Key West

Hemingway talking with Samuelson while fishing in Key West.

I was reading Maria Popova’s piece on Ernest Hemingway’s advice to a younger aspiring writer, Arnold Samuelson. It’s an interesting story. This 22-year-old kid jumps a freight train from Minnesota to Key West in 1932, like those tramps of the Great Depression, and heads to Key West to meet Hemingway and ask for advice. Hemingway was no Salingeresque hermit, but I wouldn’t have expected that the author would A) answer the door B) talk to this kid C) let him stay for almost a year.

Samuelson became the closest thing that Hemingway ever had to a protégé.


The book Samuelson wrote about that year, With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba, must be out of print and a rare find because it’s listed on Amazon at more than $1000!  (I suggest you check your local libraries – which you can also do online.)

Maria’s article gives you a summary of some of the advice.

One thing Ernest gave Arnold is a reading list. This post is really about writer’s block, but one of my cures for that block is to read other writers. I’m happy to see that I have read most of Papa’s list, though some were not my favorites. (My reordered list with my personal favorites linked is below.)

First up is Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” and “The Open Boat,” but just get one of the Crane collections and also read “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” and the novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, about life in the slums of New York City.

Three of his picks were books I read before college and enjoyed.
Dubliners by James Joyce (15 stories)
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham ( I even liked the generally-not-well-reviewed film version with Bill Murray – especially the middle Tibetan and Paris sections)
The Enormous Room by E.E. Cummings (not poetry – this is his autobiographical novel about his temporary imprisonment in France during World War I. Cummings, like Hemingway, served as an ambulance driver during WWI.)

These I read as part of college courses. Some I enjoyed; some not so much.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (I prefer The Magic Mountain)
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (I prefer Crime and Punishment)
The Oxford Book of English Verse
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The American by Henry James (but I preferred the shorter, creepier The Turn of the Screw. I always felt that James – like Stephen King – needed a harsher editor who could really cut.)

And I will confess that I haven’t read (or finished, in the case of Tolstoy and Hudson) these four titles.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
The Red and the Black by Stendhal
Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson
Hail and Farewell by George Moore

Not on the list, but told to Samuelson, was what Hemingway considered “the best book an American ever wrote,” the one that “marks the beginning of American literature” Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Though I like Twain, I may have read him too early. I liked Tom Sawyer
better than Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The Prince and the Pauper better than either of the “big books.” An English teacher isn’t supposed to admit that, but those were the opinions of a 13-15 year old me and those feelings have survived even after having to reread Huck in college.

If reading a good book doesn’t unblock you, Hemingway also recommends the tried and true method of stopping, taking a break and doing something else. That often works for me.

Hemingway was pretty disciplined and never spent the whole day writing. He was a morning writer. Maybe that helped prevent the block.

“The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time…  Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.”

Part of that technique is the idea you often hear of sleeping on it.

The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the interesting place and you know what is going to happen next, go on from there and stop at another high point of interest. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of interesting places and when you write a novel you never get stuck and you make it interesting as you go along. Every day go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing and when it gets too long, read at least two or three chapters before you start to write and at least once a week go back to the start. That way you make it one piece. And when you go over it, cut out everything you can. The main thing is to know what to leave out. The way you tell whether you’re going good is by what you can throw away. If you can throw away stuff that would make a high point of interest in somebody else’s story, you know you’re going good.

A good number of author’s have offered advice on busting the block. Some of the unblocking ideas of Lewis Carroll are interesting and parallel Hemingway’s advice. For example, “… only go on working so long as the brain is quite clear. The moment you feel the ideas getting confused leave off and rest…”

It’s also interesting to look at how visual artists deal with the block and how a composer deals with creative block.

Writing on my 8 blogs each week (at least one post per blog) leads to frequent blocks. My block-busting techniques for that are not so different from how I treat writer’s block when doing my poetry or an academic paper. Take a break. Do something else. Maybe read someone else’s writing in that genre or listen to music or take a walk or work in the garden. I also keep lots of drafts. For this blog, I currently have 14 drafts that range from just a title, to a reference to a book or essay, to a long draft that needs editing, research, external links and perhaps an illustration.

Do you have another technique to bust a creative blockage? I’d love to hear it in a comment here.

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