We're here in Paris, and to better experience the city, I've been reading A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway's memoir about living and writing in Paris. In the book, Hemingway reveals what I think is one of the hardest parts about being a serious writer, a writer who cares deeply about the quality of his or her prose.
Photo by Katie Mollon (Creative Commons)
It comes when he's talking with fellow expatriate author F. Scott Fitzgerald. They're drinking whiskey at Closerie des Lilas, a restaurant that still exists in Paris, and as they drink, they talk about their writing habits.
At the time, Hemingway is somewhat awed by Fitzgerald, who was older and more experienced than the 25-or-so-year-old Hemingway, Fitzgerald having already published a few novels, including The Great Gatsby, and several stories in the Saturday Evening Post.
Meeting Fitzgerald and talking about his writing convinces Hemingway that he needs to write a novel of his own, but the form intimidates him. He says:
But it was very difficult, and I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel. It often took me a whole morning of work to write a paragraph.
Great Writing Is Slow Work
For the last few weeks, I've been able to spend more time on my creative writing and less on commercial work. It's wonderful, but it reminds me how much longer it takes to write good creative prose than it takes to write blog posts and journalism and non-fiction books.
For example, to write my posts for The Write Practice, I usually spend a morning writing, between three to five hours. However, when I write my essays for Goodbye Paris, it takes me about three mornings for pieces of roughly equal length. And even then they often need feedback from others and then more work afterward.
Creative writing is slow work, slow work that requires patience, discipline, and doggedness to finish no matter the cost.
The “Secret” to Writing Well
I've talked to so many writers who have great ideas but just can't seem to finish them. Many of them are even very good writers, but they can't complete their novels and plays and short stories.
Writing inspires them, entices them, but ultimately leaves them defeated. They email me disappointed, asking me what they should do to finish their ideas. “My ideas are great. Everybody says so. But I just can't seem to finish.”
I wish I had a better answer, some secret technique to turning your ideas into perfect novels, guaranteed bestsellers, masterpiece works of art. But I don't.
“I don't know,” I tell them. “Honestly, I'm right there with you, and so was Hemingway, and so were so many other great writers. It's very difficult. The only thing to do is keep writing.”
Are You Up For the Difficult Job of Writing?
Are you up for that? Are you willing to make space for your writing? Are you willing to say no to great opportunities, even new ideas that other people tell you are genius, so you can finish your single paragraphs that take all morning?
Can you keep writing even when it takes three times longer than you think it will?
Writing a novel is very difficult. Are you up for it? It's fine if you're not, but if you think you are or you want to be, you need to learn to be dogged, to never give up, to keep writing no matter how long it takes. Writing is a hard job, which means that if you want to accomplish it you need to become hard yourself.
How about it. Are you up for it?
Today, work on your work in progress, no matter where you are in the process. If you don't currently have a work in progress, write about a writer who has been working on a single paragraph all morning. How is he feeling? What is he thinking about?
Write for fifteen minutes. When you're finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, make sure you give feedback to a few other writers.