Monday, July 04, 2016

"In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better, but the tendency should always be upward instead of down. And don’t ever imitate anybody. All style is, is the awkwardness of a writer in stating a fact. If you have a way of your own, you are fortunate, but if you try to write like somebody else, you’ll have the awkwardness of the other writer as well as your own."

That's Ernest Hemingway on writing, the quote excerpted in Brain Pickings from a book, With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba.

Some other pieces of advice on writing from Hemingway:
When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself. That’s the true test of writing. When you can do that, the reader gets the kick and you don’t get any. You just get hard work and the better you write the harder it is because every story has to be better than the last one. It’s the hardest work there is. I like to do and can do many things better than I can write, but when I don’t write I feel like s..t. I’ve got the talent and I feel that I’m wasting it.
These observations interest me for several reasons. The biggest one is that it runs counter to what you think might happen in the mind of an artist who becomes successful. Hemingway is saying, in essence, that when he first started writing, he did it for himself, to give himself a "kick." After he gained success, he wrote to give the reader a kick.

I'm sure that not all artists operate in this way. In the two-hour CBS News documentary on Paul McCartney done in 1989, the musician told reporter Bernard Goldberg that in the early days, the songs he and John Lennon wrote were for the fans. But success, he said--I'm paraphrasing here--had given them license to write in order to please themselves.

Hemingway was saying that for him anyway, it worked the other way around. His discipline as time went on was to write for the reader and not himself.

The other thing that strikes me about what he said in that block quote above is that, though he felt he could do a better job at things other than writing, he had to write.

This may seem indecipherable to some. But to me, in talking about writing, Hemingway was describing a life's calling.  He wrote because that was what he was called to do, even if he may have been a better fisherman, boxer, or accountant.

I once read or heard about a fellow who was contemplating going to seminary with an eye to becoming a pastor. He decided to get the counsel of his own pastor, who told him, "If you can do anything other than being a pastor, do it."

This pastor wasn't telling the younger guy that being a pastor was bad. He was saying one should be a pastor only if the idea of becoming a pastor won't go away.

I often describe how it felt before I "caved in" and went to seminary: It was as if God grabbed me by the lapels and wouldn't let me go until I applied for admission. This happened precisely at the point when I had gotten my toe in the door of the profession I'd always dreamed of being part of, politics.  It also happened when I was on the most solid financial footing of my life. But I could not not be a pastor. It was one of my callings in life.

We all have to put food on the table and care for family members, of course. And we all are likely to have other practical responsibilities. So, there will be times when we have to take jobs we don't like and don't feel passionate about. I once calculated that I'd worked at twenty-eight different jobs before my calling became clear Most of the jobs were part-time and I took all of them mostly to pay the bills or to feed my ambitions, and certainly, with no sense of calling.

But I think that Hemingway's revelation of his compulsion to write and that old pastor's advice to the prospective seminarian probably convey something to us about the work we should undertake in our lives--whether in our full time jobs or in the avocations we pursue:
What good, useful, God-honoring, people-helping thing do you find yourself incapable of avoiding? 
Whatever it is, do that.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]

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