Sunday, March 15, 2009

Blue-Collar Writing for Dummies

In watching a recent documentary about Ernest Hemingway I came to some interesting conclusions about the art of writing generally, and Hemingway’s practiced hand in that art.

First what stood out to me was how infrequent and few Hemingway’s novels were. I counted only five of any significance and one of those was a critical flop. All those were written in a career that spanned nearly forty years. That roughly comes to only one good novel for each decade. To be sure, those novels counted. Each of the four (The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom The Bell Tolls, and The Old Man And The Sea) are taught in high schools all over the country and stand to be a part of the American cannon for decades to come.

Contrast this with the career of F. Scott Fitzgerald, my favorite author. Fitzgerald wrote far more succesful books in only fifteen years or so, not to mention a huge collection of short stories. However, only two of his books are remembered to the same degree four of the five Hemingway books are.

Fitzgerald was touched with a special genius and was blessed not only with an ivy league education, but also a natural sensitivity. The result of these elements is fiction that’s heart-breaking, timeless, and haunting.

What was the difference? Fitzgerald and Hemingway both worked hard. Hemingway worked a hell of a lot harder. Hemingway rose at a normal time and worked at his writing six or eight hours a day. There were times when Fitzgerald put in only a few hundred words a day and still managed to fuel his high living, hard drinking, late nights, and late mornings. Hemingway partied too, but he did it at night having worked through the day.

The only thing that made his writing great was his work ethic. I’ve read some of Hemingway’s earliest writing and believe me, he was worse than mediocre. I worship the ability he developed day after day, year after year, in spite of that early weakness. I take it as a challenge to work harder.

So, what makes a failed writer? Well, first and foremost a failed writer quits writing. A bad writer suffers from two primary ailments: a faulty shit detector (especially when reading his own work), and an inability to realize that his talent isn’t sufficient to compensate for his poor work ethic.

Fitzgerald couldn’t have been a bad writer. He was just too naturally gifted. He could have written anything, doing it whenever he felt like it and it would have been brilliant. For Hemingway, this wasn’t so. I think that’s what I like about him.

So, I say to myself; “Self, more work. Less naval-gazing.”

Oh, one more thing: Thank you, Papa Hemingway – patron saint of the blue collar writer.

- Tom

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