April 1, 2019

Hemingway’s Best Advice for Writers works for Life, Too.


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When it comes to writing, few can compare to the great Ernest Hemingway.

A master of the written word, he weaved tales that became masterpieces in literature while filling shelves with awards recognizing his literary prowess.

I once stumbled upon a piece of advice Hemingway left for writers when facing the dreaded “writer’s block.” As I read the passage, I felt it was something that could serve as great advice for those many instances in life when we feel stuck.

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway described what he believed was the best way to overcome this block.

“Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not 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.’

So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started 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.”

One true sentence—according to Hemingway, that’s all you have to write.

I’ve used that technique many times. In my oft-obsessive need to write, I’ve stared at the paper or the screen blankly, devoid of all thought and whimsy. Suddenly, one true sentence would spring to life and I’d write it out, completely and without pause. Sometimes I’d have to force that one true sentence out of the creative ether, turning something blank into something with at least one line flowing through it.

I followed only two simple rules in this practice. One, it had to be a sentence. Two, it had to be the truth.

What would follow would be words that would spring to life without mercy. They’d march across the battlefield of my mind and claim the high ground triumphantly, planting a flag of prose deeply on the sacred summit. There would be no bragging of victory—they had no need of such a lowly act. Instead, the words would simply stand on their own merit and, as I reread them, find their own satisfaction in the awe that often cascaded through my heart.

Hemingway’s piece of advice has been helpful for me, so I began to wonder what would happen if I applied that advice to the entirety of my life. What if I, an ordinary man of ordinary means, just wrote one true sentence on the many pages of my life? What would happen if in the context of my life there was the subject, and the verb, all swaddled in the truth? So, I’ve tried it and have become amazed at how well it works.

One example would be that dreaded writer’s block. Writer’s block, to me, doesn’t just happen to writers when we sit to write a story or an article or a poem. It also happens when we contemplate taking our passion for creating the written word and making it a life’s work.

I’ve been blocked for most of my life in that regard, always shying away from taking that plunge from passionate writer to the expansion I’ve always felt possible. Something within me had been blocking me from that expansion.

So, what did I do? I channeled Mr. Hemingway. I wrote one true sentence in my mind: “I want to be a writer.”

I published a book of poetry, independently, and started on a few projects that had been languishing in my mind. I’ve written several short stories, published a few articles, and dedicated more time to my personal blog. That one true sentence I’d written didn’t just die on an innocuous page somewhere, it took on a life of its own and has helped remove the blocks I’d created to being a writer.

I write at least one true sentence every day—not because I have to, but because it is who I am.

Once you’ve written that one true sentence, a true paragraph follows. Then a true page. Then a true chapter, and so on. Soon, you have a true story written and it becomes an autobiography—the truest story of who you are. It may take on many different forms, birthing itself in many ways. That flower isn’t just a flower. Sometimes, it’s a marigold. Sometimes, it’s a rose. It can also be a dandelion.

I’ve practiced writing one true sentence many times in many places along my life’s journey and it’s never failed me.

I must practice the art of writing if I want to write.
I must practice being a good person if I want to be a good person.
I must hit the trail if I want to see the view from the summit.

It all starts, however, with that one true sentence: “I want to be a writer…good person…reach the summit.”

It’s certainly worth a try to anyone experiencing a block in their path.

Write that one true sentence, and see what happens.


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