To say that Ernest Hemingway is a writer’s writer is an understatement, just as to say that George Plimpton is an editor’s editor is an understatement. And in the mid-1950s, the author of Farewell to Arms, the Sun Also Rises, and For Whom the Bell Tolls subjected himself to an interview with the editor of The Paris Review, the results of which have a suitably mythical minimalism, as Plimpton’s details of the writer’s den–“a small burlap bag full of carnivore teeth; shotgun shells; a shoehorn; wood carvings of lion”–make the raconteur’s working life relatable.
As suckers for the study of the habits of creativity, Fast Company has long been smitten with Hemingway’s hustle: Here are a few of the ways ol’ Ernie got it done.
Long before Sedentary Death System was coined (translation: sitting too much will kill you), Hemingway, ever pursuing his writerly “juice,” would stand as he worked–“in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu,” of course.
We’ve written about how, if you want to get your work going, you probably want to try a hand at handwriting–this, too, was a working habit of Hemingway–he would stand at his typewriter at a desk overflowing with books and notes and write first on paper attached to a clipboard. Plimpton’s description:
He places the paper slantwise on the reading board, leans against the board with his left arm, steadying the paper with his hand, and fills the paper with handwriting, which through the years has become larger, more boyish, with a paucity of punctuation, very few capitals, and often the period marked with an X. The page completed, he clips it facedown on another clipboard that he places off to the right of the typewriter.
Hemingway shifts to the typewriter, lifting off the reading board, only when the writing is going fast and well, or when the writing is, for him at least, simple: dialogue, for instance.
The lesson: to find flow, focus first.
Organizational psychology has found that if you want to feel good about your working life, you should track your progress. Hemingway evidently wasn’t into the good-feelin’; rather, he tracked his progress ““so as not to kid” himself.
So the sportsman keeps a log of the quarry he captured each day on a large cardboard chart placed below a mounted gazelle head.
Again, in Plimpton’s eyes:
The numbers on the chart showing the daily output of words differ from 450, 575, 462, 1,250, back to 512, the higher figures on days Hemingway puts in extra work so he won’t feel guilty spending the following day fishing on the Gulf Stream.
Hemingway got up insanely early, greeting the dawn with a craftsman’s devotion.
In his own words:
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 on 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.
Hemingway famously galivanted around Europe as a member of the Lost Generation, typing out novels in Spanish hotel rooms and stories in Parisian lofts. He could work well anywhere, he maintained, as long as the circumstances fit.
As in, he protected his time: “The telephone and visitors are the work destroyers.”
Observing the world is the first step toward becoming more creative, research has found. For Hemingway, it’s also the last one: “If a writer stops observing, he is finished.”