As a younger man I was a great fan of Ernest Hemingway’s early stories — stuff like “The Three Day Blow” and “The Big Two-Hearted River.” And like most young men who think about writing, I shamelessly aped his style in community-college writing classes, cobbling together a bunch of pointless stories that I never got around to finishing. Only later did I hear the old joke about American writers consisting of two groups: Those trying to write like Hemingway, and those trying not to.
I didn’t worship Hemingway’s longer works quite so much. In fact, the only ones I’d read until recently were A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea. But with the upcoming Paris trip in mind, I decided to try A Moveable Feast. In case you haven’t read it, it’s a surprisingly sentimental memoir of Hemingway’s life in Paris in the 1920s — the exact time and place he was writing those short stories I used to admire.
I picked it up for its descriptions of Paris, but A Moveable Feast also contains a lot about writing. For all his reputation as a drinker and brawler and all-around bon vivant, Hemingway was quite disciplined about his writing. Often it seemed to come easy to him, but he persisted even when it didn’t. He didn’t spend a lot of time waiting for inspiration:
“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.”
At this late date, I don’t know if I’d recognize a true sentence if I saw it. But trust Hemingway to reduce the problem to its essentials. There can be no paragraphs, or chapters or books without that first sentence. Probably a good idea to make it as honest as you can.