Becoming a writer: a phrase rife with pitfalls, rewards, angst, celebrations, stumbling blocks, euphoria, despair and every other type of emotion one can imagine. Writing well has preoccupied my mind for more than three decades during which I’ve experienced pretty much all of these (as well as a host of others). When my quest to “become a writer” began, I could only dream of spending as much time putting words on a page as I do now.
Reading First, Then Writing Well
I traveled extensively and was rarely left to my own devises when it came to planning how life unfolded, so my inability to focus on the craft I was passionate about was as frustrating as anything I’ve ever endured. More often than not, months passed with only false starts and the wholesale abandonment of projects riddling my writer’s notebooks. One thing I did fight for, and achieved, was time to read. The effort has served me well to this day.
Early on, I devoured every piece of writing I could find about notable authors, poets and journalists, hoping to unlock the secrets to their success. During the summer of 1986, on my way to St. Augustine, Florida, I was riveted by an article about Ernest Hemingway’s posthumously released novel The Garden of Eden. The drone of the single engine plane ferrying me south filled the air with palpable noise as I turned day-dreamy, feeling almost as much awe imagining the life of the journalist writing the piece as I felt for Hemingway’s legacy.
The reporter said Americans have always been enamored with Hemingway because he portrayed life as it was, a premise that is exemplified in the video clip of the movie based upon The Garden of Eden above. The feelings the article stirred up stayed with me all day. I wondered how it must feel to accomplish all that Hemingway did as I ambled through the historic part of town snapping photographs of the aged beauty I saw. Just as the heat and humidity wore me down, I spotted a bookstore. I went straight to the fiction section to see if The Garden of Eden was on the shelf, the buzzing world of the airplane’s engine still echoing in my ears and sizzling through my fingertips.
I smoothed the palm of my hand along the spines of the books on the shelves—choking back the intensity of my own desire to publish someday. The attendant said the book was not yet in stock so I wandered over to the poetry section and was shocked to see Hemingway’s complete poems there. I’m embarrassed to admit it now but at the time I didn’t even know the man had written poetry. I bought the book faster than you could say sonnets!
In the preface, the editor Nicholas Gerogiannis mentions that Hemingway was a disciple of Gertrude Stein’s in Paris during the 1920s; that she’d said of him, “…although Hemingway showed considerable talent, he did not yet understand the difficulty of writing well.” It always floors me to experience one writer talking about another in this vein, especially when the conversation references the work of a man as legendary as Hemingway. I found a spot of shade in a beautiful park so I could delve into the author’s poetry, staying for a good part of the afternoon.
The grizzled language required breaks in my reading—the masculine tone so out of the ordinary for my reading choices. As I processed the raw maleness, I found myself glancing toward a stone-covered Pieta shimmering in the stifling furnace-like haze. It was one of those “life as it is” moments as I read, “He is baking and sweating his life away / In that blasting roar of heat.”
I live for those moments when words echo life more powerfully that it could ever present itself and this is one I can still feel the thrill of all these years later. I caressed the pages in my lap, covered as they were with scrawled lines of his handwriting, some of which he’d slashed with unruly crosshatches, or covered in blacked-out slabs of lead or ink, the edits ruthlessly final in their obliteration.
One True Sentence
Gerogiannis ordered the poems in the book chronologically, Hem’s first surviving poem, “The Opening Game,” which he wrote on April 12, 1912, at the lead. “With Chance on first, and Evers on third, / Great things from the Cubs will soon be heard…” the poem about the Cubs begins. Hemingway’s own words combined with the editor’s way of setting a scene gave me insight into the early days of this writer’s struggle to produce and I was so thirsty for it: “…on a clear Paris morning in early 1922…Hemingway sat down at his work table, opened his notebook, and began to craft his ‘true sentences.’”
One of my favorite essays in his memoir about his Paris years, A Movable Feast, is the one in which he describes this quest: “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 from there. It was easy because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut the scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”
Such great advice for any writer hoping to leave a legacy of quality by writing well! During a trip to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University last year, I reserved Edmund Wilson’s papers, one of the boxes containing letters Hemingway had written to the well-known editor. I almost laughed aloud in the hushed academic milieu when I read Hem giving it right back to Stein: “Gertrude and I became good friends again before she died. She knew that I knew that the malice and some if not all of the lies in her book The Autobiography of A.T. came from Alice.” He claimed Toklas was the one with ambition, the one who was extremely jealous of Stein’s men and women friends.
“Gertrude was terribly lazy but she had finally discovered a way of writing that enabled her to write every day and thus have the sense of accomplishment,” he told Wilson. “But then came the necessity to have this prose, which sometimes was not much better than daily automatic writing, recognized officially.”
He says Stein went through “a long phase of megalomania” after she went through menopause, “which was difficult to take since it coincided with her patriotic homo-sexual phase. She lost her judgment on painting completely and judged pictures by the sexual habits of those who painted them. Picasso and I used to laugh about it but we always agreed how fond we were of her no matter what she did. But Alice was her evil angel as well as her great friend.”
Gertrude Stein’s Papers at Beinecke
I’m visiting Beinecke again on October 10th, thrilled that the research library is open again, to delve into Stein’s papers. I’ll be reading through her letters from Djuan Barnes; Sylvia Beach, the owner of the Parisian Shakespeare & Company bookstore; Clive and Vanessa Bell; Hemingway; Henri Matisse; Henry Miller; Joan Miro; Marianne Moore; Ottoline Morrell; Mary Oliver; Pablo Picasso; Ezra Pound; Thornton Wilder; William Carlos Williams; Edmund Wilson; and Leonard Woolf. I’ll also be going through her clippings, and the notes and quotes in her own hand to see if I can ascertain whether she was concerned with writing well or, as Hemingway said, simply intent upon branding her own writing style. This is just a small portion of the ephemera she left to the library but the ten boxes I’ve reserved are all I can possibly make my way through during the one day I have there.
I’m quite grateful to have access to such material, and looking back to that trip to St. Augustine in 1986 from this point in time, I celebrate that I have managed to construct a life that allows me time for satisfying writing in the midst of making a living, my quest for writing well still being exercised almost daily. Somehow I knew it would be this much fun; and, yes, I did sense it would be as much torture as it sometimes is but I’ll take the knocks as long as they’re accompanied by such stimulating rewards. I’d like to thank everyone who supports me by reading my work and through your interactions with me across new media. Your time and energy is so greatly appreciated!
The Diary of an Improvateur and The Difficulty of Writing Well © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by