Writing Like Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

A friend who does a lot of writing told me that he downloaded a “Hemingway Editor” app that is supposed to help you make your writing bold and clear as if Ernest Hemingway was editing your writing.

It is not unlike other editing and proofing apps. I use Grammarly and online it installs into the Chrome browser and reminds me about things as I type. Many of my mistakes are typos as I am a terrible hunt-and-peck typist. There is a free version and a premium version.

The Hemingway Editor app highlights wordy sentences, adverbs, passive voice, fancy vocabulary, and other things as you type. Ernest was not a fan of those four things. The app lets you publish blog posts directly to Medium and WordPress. You can also import and export text from Word documents. (It is a paid app.)

Hemingway is well known for his objective and terse prose style. You probably had some writing class in high school or college that used Hemingway as an example of a clean writing style. Even Hemingway’s dialogue is very simple. My Grammarly app actually gives me reports and praises me for my extensive vocabulary. Of course, when I write on this blog and in other places, I am often using scientific or technical words. When I am writing poetry, I think I tend to be more Hemingway-ish in my writing. I like using new words but I don’t want readers to need a dictionary to understand the poem.

The Old Man and the Sea is a good example of Hemingway’s writing style. The language is simple and natural on the surface, but it is also very deliberate and there is more going on under that surface. His concise, straightforward, and realistic, style is a departure from other writers of his time.

Sometimes his style is referred to as the “iceberg theory.” This simple style of writing has minimal detail on the surface, with deeper meaning hiding below.

In poetry, I might compare it to the poetry of Billy Collins. Before he became the U.S. Poet Laureate, some people criticized his poems as being too easy to read, and too often amusing. I think his poems are very accessible but there is more to them and they benefit from multiple readings.

My friend let me use his app and I put in an old post I wrote here about Hemingway. It seemed like a meta thing to do. It had suggestions and I took the advice and revised that post from 2013 and reposted it today.

Here is one paragraph that the app thought was wordy. You can see the revised version in my repost.

He entered the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and was given electroshock therapy which did not help and probably made things worse as it affected his memory and made writing even more difficult. He believed that he was only alive in order to write and that if he could not write, there was no point in living. He talked frequently about suicide.

No app will make you write like Hemingway, but it’s a good thing to have some artificial intelligence looking over your shoulder as you type.

Unblocking Writers

blocked writer
Image:Lukas Bieri | Pixabay

I saw this quote on the Advice to Writers website:

Writer’s block is a load of nonsense—I’ve always been a bit suspicious of it. It’s more likely to be a symptom of depression or maybe they’ve just got nothing interesting to say.  ~ Alexander McCall Smith

I don’t think that is true for all writers. The block is real for many writers. Generally, it is not an issue for me. In fact, a friend asked me this past week what I do when I hit writer’s block. She is a poet but goes through long periods of not writing at all. I write all the time. I write too much. I write too much online which I shouldn’t consider less noble, but I do when compared to working on poems or articles to send out to journals and publishers.

I think one cure for writer’s block is writing. Even in my earliest teaching days, I would tell my students who were blocked when writing in class journals to just write. Write about being blocked. Write a line from something we were reading in class and go from there.

I wrote earlier about writer’s block and I often post things about writing. This meta practice of writing about writing is another way to beat the block.

Back in the 19th century, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described an “indefinite indescribable terror” at not being able to produce work he thought worthy of his talent. That is another kind of block and I’ll admit to hitting that form at times. Coleridge also claimed that French writers created this idea that all writers have to suffer to write. I know I saw this idea quoted somewhere but I could find the source today: You don’t have to suffer for your art. Making it through high school is quite enough suffering. Having taught middle school for a number of years, I’d say you’re ready to be an artist before high school for some people.

Looking at my drafts for this site, I saw that I had bookmarked an article by Jennifer Lachs about writer’s block, so I decided to look at it again read it and write today about not being able to write. She quotes playwright Paul Rudnick who says:

“Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write.”

Do you have to write?  Unless you’re on deadline, no one has to write. That friend who asked me about writer’s block is someone who works best under some pressure. She likes writing workshops that require you to produce and read your poems to the group.

A dictionary definition of writer’s block might be “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.” Is it psychological?

In the book Fire Up Your Writing Brain, author Susan Reynolds turns to neuroscience to turn on the brain’s creativity for writers in particular.

Reynolds actually claims that it is a psychological condition is a myth. (Others disagree)  She feels the brain can be used to generate that creative spark and defeat the procrastination that we call a block. Her approach includes some self-study about the type of writer you are and then developing writing models.

Reynold and I are believers in neuroplasticity. She says you can hardwire your brain for endurance and increased productivity.

Of course, the block can also be a full creative block that goes wider than just writing. It is important to recognize why you get blocked. Is it fear of failure or rejection? Are you such a perfectionist that you can’t get started? Certainly, many of us are our own toughest critics.

Despite my friend’s preference for deadline pressure, if you really have to write because it is your work or you have a deadline to meet, that pressure can also block people.

This brings me to solutions. They are as numerous as causes. You will find online and in books strategies and block breakers. Here’s a very partial list.

Do some exercise. Take a walk. Do something aerobic.

Do something completely different from the task at hand for a bit. That sounds like procrastination, but switching tasks just for a short time might reset your brain. Get up from the desk and make a cup of tea. Try drawing something. Einstein famously would pick up his violin and play some Mozart when he hit a creative wall.

Combine solutions. Take the dog and yourself for a walk. It combines exercise and a change of scenery which might even newly inspire you.

Cook something, rake some leaves, sew, knit, sculpt, do some woodworking, paint a wall or a still life, chop some firewood.

I found it interesting that some research shows that doing something with your hands when you are blocked in your brain is effective.

Free-writing can be a block breaker. Writing without rules, about whatever pops into your head can let the imagination free. It may not produce a finished product but that is not the point.

I’m not good at getting rid of distractions, but that is highly recommended. You may not be diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder but when you’re writing on a screen having email, social media, and notifications there with you is definitely distracting. Now that 24-hour news, TV and movies are on your phone all that can take you away from your writing. Notifications play on our fear of missing out (FOMO) on something important.

The most Romantic (capital R) and the almost mythical solution is to “get away” from it all. I’ve had that fantasy inside me since I was a teenager reading Walden. I’ve written about that cabin out in the woods for a writing place, but I recognize that I might still just be sitting there unable to write and happily distracted by rabbits and a nearby river or pond. I wrote that you should not need a cabin in the woods to write, which should be obvious, but the dream persists.

I am a big user of notebooks and more recently notes on my phone. I have a lot of one-line poetry ideas (there are 133 there now) and I always have a few blog posts in draft mode that I started and have left to simmer.

Maybe it is a time-of-day, circadian rhythms that is an issue for you. Are you more productive at certain times? I write best in the morning and at night. Afternoons – not so great. But if I am banging up against that block in the morning, I might do other things and come back to writing after lunch.

Binge writing is not recommended. Smaller sessions are better. John Updike, who was very productive, treated his writing like a regular job. he went to an office and didn’t let himself out for lunch until he had produced a certain amount of writing. It might be a poem, a few pages in the novel or even answering mail.

Poet William Stafford was famous for writing a poem every morning when he woke and before breakfast. How did he do it? He admitted that he lowered his standards. He didn’t expect every morning poem to be great – or even be a poem. It was a case of progress, not perfection. Perfectionism is a block builder. I followed that philosophy when I did my poem-a-day project 365 times in 2014.

Confesssion: I went back to the draft of this post because I was at a loss for what to write for today. I don’t have a deadline, but I do try to posts at least two times every weekend. When I have a “lost weekend” it bothers me. Then, I write about the lost weekend. Write. Just write.

View From a Tower

Desolation Peak
Desolation Peak Lookout with Mt. Hozomeen in the background. (Wikimedia)

When I was writing about the romance of being a lighthouse keeper, I also thought about a time when I considered being a lookout in a forest fire tower.

I was in college and had been reading a lot of poetry by Gary Snyder. Gary Snyder was the first poet to get a job as a fire lookout. He was assigned to a station atop Crater Mountain in Washington.    (The tower no longer exists.)  It was 1952 and he was studying Zen Buddhism and writing and it seemed an ideal job for both practices. Isolation, quiet, few distractions and a long view of the horizon.

I went to a job talk my junior year at Rutgers College given by an old guy from the National Park Service.  I have a feeling that a lot of the people there had similar ambitions of being in some beautiful western wilderness. The old guy sensed this and tried his best to dissuade us from joining up. He said, “If you think you’re going become a ranger at the Grand Canyon or Mount Rainier, think again.  You could end up in Philadelphia giving tours of the Betsy Ross house. You could get assigned to New Jersey and be at Sandy Hook or Morristown talking about General Washington.” His wet-blanket speech chilled my ambition and I did not fill out an application.

Gary Snyder became a well-known poet and environmental activist. He was part of the Beat poets and the San Francisco Renaissance and became knowns as the “poet laureate of Deep Ecology.”

Snyder’s tower experience inspired some of his friends to do the same. Poet Philip Whalen took a nearby post the next year. At a San Francisco poetry reading in 1955, Snyder met the young Jack Kerouac. This was the reading where Allen Ginsberg, having had enough wine to bolster his courage, performed a new poem “Howl.” Snyder convinced Kerouac to try a stint as a fire lookout.

Kerouac was at Desolation Peak for the summer of 1956. He decided not to bring any cigarettes in an attempt to go cold turkey and quit smoking. He brought one book – A Buddhist Bible – and planned to meditate on emptiness.

Accord to John Suiter’s  book Poets on the Peaks, by day 10 in the tower Kerouac wrote in his journal that “Time drags.” He took to smoking coffee grounds out of desperation.  He had written that he expected to “come face to face with God” but instead he came “face to face with myself, no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it.”

He wasn’t as successful in his practice as Snyder, but he did learn something about himself. Kerouac spent 63 days that summer there and wrote about his experiences in The Dharma Bums, Lonesome Traveler, Desolation Angels, and in a collection of haiku, Desolation Pops.

Gary gone from the shack
     like smoke
– My lonely shoes

Gary Snyder
     is a haiku
far away

Gary would find himself banned from getting a job again in a government fire tower because he was seen as a possible anarchist (though better described as a pacifist) due to McCarthy-era blacklisting.

Snyder was one of the more serious students of Zen amongst the Beat poets and wanted to study in Japan. He had an offer from the First Zen Institute of America of a scholarship for a year of Zen training in Japan in 1955. The U.S. State Department refused to issue him a passport, informing him that “it has been alleged you are a Communist.”

A District of Columbia Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and a patron paid his expenses to Japan. At first, he served as a personal attendant and English tutor to Zen abbot Miura Isshu, at Rinko-in, a temple in Shokoku-ji in Kyoto. His days there were quite full: morning zazen, sutra chanting, work for Miura, and spoken Japanese classes so he could do kōan study. In the summer of 1955, he requested to become Miura’s disciple, thus formally becoming a Buddhist.

I was thinking about all of this the past week when I got an email about the National Parks Arts Foundation offerings for writers and visual artists to serve a residency next year.  No fire towers I could find but there is Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park which sounds pretty exotic. How about a stay at Death Valley?

Could I convince my wife to spend a month virtually alone in the historical lighthouse keeper’s house on an islet in the Dry Tortugas National Park in Loggerhead Key in Florida? I doubt it. Could I go alone to this “uninhabited” islet? It’s tempting. To get to this islet in the Florida Keys requires a seaplane or boat and you would need to pack in all supplies, equipment, and food. No Internet unless you have a satellite phone.

lighthouse
The Lighthouse on Loggerhead Key

Would I be a Gary Snyder in all that isolation, or would I be a Jack Kerouac? Either way, I would certainly write, take photos and do some painting.

Writing About Writing

There are almost as many books about writing as there are writers who have published books. Well, maybe not quite that many books on writing but there are a lot of them.

Here are three that are on my shelf.

Stephen King has sold more than 350 million books. Obviously, he knows how to write what sells, but does that mean he can tell you how to write? I had my doubts when someone recommended and handed this book to me. It very pleasantly surprised me.

There are real insights into the creative process. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft has some of his life story mixed in with what he has learned. I like the section on his editing process. It also has a good reading list if you want to go deeper.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (also available as an audiobook) is also about writing and about being a writer. The two things are inextricably connected.

Readers of the book often say they like her acceptance of “sh@#ty first drafts” in order to get to “good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” This book is often humorous but it takes writing very seriously.

I read the book first 25 years ago after having been writing for much longer but still not allowing myself to feel like I was a Writer.

The odd title is explained in this way: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

That is good general advice about doing many things – weeding the garden, cleaning out the garage, hiking a long trail, writing a poem.

If a more stern approach is needed to get you writing, then On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction might be a better choice. Non-fiction is sometimes viewed as “more serious” than fiction or poetry. That is not true, but William Zinsser’s approach is more instruction manual. It is rarely funny – even in a chapter about writing humor. (I discovered in a college course on humor that humor is not comedy and often not funny in the sense of laughter.

I’m making this book sound too stern. Zinsser is a writer, editor and teacher and all three show in the book. He began as a newspaper writer, went on to magazines and has written books on baseball, music, travel, and those and other genres are covered, including people, places, science, technology, business, sports, the arts and memoir.

I read this book before using it as a text in teaching a writing course. It is probably consider a classic by now, much like The Elements of Style which was standard book to have on the syllabus fifty years ago.

If there is any of the writer’s life that he mixes with writing, it might be that he feels that “clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.”

The best advice to become a better writer is still two simple things: read widely and often, especially in the genre you want to write; stop reading and start writing.

In Our Own Secret Annex

Annelies
Annelies in her school photograph, 1941

Anne Frank’s diary was first published in English in 1952 and is known as Diary of a Young Girl. The first edition was first published in Dutch in 1947, under the title Het Achterhuis. which is translated as “the house behind,” “the annex” or “the secret annex.”

I read the book when I was between 13 and 14 which was the same age that she was writing it. It was only recently that I discovered that Anne Frank had two versions of her story.  The first version is her spontaneous journal entries. The second version is a revised version by Anne herself started when she was thinking about her writing being published.

I did the same thing myself in my own teenaged-years journals. I changed how I wrote though my initial idea of “publication” was it being found by my family and then later by a wife or my children. At 13, I know even thought about being a famous writer one day and having my biographers reading it.

I also think that we all have our secret annexes where we sometimes hide. And some of us write there and write about there.

Anne was her nickname. Annelies was her birth name. I like that name better than Anne.  Annelies Marie Frank was born June 12, 1929, and when I saw her birthday on the almanac last Saturday I decided to get a copy of that revised diary if I can and (re)read it this week.

We know that after the war, Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was given the diary, along with some other papers, which had been left behind when the family was taken to concentration camps in 1944.

He said that at first, he couldn’t bear to read it. When he finally read it, he believed that Anne wrote it with the intent of trying to publish it one day and he worked at getting it into print. We know he edited it himself combining parts of the two versions together.

Though it is a perennially read book, 16 American publishers rejected the English translation before Doubleday picked it up in 1952.

There are now a number of newer editions with parts restored and annotated versions.

At 13, I think I had a crush on Annalies. It may have been that I wanted to save her. Anne probably died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. To add to that sadness, it was about two weeks before the camps were liberated in spring 1945.

I wrote on another blog about a poem by Andrew Motion (“Anne Frank Huis“) that was written immediately after his visit to the Anne Frank museum/house (huis) in Amsterdam. I finally got to Amsterdam in 2019 and I had mixed feeling about visiting the Secret Annex. I read online that it is very small and very spare. It didn’t feel like it would be similar to when I visited writers’ homes before. It felt like it would be sad. The poem set me thinking about how houses are “haunted” by those who lived in them. Not in a ghost or poltergeist way, but supernatural in the dictionary sense of “relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe.”

It turned out that we couldn’t get tickets for the time that we would be there, so the universe decided for me. My wife and I did walk by the place. They call it a house but they lived in rooms above her father’s place of business attached to a warehouse. The front doors were painted a very somber black. I think Annalies would prefer that we read the words she wanted us to read rather than visit a place she never wanted to be.

ane frank house door

The Lost Practice of Writing Letters

envelope
Image by LwcyD from Pixabay

I wrote last weekend about writing a letter to your future self. I didn’t mention then that the inspiration for that was my seventh-grade English teacher who had us write letters to ourselves. She told us that she would send them to us when we were seniors in high school. So, the idea was to write to the person you thought you would be in five years.

She never sent the letters when we were seniors. She left our junior high and probably tossed our letters. I seemed to be the only one who even remembered that we had written the letters. I can’t recall now anything I put in my letter. I wish I could. I wish I had gotten my letter back. My 17-year-old self would have liked to have seen what my 13-year-old self was thinking about the future that had become the present.

Writing letters seems so old-fashioned today. I had students that were amazed that there were entire books of letters that authors, artists, statesmen, or historical figures had written.

vincent's signatureI showed my students a book of Vincent van Gogh’s letters. He wrote often to his brothers, especially Theo, and his sisters, other artists and friends from home. It is estimated he wrote more than 2000 letters and about half survive. Theo kept Vincent’s letters carefully stored. Vincent often discarded letters.

It is estimated that Thomas Jefferson had written 18,624 letters in his lifetime.

I also had my students write letters to famous people and I amassed a pile of celebrity addresses and copies of the responses they received which I displayed in my classroom. This was in the days before email was common and mostly in the pre-Internet days, so finding addresses and information required more difficult research than it would now.

When my students received glossy 8×10 photos with actual autographs and real letters from the people they wrote to, it was exciting. Some of my students got unusual responses because they wrote clever letters or wrote to people who probably didn’t get tons of mail. There was an autographed tennis ball, an Olympic swimmer’s cap, a few DVDs, signed copies of books, several hand-drawn cartoons and comic book panels, and an animation cel. One student asked Donald Trump to autograph a crisp dollar bill so that it would be worth “more than a dollar.” He did in that odd bold scrawl that became familiar to us during his Presidency and included a copy of his Art of the Deal book.  One student asked an author to record answers to her questions on the cassette tape she sent with the questions. She did. One boy asked a TV weatherman some questions about getting into the business and got a call from him at home.

I encouraged students to write to the contemporary authors that we read in class. We even wrote letters to Juliet after we read Shakespeare’s play about her star-crossed love – and we got answers from her. (Read my post about that to learn how)

They learned a lot about how to write letters. And by that, I don’t mean just the format of a business and friendly letter. For example, they learned that writing to the biggest star of the top-rated TV show probably would only get you a small photo with a printed “autograph.” But a clever letter to a minor character or the writer or director of that same show might get you a personal response or more. The student who got tickets and an invitation to visit the Saturday Night Live show backstage didn’t ask for that – which is probably why he got it.

We learn how to communicate in many ways – both about the mediums to communicate and the forms those communications can take. The email, the Facebook message, the tweet, tagging someone in a photograph, the text message, the phone call, the note slipped into your locker or left on your desk in school or at the office, the card from the store and the handmade card, the poem, the mix CD or playlist of songs, the note with the flowers, the Post-It note left by the little gift on the kitchen table, the message put in your lunch bag and a letter sent from many miles – or many years – away.

After my mother died, I found a box of letters written to her. Some were from my father who had died many years earlier. Some were from me, written when I was away from home as a child on vacation with relatives, and from me at college. They are priceless pieces of the past. I have a postcard reply from author John Updike. I have a letter from astronaut John Glenn I wrote in fifth grade when I thought I might become an astronaut too. I have all the letters to authors and actors and celebrities that I wrote each year when my students were doing that assignment. One from Mr. Fred Rogers is something I treasure.

I find it sad that letter writing seems to be a lost form of communication. When was the last time you received or wrote an actual letter to someone by hand, on paper, that was mailed? Probably, too long ago.