John Gardner was the winner of The National Book Critics Circle Award, and author of four innovative and yet best-selling novels. He and Ernest Hemingway, the most important innovator in 20th century literature, once named “the greatest writer since Shakespeare,” and 1954 Nobel laureate, were both interested in passing on to other writers insights and prescriptions on a variety of topics pertinent to serious writing.
A helpful way to incorporate the prescriptions and insights here is described at the end of the post.
- Spend as much time as possible writing. It will pay off.
Gardner: “If the promising writer keeps on writing–writes day after day, month after month–and if he reads very carefully, he will begin to ‘catch on.’” Hemingway, convinced of the value of persistence, wrote, “Anyone who says he wants to be a writer and isn’t writing, doesn’t. Professionals write regularly. Amateurs often write sporadically.”
Hemingway: “Work continuously on a project once you start it. The hard part about a novel is to finish it…There is only one thing to do with a novel and that is to go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.” Hemingway: “Write every day until you’re so pooped about all the exercise you can face is reading the papers.”
- If your work is rejected often, get help, particularly emotional help.
Writers often do their best work when they are intense and feeling good, but intensity can be worn down by rejections. Gardner: It is a terrible thing to write for five or ten years and continue to be rejected–and so at last goes another good writer.” “Only a strong character, reinforced by the encouragement of a few people who believe in the writer, can get one through this period.” Gardner also said, “It cannot be too strongly emphasized that, after the beginning stages, a writer needs social and psychological support.” He felt that writers need to be part of a community that values the things they value.
Hemingway endured many rejections. That is understandable since his work was original. Nothing like it had been seen before by editors, and editors generally avoid writers who are not “proven.” Hemingway said that every day “the rejected manuscripts would come through the slot in the door…I’d sit at that old wooden table and read one of those cold slips that had been attached to a story I had loved and worked on very hard and believed in, and I couldn’t help crying.” But he never lost confidence in his talent. His reward was fame, wealth, and the highest literary award, the Nobel Prize.
Gardner: When writers are ready to give up, they need four things from an editor or mentor: trustworthiness, reassurance that their work really is publishable quality, a clear understanding of how editors work, and the strongest possible support.
- Expect to run into a powerful force–the urge of other people to evaluate your writing, tell you how good or bad it is, and to change it.
Gardner: “No depressed and angry writer can fail to notice, if he raises his heavy head and looks around, that fools, maniacs, and jabbers are everywhere–mindless, tasteless, ignorant schools of critics…misreading a great writer.”
Hemingway said writers may slant a story away from the way they want the story to please a magazine editor so the editor might accept the work for publication. Hemingway’s advice was never do that: “That’s just a lot of shit; I never slanted a story in my life. I never think of publication until I’ve finished a story. Write a story exactly the way you think it should be written, not as an editor would want it.”
- Be knowledgeable of the powers and uses of language, and have skill in using words. That is a requirement if your goal is to write potent prose or poetry.
Hemingway: “The hardest thing in the world is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn.” The vocabulary in a Hemingway work is simple, the sentences clear and uncomplicated. And short. The style is non-literary, and is colloquial American English. His rule was that his language must be readable, accurate, and economical.
Gardner: A writer “is interested in discovering the secrets words carry, whether or not he ever puts them in his fiction…One sign of a writer’s potential is his especially sharp ear–and eye–for language.” But writers must be cautious because if they care too much about the words they use and call attention away from the story and toward their style, they become “mannered.” Eventually readers tire of them.
- Aim for the polished, tasteful, “middle way” that most readers prefer. Some writers write poorly and are not read, and some write too well, too beautifully, and are not read.
Hemingway revolutionized fiction writing by purging it of displays of virtuosity, simplifying it, and avoiding “poetic” prose writing styles, preferring simple Anglo-Saxon English that was used in daily life by “the common man.”
Gardner said, “Though there are exceptions, as a rule the good novelist does not worry primarily about linguistic brilliance…but instead worries about telling his story in a moving way…If the writer has too much verbal sensitivity, his success…will depend on his learning to care about other elements of fiction so that, for their sake, he holds back a little…or on his finding an editor, and a body of readers who love, beyond all else, the same things he loves, fine language….The writer who cares chiefly, or exclusively about language is poorly equipped for novel-writing in the usual sense because his character and personality are wrong for writing novels.”
- Be disciplined. Discipline is the serious writer’s necessary quality. If you’re not disciplined your writing career will probably fizzle.
The most successful writers from the Romans to those writing today were disciplined. It’s possible that discipline is more important to writers than talent.
Gardner: ”If one is unwilling to write like a true artist, mainly because one needs to, one might do well to put one’s energies somewhere else.”
Hemingway: “I happen to be in a very tough business where there are no alibis. It is good or it is bad and the thousand reasons that interfere with a book being as good as possible are no excuses if it is not. You have to make it good and a man is a fool if he adds or takes hindrance after hindrance after hindrance to being a writer when that is what he cares about. Taking refuge in domestic successes, being good to your broke friends, is merely a form of quitting.”
- Aim to be as prolific as you can if your goal is to be considered great. There are prolific writers and writers who produce very little. You’re more likely to be thought great if you are prolific. Hemingway and Gardner were both great and prolific. Gardner talked about reasons why some writers are not prolific.
There is a definite relationship between being a major artist and producing a number of works. There are writers who produce one exquisite work. Their writing is exceptional, but there is so little of it that almost never are they considered major writers. The greatest writers generally get an early start, producing their first major success sooner than less great writers produce theirs, and have long and fruitful careers into their 60s, 70s and 80s.
Gardner said that not caring much about the kind of novel most experienced and well-educated readers like to read, the “linguistic novelist,” lover of language for its own sake, brings out in his lifetime only one or two books, or none. ”The brilliant artificer’s novel either is never written at all or is spoiled by sentimentality, mannerism, or frigidity.”
- Read the best writers. They will rub off on you.
Both Gardner and Hemingway advocated writers studying other writers, particularly the best of them so that the writer would take from them what they needed to improve. They both believed that would happen as the writer who was willing to learn developed “a new way of seeing.”
Both men were conversant with the classics. In his teaching, Gardner required students to read them. Hemingway was an insatiable student of literature and painting. He read voraciously and believed that all American fiction was derivative of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. He felt that studying the style of post-Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne helped his writing considerably.
- Be an autodidact and educate yourself to write skillfully (as many writers have), or be educated via some other means, but be educated.
Hemingway did not attend college although his parents, both well-educated–his father a physician–wanted him to. But he felt that he would learn nothing in college that would benefit him. Immediately after graduating from high school he began writing for the Kansas City Star. The paper’s brand of journalism was a strong influence on Hemingway his entire career, teaching him; “Use short sentences; use short first paragraphs; use vigorous English; be positive, not negative.”
In Paris in the nineteen twenties Hemingway had an intense four-years writing apprenticeship with luminaries Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, Ford Maddux Ford, and other writers. With that background he began writing The Sun Also Rises with a sense of confidence and a knowledge of his craft.
Gardner had a PhD and taught writing at universities. One of his students was short story innovator Raymond Carver. But asked if a writer should study creative writing and literature at a university, he said, “If the person means will he become a better writer, yes. But if he means, ‘‘Will I be able to support myself,’ the answer is ‘possibly.’ “
It is helpful to become familiar with prescriptions in this post and strive to apply them. You could write more often and for longer periods, develop stronger skills with language by acquiring a more expressive vocabulary, write in a more appealing style, find emotional help in responding to rejections (a friend, a family member, or a coach or mentor), be more disciplined about writing through a planned schedule of work, read high quality writers, and develop a study program to improve your capabilities.
© 2020 David J. Rogers
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