that help you to be more productive.

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23 Comments

  1. Diana, thank you! Great post.
    I read The Paris Wife as well, but am glad now to have insight from someone who’s read The Moveable Feast! I’m also glad to see that I practice much like Hemingway does: I normally do stop before I’m done, and I find I can generate ideas when walking (or running though that’s a rare thing these days!). Something about the movement and getting outside. And I do rub elbows with other great writers (ahem, Femmes and NJRW), though there is much less imbibing in our world! Now, if I could only leave the writing somewhere else and let my subconscious do the work while I enjoy life….

    Reply
    • Hi Jenna – ‘A Moveable Feast’ is well worth reading…and very interesting after reading The Paris Wife. And stopping for the day, before you’ve run out of ideas, sounds like a great plan to me.

      Reply
  2. I haven’t read Hemingway in a long time. Perhaps it’s time to drag out some of my favorites. Exercise is the best way to shake my brain loose. I haven’t been doing much of it lately and it shows, both in my waistline and my writing!

    Reply
    • Hi Joanna – Your waistline looks fine to me! But it is interesting that exercise can shake some of that creativity loose. I guess moving is good all around!

      Reply
  3. Love the post. I read “The Paris Wife” too. Wouldn’t it be great if we could rent a place in Paris and walk the streets to get inspired? Instead, when I run out of ideas, I walk downstairs to see what the rest of my family is doing.

    Reply
    • Hi Maria – I would LOVE to be able to hang in Paris and walk the streets. I guess when the big royalties start rolling in …..

      Reply
  4. I love these. You know what I like the best about his attitude? There’s a lack of panic. There’s no anxiety about him and his approach to his art. He accepts that there are up times and down times and he just lets himself be IN that process. I wanna be Hemingway when I grow up. (I mean his attitude about writing, not the alcoholism and dysfunctional relationships and suicide.)

    Reply
    • Jaye Marie Rome

       /  February 3, 2014

      Yes! That lack of panic. Take it slow, take it easy, let it come.

      Reply
    • Hi Marnee – I’m with you about wanting to be Hemingway when we grow up – minus all of the alcoholism, dysfunction, etc. I really have a renewed respect for the simplicity of his writing, which of course, is anything but simple to accomplish!

      Reply
  5. Jaye Marie Rome

     /  February 3, 2014

    This is a wonderful post, Diana! I have The Paris Wife but haven’t read it yet. I’m going to add The Moveable Feast.

    I, too, like to clear my mind by either showering, like you, or walking. I get a lot of my ideas when I get into the groove of walking. I need to get back into that habit. Walking outdoors helps me immensely because it gets me away from all the distractions of home. The kids, the dog, hubby, the housework that needs doing.

    My daughter bought me a set of headphones as a gift, and it helps me to separate from my surroundings and focus on the computer if I put them on and play some music that keeps me in the mood of my story. Right now, that’s some good country music to transport me to West Texas.

    Jaye

    Reply
    • Hi Jaye – I can see how headphones would be helpful in shutting the world out. And it looks like walking is a go-to for many of us.

      Reply
  6. Mental white space is crucial to my creativity–those moments when we’re on screen saver mode, whether it’s walking, driving, doing the dishes, in the shower. Stephen King said the boys in the basement need time to do their work. To me, it’s another example of “make haste slowly.” When I see people crowing about their astronomical daily word counts, I wonder how many of those words were the truest sentence they knew.

    Reply
    • Hi Grace – “Mental white space” is a great concept. I’ve often wondered how people can be constantly engaged, plugged in, or always have music or the TV on. I also need that crucial mental downtime to refuel. Oh, and I’m not sure I’ve written a pure “single true sentence” yet. But I plan to keep trying!

      Reply
  7. What a great post! I love the idea of working until you have something done and then stopping when you know what will happen next. This is a great tip and I will keep it in mind. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Diana Quincy

       /  February 3, 2014

      Hi Tina – I think that’s a great tip as well. That way the idea keeps percolating so you’re ready to go the following day. I started using this method and it definitely helps keep the words flowing.

      Reply
  8. Love this post, Diana! Oh, Hemingway. I loved the brevity of his prose, he could say so much in a simple sentence. For Whom the Bell Tolls is my favorite…your post makes me want to read it again. I’d heard he was a bit obsessed with Franco and the Spanish Revolution. You never know where a writer draws their inspiration from.

    I’d love to take a stroll around the French quais, clear my writer’s head far away from this snow! Best, Michele

    Reply
    • Diana Quincy

       /  February 3, 2014

      Hi Michele – What surprised me the most about Hemingway was just how much his fiction was inspired by real events in his life. Many of his most famous characters are based on people he knew. His writer friends apparently returned the favor. I’m reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night” and there is a character based on, you guessed it, Hemingway!

      Reply
  9. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  February 3, 2014

    Amazing post, Diana! This really makes me want to pull out the some of these treasured classics. I love the idea of the single true sentence, and like other’s pointed out, his sense of ease about the process. Of course, if writing were my only job and I was writing in a room designed to do just that and only that in Paris, I might be more relaxed about how I spend my writing time as well. The tip of knowing where you’re heading when you stop writing is huge and really lets your subconscious mind take over. As crazy as it sounds, I tend to get ideas when I’m at work when I get up to make a cup of coffee or hit the ladies room. Quite possibly this is my creative mind shouting for attention while I’m focused on relatively non-creative tasks.

    Reply
    • Diana Quincy

       /  February 4, 2014

      Hi RoseAnn – Like many of us who have to have a day job, Hemingway did take work here and there to make ends meet and he was often miserable while doing it. But he did use his experiences as a war correspondent in his writing. So your coming up with ideas at work makes you not unlike the great writer himself 😉

      Reply
  10. Mia

     /  February 4, 2014

    Hi Diana,

    I never read Hemingway. I feel stupid admitting that but we all know I’m not one of the sharp knives in the drawer so no harm done to my reputation.
    I plot in bed kind of like telling myself a bedtime story. Thanks for showing me more books to add to my tbr pile. 😉
    Mia

    Reply
    • Diana Quincy

       /  February 4, 2014

      Hi Mia – You love Sebastian so, of course(!) you’re one of the sharpest tools ever! As to reading Hemingway, don’t feel bad. I just rediscovered him. And I haven’t read most of his work. But I have to admit to be very enchanted by his writer’s life in Paris…until he started cheating on his wife and tried to convince her the three of them could be happy together…

      Reply
  11. Hi Diana. I haven’t read Hemingway since high school or maybe college. When I first started writing I would want to write until I had nothing else and the well was dry. Now, I can leave things in progress and let my thoughts ferment while doing other things. For me, fresh air works wonders or a ride in the car. In complete silence. I run around so much during the day and am on so many conference calls, that solitude is very comforting to me and can allow me to think. Otherwise, I have too many sounds and thoughts in my head and I can’t grasp one. I also think well in the shower or while drying my hair. Thanks for a great post!

    Reply
  12. Diana Quincy

     /  February 12, 2014

    Hi Maria – a ride in the car, with the radio off and with no other distractions – also helps me work out plot problems. I’m with you when it comes to needing complete silence!

    Reply

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