Breaking Hemingway’s Rule… Sort Of

I may have broken one of Hemingway’s rules of writing. It’s a pretty basic rule too, I should have known better. Write drunk, edit sober.

Seems simple enough.

Write Drunk, Edit Sober by Evan RobertsonAnd it looks great visually, as the original art print that illustrator Evan Robertson made (along with other author quotes) that got the ball rolling on this line’s popularity, or any of the other versions that have popped up on t-shirts and coffee mugs and whatever else.

It’s a perfect gift for any writer who’s still in love with the idea of being the angst-filled, drunken author character who writes in coffeehouses and bars, whose first draft is literary gold ready for immediate print, more than the reality of being an author who writes for a living in the same manner as anyone else who gets up and goes to work each day.

It validates the excuses we make so we can drink all day while plunking away at the keyboard. It’s ok, I’ll edit sober. Right, as if I need to edit. I’m sure some publisher is on his way right now to knock on my door and grab the latest bourbon fueled masterpiece I’ve come up with. Faulkner did it, Fitzgerald did it, look at Kerouac and Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams, Capote and Joyce. And Hemingway.

Well, except that it wasn’t really one of his rules.

People who have read more of Hemingway’s work then I have, and have read more about him, argue that he would write in the morning immediately after a good night’s sleep and before he had read anything that might cloud his own creative judgment. Sounds similar to advice I read recently warning people not to check their email early in the morning if they’d like to have a productive day.

In a quote from A Moveable Feast, Hemingway claimed not to drink after dinner or before writing, and on the subject of drinking while writing said, “Jeezus Christ! Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner.”

The closest anyone can tell about that quote, is that it originated from Peter De Vries’ novel, “Reuben, Reuben” about a drunk poet based on Dylan Thomas.

“Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”

That doesn’t fit as cleanly on an art print. Even just quoting it here I considered hacking part of it off. Apollonian, Dionysian, the undecided nature of the character’s habit. The Hemingway version was sweet, simple and clear.

Regardless of the true ownership of the advice, I broke the rule.

I tried to edit drunk. Not a bad idea for the times I need to read something out loud to get a feel for how the words actually flow outside my own head where everything is perfect. Something on the rocks nearby relaxes the vocal cords, right? But stay away from the stuff if you actually intend on digging through your most recent convoluted, long-winded draft and the short but painfully fragmented draft you wrote four months ago (before you started dreaming of turning a short story into a novel) with the hope of marrying the two into something worth reading.

What I thought I was editing turned out to be a completely different draft that had snuck its way into the mix. It wasn’t until I’d finished tearing up the second half of it and went back to the beginning that I realized I’d been working on the wrong draft the entire time. Now there are three drafts to sift through and piece together. And each one has its moments, because they always do.

This might work out for the best. I could end up with a better draft because these three versions I have before me represent the various levels of development in style or theme, or the inclusion of details and research, that have led to their evolution with each reading.

Or I could be back at the start. It could all be crap. I should get back to work.  I need a drink…

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About mattS

Couch potato, burrito aficionado, whiskey sour drinker, handyman, writer of interesting things.

Posted on April 29, 2014, in Culture, Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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