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Customer Review

on July 2, 2003
Hemingway was reticent about his craft; he feared that talking about it would destroy it, or even worse, be a substitute for it. Yet, woven throughout his novels and other writings are numerous observations about writers and the art of writing. In "Ernest Hemingway On Writing", Larry Phillips has culled several hundred excerpts from Hemingway's books, interviews, and personal correspondences that touch upon some aspect of writing. They range in length from a mere sentence fragment to several paragraphs. As Phillips explains in the introduction, "This book contains Hemingway's reflections on the nature of the writer and on the elements of the writer's life, including specific helpful advice to writers on the craft of writing, work habits, and discipline. The Hemmingway personality comes through in general wisdom, wit, humor, and insight..."
Some of these reflections are insightful, some are humorous, and some show us Hemingway at his best. But this is not to say that the collection works as a whole. While I like the idea behind book, and feel it has definite value, there are a good number of excerpts that do not seem to have any of the above qualities, so I question why they were included. They seem like filler. Nonetheless, I'll list a few of the reflections that I liked, as they show something of Hemingway's many moods and styles.
In a letter to Charles Scribner, Hemingway reveals a tortured ambivalence about writing: "Charlie there is no future in anything. I hope you agree. That is why I like it at a war. Every day and every night there is a strong possibility that you will get killed and not have to write. I have to write to be happy... But it is a hell of a disease to be born with. I like to do it. Which is even worse. That makes it from a disease into a vice. Then I want to do it better than anybody has ever done it which makes it into an obsession."
Among the reflections are many little truisms about writing: " has never gotten any easier to do and you can't expect it to if you keep trying for something better than you can do." There are also sardonic remarks: "The good parts of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to overhear or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life--and one is as good as the other." Some of Hemingway's remarks seem genuinely helpful, as when he describes what he does when he is "stuck". He would say to himself "Do no 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." Then, he explains "If I start 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." Finally, when asked "How much should you write a day?", he proffered this advice: "The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never get stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it."
The collection definitely contains some gems; if you are a Hemingway fan you will likely enjoy it. However, if you are looking for sage advice from the master, you are apt to be disappointed, for once you remove the quips and the anecdotes, there is not a great deal left.
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