Gini Dietrich

On Writing and Advice from Ernest Hemingway

By: Gini Dietrich | February 2, 2016 | 

On Writing and Advice from Ernest HemingwayBy Gini Dietrich

When Mitch Joel says, “This is rich and yummy” and links to an article, you know it’s a must-read.

I immediately stopped what I was doing and read, “Hemingway’s Advice on Writing, Ambition, the Art of Revision, and His Reading List of Essential Books for Aspiring Writers” because he said so…and I wasn’t sorry.

It tells the story of Arnold Samuelson, a then 22-year-old who decided he wanted Hemingway to be his mentor. Because, you know, that’s just something you decide and make happen.

But make it happen he did when he traveled to Key West and showed up and proclaimed to be Hemingway’s apprentice.

Hemingway couldn’t turn him down and he was with the writer for more than a year, which he chronicled in With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba.

Books to Read and Journaling

It’s said to be the closest thing to a psychological profile of Hemingway written…and it does not disappoint.

Hemingway gave Samuelson a list of books and said:

Here’s a list of books any writer should have read as a part of his education… If you haven’t read these, you just aren’t educated. They represent different types of writing. Some may bore you, others might inspire you and others are so beautifully written they’ll make you feel it’s hopeless for you to try to write.

This is the list:

  1. The Blue Hotel
  2. The Open Boat
  3. Madame Bovary
  4. Dubliners
  5. The Red and the Black
  6. Of Human Bondage
  7. Anna Karenina
  8. War and Peace
  9. Buddenbrooks
  10. Hail and Farewell
  11. The Brothers Karamazov
  12. The Oxford Book of English Verse
  13. The Enormous Room
  14. Wuthering Heights
  15. Far Away and Long Ago
  16. The American
  17. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Some of these were high school required reading and some were part of my university degree, but still, I’ve read only half.

But that’s not the end of it. He advises Samuelson read those books and then he says:

Never compete with living writers. You don’t know whether they’re good or not. Compete with the dead ones you know are good. Then when you can pass them up you know you’re going good. You should have read all the good stuff so that you know what has been done, because if you have a story like one somebody else has written, yours isn’t any good unless you can write a better one. In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better, but the tendency should always be upward instead of down.

Read the list of books above—all of them—and journal what you like about each one. You already know they’re good so, as you write—if it’s fiction, business, content for a blog, or poetry—compete with the things you journaled.

(I would argue you could also read some Pulitzer Prize winning books, even if the writers are still alive, and do the same exercise. The Goldfinch is a great place to start.)

On Writing

With Hemingway also offers advice such as:

  • The psychological discipline of writing, or what we know today as “flow” and how important it is to do it every day.
  • How to overcome writer’s block.
  • How much you have to revise and revise and revise to get to something people want to read.
  • Why failure is good and how 90 percent of what you write won’t ever see the light of day.
  • How to manage through other people’s jealousies.

If the book is TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) for you, definitely check out the Brain Pickings article. It’s rich with quotes, photos, and anecdotes from the book, which will inspire you to practice your craft right this very second.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Was it Hemingway who said “write drunk, edit sober”? I’ve only read 2 of the 17.. I’m so ashamed…

    • It was Hemingway who said that! And I took it to heart when I was on the last legs of writing Spin Sucks and on my anniversary trip to Paris.

  • Speaking of Pulitzer Prize, did you ever get through All the Light We Cannot See?

  • Thanks for this Gini. I’ll check it out. Might try that journaling thing too.

    • I have a separate notebook for it and I LOVE it. It’s very thought provoking and helps with creativity, too.

  • howiegoldfarb

    I have only read number 17. Others were required…I mean kind of required….reading in High School. But since they usually showed us the movie before our test cliff notes and the movie were plenty for me…while I focused on Tolkein, Azamov, Anthony, Howard etc. You know the important writers 8)

    Great post btw. And if I wanted to be a writer this would be a great primer. Reminds me of when I saw Pele in 4th grade and I said I want to be a pro soccer player and my Dad said I had to have a ball with me 24/7 for years. So I took a ball with me everywhere…for 4 days. LOL

  • howiegoldfarb

    BTW why doesn’t Postmatic take my twitter avatar for here?

  • I love talking about writing! I have read very few of these and agree they would probably be helpful to the writer’s spirit and brain. The apprentice story (heads up for Chicago alert here!) led me to think of a book I am going to edit (or at least I have done the author’s first chapter and hope to work with her). She writes about Malvina Hoffman, a female sculptor, who desperately wanted to learn under Rodin. She was turned away when she took a ship across the Atlantic, went to Paris, and knocked on his door (it was a little more complex than that…). I think she was turned away four times before succeeding, mostly by his handlers who didn’t want him to take advantage of her in a romantic way but finally he relented and she became his (sculpting) protege. It’s an amazing story and I desperately hope my friend gets noticed and published (with me as the editor but either way it’s remarkable). Go to the exhibit if you can, Chicagoans! This link makes reference to it, but I *think* there is a larger exhibit there currently.

    • Ask Laura how she got her job here….sounds vaguely familiar.

      • Ha ha ha ha ha ha my mind went down a CRAZY bunny trail before I revisited what I had said. I was like, “by SCULPTING?” I am guessing you meant dogged persistence. Ninja like dogged persistence.

        • LOL!! Not sculpting, but that would be AMAZING.

          • And with THIS thread, I’ve probably planted an idea in her head. Lord help us all.

          • Seriously.

          • ooohhhhh sculpting! Gini I shall sculpt your likeness out of lava rock as a symbol of the ever erupting volcano of innovation and inspiration with which you bring us.

          • OMG this is going to be hot and flowing with epicness!

          • Oh for heaven’s sakes!

  • I never feel there is enough time in my life to even come close to reading all the amazing things there are to read on Brain Pickings.