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How to tell nothing but the truth in a way that always allows for telling more than the truth

26 August 2011

Hemingway entered serious fiction by way of the short story. It was a natural way to begin. His esthetic aims called for a rigorous self-discipline in the presentation of episodes drawn, though always made over, from life. Because he believed, firmly as his own Abruzzian priest, that “you cannot know about it unless you have it,” a number of the stories were based on personal experience, though here again invention of a symbolic kind nearly always entered into the act of composition.

The early discipline in the short story, and it was rarely anything but the hardest kind of discipline, taught Hemingway his craft. He learned how to get the most from the least, how to prune language and avoid waste motion, how to multiply intensities, and how to tell nothing but the truth in a way that always allowed for telling more than the truth.

From the short story he learned wonderfully precise lessons in the use of dialogue for the purposes of exposition. Even the simpler stories showed this power. In the struggle with his materials he learned to keep the poker face of the true artist. Or, if you changed the image to another game, he learned the art of relaying important hints to his partner the reader without revealing all at once the full content of his holdings.

From the short story he gained a skill in the economical transfer of impressions – without special rhetoric or apparent trickery. His deepest trust was placed in the cumulative effect of ostensibly simple, carefully selective statement, with occasional reiteration of key phrases for thematic emphasis.

Like James, he has been rightly called an architect rather than a manipulator, and he himself has said that prose is architecture rather than interior decoration – an esthetic fact which the short story taught him.

Carlos Baker, Hemingway, The Writer as Artist

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Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

3 Comments to “How to tell nothing but the truth in a way that always allows for telling more than the truth”

  1. Hemingway is one of my top inspirations when writing short stories … strangely enough, because with a few exceptions I write in probably the most anti-Hemingway style possible: More expressionistic, stream-of-conscious-like, or whatever it’s called. I guess it’s true that opposites attract. 🙂

    But seriously, it’s probably just as true that as a writer, one should always look for inspiration, lessons to be learned, inspirations to be drawn, no matter if it comes from someone whose style is very different than yours. Perhaps especially when that is so …

  2. He’s a great guy to learn from even if you don’t try to do it the way he did.

  3. Agreed. 🙂

    P.S. To any Hemingway-fans reading here: I recently listened to a fantastic audiobook version of The Sun Also Rises read by someone named Alexander Adams IIRC. I also listened to a version of The Old Man and the Sea read by Charlton Heston. Both readings really opened my eyes (and ears) to the fact that Hemingway’s prose is extremely well-suited for (pro) reading, where the right intonations of dialogue, etc, do justice to Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’-style of writing … A good reading really leads your attention to all that pent-up existential emotion just beneath the surface of Hemingway’s seemingly ‘aloof’ dialogue…

    Absolutely recommendable…

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