Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Writing as Hard Labour

I want to talk about writing, considering how easy it is to string together words on an empty page and form a sentence or sentences, a paragraph or an essay. We do that all the time and call it writing.

I am thinking about writing as Hemingway defined it, again and again, as hard work, "something that you can never do as well as it can be done."(1)

I could cite Hemingway's many other statements on writing, but here is one I find most memorable: "There's no rule on how it is to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges."(2)

That is what I mean by writing, often painful and frustrating. From searching for the right word--and often there is no right word--to getting the sentence right, writing can be an excruciating ordeal, sheer Purgatory.

My most recent experience of Purgatory was writing on Litembo. For a long time, I have wanted to write about Litembo, the place where I was born and raised. I remember the place well: its mountains and valleys, its villages and footpaths, and its people.

I have always wanted to put these images in words. Writing that blog post was one way to test and exercise my faculties. I wrestled with words, trying to describe the landscape, the weather at the top of those mountains, the grass, and the ancient little trees clinging to rocks, defying the cold winds.

As I revise my work, over and over, I see it getting better and better. Eventually I publish it, feeling quite good about it. I return to Hemingway's views on writing: "It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else that I have ever done--so I do it. And it makes me happy when I do it well." (3)

As time goes, however, I discover weaknesses in my published work, and I wonder why I did not see them earlier. Such is my feeling, for example, about my little article on accents.

How I wish I could follow Hemingway's words: "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." (4)


1) Larry W. Phillips, ed. Ernest Hemingway on Writing (New York: Scribner, 2004), 15.
2) Phillips, 18.
3) Phillips, 15.
4) Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast: Restored Edition, ed. Sean Hemingway (New York: Scribner, 2009), 22.

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