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  • NYS Writers Institute

Some Ernest Hemingway writing advice on the occasion of his 121th birthday

Ernest Hemingway (Getty images)

One of the great American 20th century novelists, known for works like A Farewell to Arms' and The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway was born July 21, 1899. His straightforward style of prose shaped a whole generation of American writers, including William Kennedy, who wrote Hemingway into his novel Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes (Penguin, 2011).

In a story published in the Times Union, at the time of the book's release, reporter (and now Writers Institute director) Paul Grondahl wrote:

"William Kennedy has waited nearly a decade to publish Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, a long-awaited follow-up to his 2002 novel, Roscoe, an acerbic and entertaining examination of Albany's political machine.

He waited even longer to meet his journalistic and literary hero, Ernest Hemingway.

That meeting, in fact, never took place, but in fiction anything is possible, and the two writers come face to face in a fictional way in the El Floridita bar in Havana in 1957. Hemingway swaggers to life on the page in Kennedy's ninth novel.

The book's protagonist is Daniel Quinn, a young Albany newspaperman with a career arc not unlike Kennedy's, a character who previously appeared in Very Old Bones (1992).

In the new novel, Quinn confronts Hemingway at the Havana bar.

'I'm Daniel Quinn. I just quit the Miami Herald to write a novel and you're responsible for me being out of a job. Does it bother you how many reporters you've led into poverty?'

'Did you eat today? Hemingway asked, frowning with his eyes.

'I had breakfast.'

'You had breakfast and you're drinking rum at the best bar in Havana and you're crying poverty?'

'I was exaggerating to make a point.'

'Keep it up and soon you'll have a novel.' Hemingway said.

Later in that scene, Kennedy's Hemingway offers Kennedy's Quinn some advice.

"'Remove the colon and semicolon keys from your typewriter,' said Hemingway. 'Shun adverbs, strenuously.'"

In the same Times Union story, Kennedy mentions an actual Hemingway quotation used in his "Riding the Yellow Trolley Car" collection of stories published in 1983.

"Kennedy has taken the real-life advice the patron saint of simple declarative sentences once offered to aspiring novelists who wrote on a daily deadline: 'Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.'"

And if you're looking for more writing advice from Hemingway, here you go. He told George Plimpton in a Paris Review interview published in 1958:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible.
There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.
You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go from there.
You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.
You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.
When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love.
Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again.
It is the wait until that next day that is hard to get through.

Happy birthday, Papa.


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