I walked into a bookstore. And headed for the literary studies section intent on opening a book to any page, for divining random wisdom about reading. I seized Ernest Hemingway on Writing. This book is comprised of Hemingway’s views on writing, collected by editor Larry W. Phillips. I landed on page 28, from the chapter “Advice to Writers.” Here Hemingway says:
‘”…sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. 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. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.’”
Even though I leafed through more pages with other observations made by Hemingway, all I could think about was “one true sentence.” What does this mean?
Next, I secured Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Woolf is asked for a lecture about women and fiction, and considers what these words may mean. She knows her first obligation as a lecturer is to deliver “a nugget of pure truth…” But what is the truth about women and fiction, in relation to each other and as separate topics? Rather than offering a conclusion, Woolf says she can only give an opinion. In order for a woman to write fiction “a woman must have money and a room of her own….” Woolf says it is difficult to tell the truth in controversial matters and the best she can hope for is providing her audience with the chance to draw their own conclusions. “Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact.” With that premise she approaches her assignment as a novelist writing about the two preceding days before her lecture, which culminates into her essay. Woolf also says about truth that “[o]ne must strain off what was personal and accidental in all these impressions and so reach the pure fluid, the essential oil of truth.”
But these are truths about writing, and I was searching for nuggets on reading. Most of us know the adage, if you want to write than you have to read. But maybe a more precise notion is that if I want to be a better writer, then I have to be a better reader. I reached for Terry Eagleton’s book How to Read Literature. At first glance, I came to more about truth and writing. “Stories are forever trying to net down truths that prove illusive. To tell a tale is to try to shape the void” says Eagleton. He contends, if fiction nailed the truth, especially about “the human condition” there would be nothing more to say. I tucked this book under my arm, along with the Hemingway and Woolf books. There are as many conditions for truth as there are truths. I was sure that Eagleton, Hemingway, and Woolf, all would reveal more about reading, once I got the books home and had a chance to study them.
The last book I grabbed was Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. Prose reminds us of the way that children read. When children are first learning to read, they read every single word–word for word, and they read every sentence. This simple basic truth made me face my own reality. In part, I was becoming a lazy reader. I sometimes skimmed, skipped, and rushed over words in my haste and carelessness, although usually unconsciously. If I am cutting out words when reading, am I really listening when others are speaking?
But still haunted by “one true sentence” and wondering what Hemingway had to say about reading, I bought the books and went home. Searching for Hemingway online, I found an article written by Hemingway, about a young man who in the 1930’s, hitchhiked a couple of thousand miles to knock on Hemingway’s door in Key West, because he wanted to ask Hemingway questions about writing. Hemingway invited the man back the next day, then hired him to guard his boat, and later, “Mice” sailed with Hemingway to Cuba. He wanted to be a writer.
The article was published in 1935, by Esquire Magazine, and is called “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter.” The following is excerpted from a pdf of the original article. Hemingway refers to himself as Y. C. (Your Correspondent) and the aspiring writer as Maestro, which Hemingway shortened to Mice.
Mice: What books should a writer have to read?
Y.C.: He should have read everything so that he knows what he has to beat. Mice: He canʼt read everything.
Y.C.: I donʼt say what he can. I say what he should. Of course he canʼt. Mice: Well what books are necessary?
Y.C.: He should have read WAR AND PEACE and ANNA KARENINA, by Tolstoi, MIDSHIPMAN EASY, FRANK MILDAMAY AND PETER SIMPLE by Captain Marryat, MADAME BOVARY and LʼEDUCATION SENTIMENTALE by Flaubert, BUDDENBROOKS by Thomas Mann, Joyceʼs DUBLINERS, PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST and ULYSSES, TOM JONES and JOSEPH ANDREWS by Fielding, LE ROUGE ET LE NOIR and LA CHATREUSE DE PARME by Stendhal, THE BROTHERS KARAMOZOV and any two other Dostoevskis, HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain, THE OPEN BOAT and THE BLUE HOTEL by Stephen Crane, HAIL AND FAREWELL by George Moore, Yeats AUTOBIOGRAPHIES, all the good De Maupassant, all the good Kipling, all of Turgenev, FAR AWAY AND LONG AGO by W.H. Hudson, Henry Jamesʼ short stories, especially MADAME DE MAUVES and THE TURN OF THE SCREW, THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY, THE AMERICAN–
Mice: I canʼt write them down that fast. How many more are there? Y.C.: Iʼll give you the rest another day. There are about three times that many.
Mice: Should a writer have read all of those? Y.C.: All of those and plenty more Otherwise he doesnʼt know what he has to beat. Mice: What do you mean “has to beat”?
Y.C.: Listen. There is no use writing anything that has been written before unless you can beat it. What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasnʼt been written before or beat dead men [and women] at what they have done…
Mice: But reading all the good writers might discourage you. Y.C.: Then you ought to be discouraged. Mice: What is the best early training for a writer? Y. C. : An unhappy childhood.
I will read the books on Hemingway’s list, closely, without skimming any words. The titles I have already read, I will read again. I may not have found my “one true sentence,” or even know what this truly means, but I am happy to read the works of others that have. I think it is important to note, that on Hemingway’s reading list, there is not one woman author listed. But if you read Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own, you will find that this is exactly her point.
JB © Copyright 2013.
1 June 2013
Eagleton, Terry. How to Read Literature. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013. Print.
Ernest Hemingway on Writing. Ed. Larry W. Phillips. New York: Scribner, 1984. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter.” Esquire Magazine, October, 1935. (No source cited) PDF online.
Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Harcourt Inc., 1929. Print.