When my English Literature professor, Marilyn McEntyre, told us Hemingway would write all day in small Parisian cafes and, afterward, take his lunch to the Musee du Luxembourg where he would look at Cezannes, it transformed how I looked at authors—and writing, for that matter—forever.
In college, I read Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and all the other writers infamous among college students everywhere. The authors, if I had imagined them, were like statues in some museum, old cracked marble missing limbs, dust piled atop their heads. They were empty-eyed faces carved into cathedral stone, looking down on us to make sure we knew their names. If we misremembered, they would denounce us before God at those golden gates.
But Dr. McEntyre’s story tore the veil. I saw Hemingway drinking cups of French coffee at a cafe with black and white pictures on the wall, writing slowly, with lots of crossouts. I saw him with his sacked lunch, made by his loving first wife Hadley, drinking out of a thermos (did they have those in the 1920s?) and tracing those bold brushstrokes with his eyes. He had intense blue eyes.
Writers, I realized, were somehow not part of the evil plan hatched by professors to torture their students, but real people, with real ambitions and insecurities. I’ve heard the point of art is not communication, but I realized then they were trying to give something to me, some greater perspective of the world maybe. Or even just an enjoyable afternoon.
On TheWritePractice.com we are looking for transformation. We don’t want to give you just some good techniques. We want to transform the whole way you approach writing. When I began learning about Hemingway’s life and influences, it helped me to realize that to transform the way I approached writing, I needed to see myself as part of the tradition. There is a great continuum in this art form, an inheritance that every writer can and should apprentice themselves to.
But there is a divergence in Hemingway. He didn’t apprentice himself just to writers. He looked to a painter to transform his work. This week we’re going to look at Hemingway’s debt to Cezanne. What did Hemingway learn from Cezanne? And how can we transform our own writing by practicing these things?
Today, and off and on over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to practice writing like Hemingway who practiced writing like Cezanne (wow that’s complicated). We’ll choose one aspect of Cezanne’s style that Hemingway appropriated. Then, we will play with it, trying both to imitate it, but also just writing in our own fun way.
Technique Number One: Brushstrokes
I wish I were more of an expert in art, but I do know Cezanne believed in using big bold brush strokes. His painting of Saint Victoire mountains could have been done with on an iPhone. Strong strokes construct the landscape like lincoln logs.
Hemingway believed each word was a brush stroke on the page. Some people have called Hemingway’s prose childish and simplistic, but his genius was his use of a few strong words to do so much work. He used few adjectives. His prose is full of action, not decor, and so when an occasional bit of color is revealed, it fills in the whole image.
Study Cezanne’s painting of Saint Victoire mountain (above) for few minutes.
Then, write for fifteen minutes. Describe the scene around you, maybe even go outside with your laptop. Pick out the main features and describe them as tersely as possible. (TIP: My art teacher always told us to squint to see things simplified.) Post your practice in the comments and give feedback to other practicers (is that a word?).
And remember, you’re writing. Have fun.