How Hemingway Worked

He's already the subject of so many blog posts, but this summer the universe pulled me back into Hemingway's world and I discovered something worth exploring for this site: The way he worked. 

Hemingway was insanely prolific. He wrote nine novels, ten works of non-fiction and countless short stories. He did this on top of all the adventures he was having, and while also marketing himself as something of a living legend too. Hemingway was a media star before the age of mass media. He lived a big life and he wrote great books.  

So how did he do it? 

For me, understanding how he got all this work done started with A Moveable Feast, his last book, which is a memoir about living in Paris as a struggling writer, husband and new father. A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises, his first book, both reveal a lot about how Hemingway worked in the early days, even if the latter is fiction. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway describes his work routines and also how he left for Paris in the winter for Schrun, Austria to save money and to edit The Sun Also Rises, which he cranked out in under two months. 

The business of creativity is not usually profitable, especially for a novelist, so living outside of major cities was essential for Hemingway. Though he lived in Paris in the early days, Hemingway spent most of his life in smaller more affordable locations that could also feed his hunger for outdoor adventure. It's safe to say he would have thought it foolish for a writer to live New York, even if it was more affordable, based on this description from a New Yorker profile. “New York was a rough town, a phony town, a town that was the same in the dark as it was in the light, and he was not exactly overjoyed to be going there anyway.” 

Like so many writers, Hemingway was a little bit superstitious about the writing process, but he had a routine that worked for him, and the wherewithal to recognize that. He wrote every morning, but never to the point of exhaustion, and despite his hard-drinking legend, he worked sober. 

“I had learned already never to empty the well of writing; but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it,” he said. “My training was never to drink after dinner, nor before I wrote, nor while I was writing.”

And when he got stuck writing, he taught himself to keep going by distilling the massive work of writing a book down to one simpler task. “Do not worry,” he told himself. “You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do it write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

At the beginning, Hemingway was pretty much broke. He was supported by his wife’s inheritance, but still lived frugally in Paris. He had established himself as a good journalist, but selling fiction stories was more difficult. He ate on the cheap, drank on the cheap, and occasionally skipped meals. “Hunger is a good discipline and you learn from it,” he said. “In Paris, then, you could live very well on almost nothing and by skipping meals occasionally and never buying any new clothes, you could save and have luxuries.”

That’s not to say Hemingway never rewarded himself with an occasional bottle of good wine or a day at the race track. He did. When he sold stories or got paid, he celebrated those small victories with good dinners with his wife. 

Finding a mentor was key for Hemingway. In his case, it was Gertrude Stein. She edited and championed his work and encouraged him to quit journalism and write a novel. She also told him, “You can either buy clothes or buy pictures.” In other words, art over material possessions. Hemingway took her advice to heart.

Hemingway also relied on the help of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Although he maintains something of a dim view of him in A Moveable Feast, other sources have revealed since then just how instrumental Fitzgerald was in promoting Hemingway's work to editors back in New York. Take a listen to this great podcast for more on that, and the real story behind The Sun Also Rises. 

Even with his little writing hacks, his ability to network with influential types and incredible focus, Hemingway's work process was still intensely labored. “I am like a blind pig when I work,” he says. It's that process, and the result of that process, that can be easy to forget among all the stories about the legend and the man. Ultimately it's this process, and his love for it, that interests me most. Even though pursuing that meant being broke for years and living in an apartment with no plumbing or heat in Paris, Hemingway was gratified that he was doing the work he wanted to do.

“The one who is doing his work and getting satisfaction from it is not the one the poverty is hard on,” he said. 


See also:

The New York Times - Ernest Hemingway Talks of Work and War

The New Yorker - How do you like it now, Gentlemen

The Toronto Star - How Hemingway came of age at the Toronto Star

The Art of Manliness - The Real Life Story of Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises

The Paris Review: Ernest Hemingway, The Art of Fiction No. 21, Interviewed by George Plimpton