Throughout Hemingway’s career as a writer, he maintained that it was bad luck to talk about writing—that it takes off “whatever butterflies have on their wings and the arrangement of hawk’s feathers if you show it or talk about it.”
Despite this belief, by the end of his life he had done just what he intended not to do. In his novels and stories, in letters to editors, friends, fellow artists, and critics, in interviews and in commissioned articles on the subject, Hemingway wrote often about writing. And he wrote as well and as incisively about the subject as any writer who ever lived…
This book contains Hemingway’s reflections on the nature of the writer and on elements of the writer’s life, including specific and helpful advice to writers on the craft of writing, work habits, and discipline. The Hemingway personality comes through in general wisdom, wit, humor, and insight, and in his insistence on the integrity of the writer and of the profession itself.
—From the Preface by Larry W. Phillips
Topics: Literary Criticism, Informative, Writing, Creativity, American Author, and Male Author
In spite of that impact, Hemingway was not often open to discussing the mechanics of his art. In an effort to correct that apparent deficiency, Larry Phillips, the editor of On Writing, collected from Hemingway’s writings—from his novels, letters, and interviews—fragments where, over the years, Hemingway did broach what might be viewed as his theories of art in general and his own ideas about writing in particular. There are chapters that collect Hemmingway’s thoughts and counsels about a variety of topics related to his wiring and to the creative process. Among them:
What Writing Is and Does
The Qualities of a Writer
The Pain and Pleasures of Writing
What to Write About
Advice to Writers
Knowing What to Leave Out
The Writer’s Life
The thin volume, given its objective, does have some value. Although the fragments reveal little about the Hemingway style that is not spelled out in his major novels, published letters and secondary studies, it does collect in one place some of what is scattered. Phillips includes for example, his 1949 note to Charles Scribner: “A writer, of course, has to make up stories for them to be rounded and not flat like photographs. But he makes them up put of what he knows.” [p.21] And he also includes the section in “Death in the Afternoon” where he talks about the “Iceberg Theory”:
If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. [p.177]
But is seems to me that the greatest utility of the volume is that it continues to milk the Hemingway name, raising additional money for Hemingway’s heirs, publisher and managers.