Something I never thought I’d see: a good documentary about bad writing. Not about my writing, of course, ha ha ha. I said, ha ha ha. Why aren’t you laughing? Laugh, damn you!
I know computer games are supposed to be the enemy, but just the other morning my oldest daughter was burning to get down as much as she could of a story in progress. She’s been a near-obsessive player of The Sims for the past year or so, only now it turns out that she uses the characters as springboards to independent short stories. I find that pretty cool.
Marissa Lingen raises an interesting question for any writer: How is writing fiction different from writing nonfiction?
For me, they overlap significantly. I’m not prepared to say that they’re identical, because writing 750 words on Hilbert spaces for an encyclopedia and writing 750 words of short-short story are not at all similar for me. But, for example, telling a story about my cousin and telling a story about one of my characters are not all that dissimilar. I think most people tell stories about their family and friends naturally, without necessarily identifying what they’re doing or how they’re doing it, so it’s harder to apply it to fictional characters because it feels like your ordinary conversational stories are just saying what really happened, and with fiction, that’s not an option.
I’ve written nonfiction in the form of newspaper articles, longer magazine pieces and a book-length work of narrative history, the last published a couple of years ago as The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. I’ve also written several novels, the first three of which were tyro jobs that will probably never be published, but the rest of which may yet see the light of print via the good offices of my invincible agent.
Personally, I think of fiction and nonfiction as arms strengthening each other. Writing nonfiction instills the necessity for thorough research and good organization of one’s materials. Writing fiction keeps one aware of the need for narrative drive and convincing presentation. (The amateur writer’s last-ditch defense for unconvincing fiction — “But it really happened!” — only works in nonfiction, and not always there, either.)
In my case, research provides fodder for my imagination. I enjoy and admire a lot of science fiction and fantasy, but I have no gift for writing it. My mind tilts toward social realism, and the years I spent in the county courthouse — particularly the times I pitched in on covering trials — fired my imagination in all kinds of ways.
And if my agent can pull some of my projects out of the quicksand of the publishing industry slowdown, you may get a chance to see where that imagination led me.
Next month brings the world an expanded edition of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s look back on his life in Paris during the Twenties. Where the original edition opened with a rundown of the things Hemingway wasn’t going to talk about, this feastier Feast will finally clue us in on “the Stade Anastasie where the boxers served as waiters at the tables set out under the trees and the ring was in the garden” (I’ll bet nobody ever complained about the food at that joint) as well as the training with fighter Larry Gains. I’m eager to see what else.
A Moveable Feast was completed shortly before Hemingway committed suicide in 1961 and was heavily edited by his widow, Mary Hemingway prior to its publication in 1964. “Heavily edited” in the sense that Mary, as The Fourth Mrs. Hemingway, felt free to whittle away many references to previous wives and amours, particularly the long apology to Hadley, the First Mrs. Hemingway. So by all means, let’s have more.
Apparently there are even more wounding references to F. Scott Fitzgerald, who paved Hemingway’s path with editor Maxwell Perkins and publisher Scribner, and was rewarded for his generosity to literature’s preeminent macho man with this sublimely bitchy description:
He had very fair wavy hair, a high forehead, excited and friendly eyes and a delicate long-lipped Irish mouth that, on a girl, would have been the mouth of a beauty. The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more.
There is also the famous chapter in which Fitzgerald seeks reassurance from Hemingway about the size of his wedding tackle, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
The second chapter of A Moveable Feast, “Miss Stein Instructs,” deals directly with writing, and in typical Hemingway fashion it sets something brilliant alongside something posey and ridiculous. The most famous passage shows us the young lion dealing with a snag in the day’s work:
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 . . .
That one passage has probably done more damage to tyro writers than even the collected works of Hunter S. Thompson. In his quest for one true sentence, Hemingway came up with a lot of truly awful sentences — go read Across the River And Into the Trees if you don’t believe me. But offending passage is preceded by a nugget of wisdom that can help any writer:
I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.
If you’re unfamiliar with Hemingway’s work, A Moveable Feast is not the place to begin, but it’s a fine place to visit after you’ve read the short stories, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and some of the later work. A Moveable Feast is where you go for the gossip, the glimpses of a long-vanished Paris where Sylvia Beach turned Shakespeare and Co. into a combined bookstore, rental library and cafe for struggling writers, where it was still possible for a young couple not only to get by on a few dollars a day but afford a cook, have a few drinks every night and go on skiing trips. Like Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage, A Moveable Feast can make you wish you’d been born a lot earlier.
If you’re a Wyndham Lewis fan, you will not like Hemingway’s descriptions of the man. If you’re a Gertrude Stein fan, you may learn a bit more than you like. And if you’re a Fitzgerald fan, you really won’t like the sketch in which Fitzgerald confides this to Hemingway:
“Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy and that was what upset her originally. She said it was a matter of measurements. I have never felt the same since she said that and I have to know truly.”
If we are to believe Hemingway, Fitzgerald’s doubts could not be assuaged by manly talk, or even a fact-finding trip to look at the male statues in the Louvre.
You can learn a lot of thing by reading A Moveable Feast, and many of them are probably true. You’ll also learn that while it was certainly a scary thing to be in a feud with Ernest Hemingway, it was probably even worse to have him feel he owed you something. Like a literary career, for example.
The moving finger writes and, having writ, gets a link:
Joe Nassise lists 10 reasons why literary agents are vital. He just broke off with one he’d worked with for seven years. I second everything he says. By breaking off with an unsatisfactory (to him) agent, he also illustrates an important codicil: You have to have an agent, but a bad or unsuitable agent is worse than no agent at all. I’m on my fifth agent. Of the first three, two were good and diligent while the middle one was a lazy hack without a clue. The fourth agent was unenthusiastic about a nonfiction proposal I’d worked up. The fifth agent, my current one, loved the proposal and helped it become my first published book. So be bold.