Writing is Personal

Have you ever read a book and wondered how much of it is actually an account of the author’s own life?

I had a discussion with my eighth grader tonight about To Kill A Mockingbird, and she talked about how certain aspects of Harper Lee’s novel came directly from the author’s life. Scout is believed to be based on Harper Lee herself, and Dill is based on her neighbor, the one and only Truman Capote.

Naturally, as writers, we put a lot of our personal experience or viewpoints into our work. How can we not? There is no way we can separate ourselves so completely, mentally and emotionally, from what we create. Any writing instructor, agent, or editor will tell you…write what you know.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking, however, that we are writing our own lives, unless, of course, we tell you it is so.

There are people who believe this to be the case. More than once, I’ve seen that “wink, wink, nudge,nudge” look in someone’s eye when I say I write romance. I’m telling you right now…it’s called fiction for a reason, people! And I have a really healthy imagination.

File:1876. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.djvu

(photo in the public domain)

Certainly, I am present in my writing. My viewpoints, the important themes in my life, my values, all have their place in what I write. I think I would find it hard to write something that was completely antithetical to my way of living. Could Hemingway have written For Whom the Bell Tolls without drawing on his experiences as a reporter during the Spanish Civil War? Would Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer have felt so authentic if the author didn’t draw from his childhood to write the book? The task of a writer is figuring out how, and when (or even if) to present that bit of themselves through the eyes of the characters in the novel.

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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)


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