Ernest Hemingway spent the years between 1921 and 1926 in Paris. Living in cramped quarters with new bride Hadley Richardson, they warmed themselves by a small brazier and kept things simple. This was Hemingway’s time of self-directed apprenticeship in the art of writing fiction. Much later, in Ketchum, Idaho, and in Cuba, he was to gather some unfinished business from his Paris years into A Moveable Feast. This small book can be read on a medium length airline flight. It’s full of wit, personality and wisdom — of value to all creators.
“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,” he wrote. When finished for the day, he would read something completely different, or go for a walk — this in order to allow his subconscious to continue work on the project. “I was free then to go anywhere in Paris, to exercise, to become physically tired. Then it is also good to make love to one you love.”
On the beginning of work, he writes: “Start with a true sentence and you can go from there.” Hemingway found that sometimes it took a little while to find that truth. When he did, he was off and away. “The only thing that could spoil a day was people — and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits.”
Regarding style — but more to the nature of art itself — he says, “You could omit anything — if you knew that you had omitted it — and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” Even an important turn of a plot or a climax might be left out. Hemingway understood that art is a co-project between an artist’s skill and the imagination of the art consumer. Absence strengthens. Brevity heightens. To obscure is to intrigue. Leave it out and the reader’s imagination can make it stronger.
During this period Hemingway demonstrated a remarkable ability at willful concentration. The Sun Also Rises, his second novel, was written in just over six weeks in La Closerie des Lilas, a Montparnasse restaurant. A busy environment, he found, does not necessarily mean interruption. Hemingway was not without humour, humility and self deprecation: “Sometimes,” he said, “I have good luck and write better than I can.”
PS: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” (Ernest Hemingway)
Esoterica: Hemingway is giving himself counseling in self-understanding and personal efficiency. “I still need more healthy rest in order to work at my best,” he writes. “My health is the main capital I have and I want to administer it intelligently.” Back down on the ground, I’m sleeping long and walking vigorously. In my studio I’ve been consciously leaving out stuff that I might normally put in — the features of a face, a part of a landscape, some overly busy shapes — any element that might just be telling too much. Thanks to Ernest.
Gift of no engagements
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
What a challenge it is, to “keep from making engagements.” This is a busy time of year for me. The Downtown Art Festival is this weekend, and my band is playing with Bo Diddley on Wednesday. We’ve had some extra practices to get ready for that, and of course there’s all the usual places to go and people to see. Still, thanks to good planning and the miraculous benevolence of the universe, today was a completely free day. Except for a walk over to the post office this afternoon, I stayed in my studio and just painted, uninterrupted. What a gift!
A Moveable Feast
by Kim Rody, Dallas, TX, USA
I can’t tell you how many times I have been pitching a painting to a prospective buyer who is edgy about the price and quoted to them from the book, A Moveable Feast… “Gertrude Stein told Ernest Hemingway, ‘Don’t buy food… buy art.’ Ernest saw a painting in her apartment he said he liked, and Gertrude informed him… Oh, you could never afford that one, it’s a Picasso.”
by Barry Kleider, Minneapolis, MN, USA
Sometimes your letters are like another interruption and I wonder if it’s time to simplify. Other times you hit the nail squarely on the head and I want to call you up and think out loud. The Hemingway piece is so good I risked sending it to my son. A young writer, just out on his own, searching for craft and style and theme and voice… I hope these thoughts spur him on. And I think about my own craft — photography — and how I would apply Hemingway’s notions to my own work.
Paint like a parable
by Gene Black, Anniston, AL, USA
Wow. I have something in common with Hemingway. Well sort of — sometimes I have good luck and paint better than I can. My artist statement says in part, “I seek to portray truth with my art.” I start with a true emotion and go from there and my work rings true. When I try to just paint to have something to sell — it falls flat. I know it and my viewers know it. I have ceased to paint to sell. I paint to show myself and to hopefully show the viewers a part of themselves. Sometimes, as in a good bit of writing, it is not obvious. It should not be like a fable with a moral that says, “Here is the moral of the story.” Rather it should be like a parable that with wit and wisdom give the audience an “ah ha” moment.
My favorite inspirational writer Madeleine L’Engle, who also happens to have written some excellent children’s books, says that an artist should “serve the work.” For me serving the work means that I follow rather than lead. I see where the work wants to go and help it to “get there.” This makes every session a movable feast for me.
Cranking out words
by Carol Kerner, San Franciso, CA, USA
This month I am participating in the National Novel Writing Month began by Chris Baty. Along with several thousand other people around the world, I am cranking out 50,000 words in thirty days.
I will begin the day’s writing with a light heart thanks to you and Ernest Hemingway. I grew up in Northern Michigan and across from our house on Lake Charlevoix lay Hemingway Point, the location of Ernest’s uncle’s tree farm.
by Graydon Gibson, Victoria, BC, Canada
Your latest epistle on Hemingway I found particularly inspiring, as I am at a point in my life where I am starting out on an entirely new career as a contract writer, editor, proofreader, with a sideline of coaching professionals in the art and science of plain language and effective communications techniques. I will be using Hemingway as one of my examples of how you can write great literature (never mind inter-office memos) with simple words and short sentences — two of the fundamental techniques of plain language.
Writers inspire painters
by Carol Jessen, St. Louis, MO, USA
I am a Hemingway aficionado, so this was a welcome review! I have that little gem of a book and read it often to remind myself of some of the simplifying techniques that can be used, not only in writing, but also in painting. When I taught The Sun Also Rises to my high school seniors every year, we often got on the subject of the artistic life and why it is so attractive… to the writer/painter and also to the reader/viewer. The main character Jake Barnes advises his fellow writer, Robert Cohn, to “Walk around Paris and see what happens to you.” Sometimes on location I will wait half an hour just to see what happens, and that often becomes a painting I hadn’t planned on.
If you want another writer who inspires not just the writer but the painter, Stephen King’s book On Writing can be applied to painting problems as well as writing roadblocks.
by Jeanne Long, Minneapolis, MN, USA
This letter about leaving things out was very well timed for me. I recently participated in a plein air project and have experienced a breakthrough in learning what to leave out. The difference between my work at the beginning of the project and two months into it was dramatic. With great hesitation, I practiced even leaving out facial features as you said you were doing as well. How hard not to put in things you can see so plainly so that the viewer may supply their own and thus participate in the painting.
by Barbara Reid, Bakersfield CA, USA
There are so many good nuggets in the Hemingway letter. Several years ago my husband and I visited Hemingway’s home in Ketchum so it is easy for me to imagine his workday. “Starting with a true sentence” is worth a lot these days, in any endeavor. We are all looking for truth, which I believe is synonymous with beauty. I was particularly taken with your advice on omission. I am new to the art field, having come from a technical/analytical profession (accounting), and often struggle with needing to “put everything in.” However, the works I most love are those I often cannot explain, and come to think of it, are “full” of omissions.
However, what affected me most was going back to your 2002 letter on Hemingway in which you discussed the theme of The Old Man and the Sea: “Right here he finally and truly realized that the main thing, the most important thing, was courage.” I know I have technical limits, but as an artist I want to have a meaningful discourse. I don’t want to make pretty pictures. I want to be courageous.
Hanging above my computer is an unfinished painting called Peeking Out. It is one I painted of my son at age 14, blanketed in the backseat of our car. He did not want to be seen that day, hence the title. After reading today’s letter, I think I shall re-title the piece, and find the courage to finish it. Perhaps it should be Courage Under Wraps. Danny died one week later from leukemia. When I asked him how he would communicate with me after he was gone, he simply said, “through your art.” I had only been painting for 2 years at that point, but he knew what the creative force meant in my life. What wisdom.
Originality in choices
by Melinda Collins, Redwood City, CA, USA
Leaving things out is sometimes the hardest part of painting. I love all the little details of life and often want them all in the painting. Of course, then there is too much to look at and the result is confusion. An important function of visual art is to focus on only a part of what is seen. We emphasize what we noticed about a subject when it first struck us as something to paint. That’s why landscape painting is always fascinating to me — because each artist’s decisions about what to put in and what to leave out are so subtle and personal. Originality comes from just being true to ourselves and what we value about what we see.
Overdone can be camouflage
by Janet Toney, Greeneville, TN, USA
As I read about leaving something out I wondered why it pleases me so to put everything in! I enjoy painting “photo realistically” and when I write usually, I’m very “wordy.” Maybe I’m just ego driven. Maybe I’m covering up something, hiding it from myself, and everyone else. So it could be that sometimes the overdone work can be just as abstract as the “abstract” work. Instead of something being left out, it’s all blacked out, covered by camouflage.
Plein air challenge of omission
by Len Sodenkamp, Boise, ID, USA
Thanks for the Hemingway reminder. I have not heard of this book and plan to look for it. I peculiarly like the part about omitting. As one who loves to paint plein air landscapes, omitting is paramount to a successful painting experience. The challenge then becomes what information to omit. Sometimes I look into the natural world and it brings tears to my eyes. The beauty overwhelms me. I ask myself who do I think I am to even attempt to transcribe this beauty. Perhaps it is this humbling factor that Hemingway felt when he wrote A Moveable Feast.
The painter’s vital impulse
by Leonard Niles, Lincolnshire, England, UK
All the great masters throughout history, be they scientists, inventors, builders, writers, musicians, poets or just humble painters, in one way or another experienced a driving force which was already inherent in them. Like the life-force itself, it forced them to achieve regardless of whatever adverse environment they happened to find themselves in, and now decades later, we all stand in awe of their accomplishments. Their great works have passed down from one generation to another; they have stood the test of time in spite of the constant changes in attitudes and fashions. Countless generations have produced people Like ‘Ernest Hemingway’ that were possessed of extraordinary talents, talents that underlie all the greater goodness that justifies man’s existence on this planet. Aristotle used the word, Entelechy — “Something which bears in itself, its own end,” whether it be something that evolves from a simple idea, or a purpose to fulfil, or perhaps a far-off divine goal that seems to so many; to be unattainable.
If in time a few are destined to join these great immortals through ceaseless endeavour and leave behind them for posterity some great works of art, it will be because that vital impulse, that owes nothing to any man, is already in their psychological make-up. They are the people with esoteric vision, encapsulated in extraordinary imaginative minds…
Truth at destiny’s door
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
I had just emailed a friend on Monday about these topics of art, inspiration, and simplicity that Hemingway had spoken of not so long ago. We artists work from our truth, and honing our skills of concentration allows us to get connected with the truth. This allows us to experience inspiration which is just waiting for us to realize it and manifest it. As Agnes Martin said, “Inspiration is there all the time. For everyone whose mind is not clouded over with thoughts whether they realize it or not.” When Hemingway says, “I have good luck, and write better than I can,” I think he can say this truthfully in light of the quote by Agnes. We tap into something greater than ourselves, and then through this work as Hemingway states, “We make people feel something more than they understood.” That is when artwork inspires awe and reverence in the artist and the viewer. It takes us beyond our limited thinking to new experiences and perceptions. Simplicity and clear discernment allow us to make powerful decisions about what to add and what to leave out of a piece. Overworking can kill the poignant reality of the work. I see it as a lack of trust. Keeping clear by taking care to have a healthy body, and good energy is essential for the artist. There is a balance to be achieved in life between movement and stillness. This also comes into play in the studio. Paint, contemplate, and move your body with yoga and a hike in nature, then see what is there. This discipline will attune you to your potential. Getting into alignment with our truth is like opening the door to destiny.
We lose when art leaves the city
by Helen Gallagher, Glenview, IL, USA
Thought this would interest you — from today’s Chicago Tribune: “In the past it was thought that artworks collected in a city should stay in the city, for in a sense, they belonged to it. People rich enough to have significant collections made their money in particular cities and leaving art to them was a way of giving something back. This proved admirable in direct proportion to its being unnatural because art collecting is an aestheticized form of the tendency to gather, which is not influenced by a sense of community.
Last week two art auctions took place in New York that were watched here with interest. The first had 13 Impressionist and modern works from a private local collection, the second had two works — also Impressionist and modern — from the Art Institute of Chicago.
In the weeks before the auctions, the wisdom of art museums deaccessioning was debated once more, with the usual result that parties for and against made arguments that in no way altered how the Institute or any other museum would face the issue in the future. If museums want to divest themselves of works of art, they will.
But there was no public discussion at all of the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the privately held works leaving the city. Not that it would have changed the outcome there either. But as late as 20 years ago such things used to at least be talked about. Now it seems we have accepted certain conditions that make the discussion superfluous.”
A Glimpse of Celestial Blue
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Kenneth R. White of Murfreesboro, TN who wrote, “This concept exists in Rollo May’s book, The Courage to Create. A very interesting read. I’m sure it also exists in many other books, essays, etc.”
And also Beverly Galante who wrote, “Thank you so much for your twice weekly letter. I enjoy it more than you can know. I am a writer as well as an artist and so, of course, this last letter was very inspiring to me. I have been very successful as an artist. Not so as a writer as yet. I found a connection that opened a door for me in reading about how Hemingway wrote and lived.”
And also Marvin Petal of Oxnard, CA who wrote, “And as a freelance foreign correspondent once told me, in the journalistic communities of Madrid and Paris, the reaction to Hemingway’s death was, ‘The man died as he lived — shooting off his mouth.’ ”
And also Jeanne B. de Sainte Marie of France who wrote, “As an author/illustrator of children’s books living in Paris, I can attest the importance of simplicity in one’s work (leaving things out) and the singular atmosphere of Paris that has influenced artists and writers such as Hemingway.”