Thursday, January 17

Ernest Hemingway And The Purpose Of Writing

Ernest Hemingway And The Purpose Of Writing

I woke up today thinking about tragedy and its role in creating art.

What is it we hope to accomplish by writing? Do we write to evoke emotion? Do we write to create a world more real than the one in which we live? Do we write to tell the truth; not the literal truth, but the real truth?

Yesterday I blogged about how to create suspenseful stories and the importance of making what your character has to lose--the stakes--both high and obvious. I led with a picture of a real-life tragedy taken by John L. Gaunt, one that won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in 1955.

The photograph was of a couple who had just learnt their small son, he was only 19 months old, had been swept out to sea and was dead. The picture captures the parents as the woman, the enormity of her grief settling on her, turns toward her husband, the sea at her back.
Down by the water, Gaunt finds a distraught young couple by the shoreline. Moments before, their 19-month-old son was playing happily in their yard. Somehow, he wandered down to the
beach. He was swept away by the fierce tide.

The little boy is gone. There is nothing anyone can do. Gaunt, who has a daughter about the same age, takes four quick photographs of the grieving couple. "As I made the last exposure,
they turned and walked away" he says. The little boys body is later recovered from the surf.
I find Gaunt's photograph emotionally compelling. It is difficult for me to look at it and not feel grief.

But not every story needs to evoke raw emotion--grief, loss--in the almost brutal way this picture does.

One of the authors I admire most is Ernest Hemingway. I think Hills Like White Elephants is the best short story I have read or will ever read. And, yes, there is a tragedy, a loss, but it is, compared to the enormity of the loss captured in Gaunt's photograph, more muted. It is, among other things, the loss of innocence, of hope.

So, what's my point?

Genre Versus Mainstream

Most of the books I read--urban fantasy sprinkled with horror as well as the occasional mainstream story--are not heavy on tragedy. Not the kind of tragedy evident in, say, Hamlet.

And that's not a bad thing.

I suspect that one of the reasons genre literature occasionally gets snubbed by those whose tastes run more toward the mainstream may be just this difference: genre fiction tends to be lighter. Funnier. It has happy endings. Not all the time, but a lot of the time.

Does that mean genre fiction is any less literature? That it is in some way lesser?

I don't think so. Perhaps it all hinges on how a person answers this question:

What are we supposed to be doing when we write? What is this whole writing thing about, anyway?

Some folks say, and I know this is glib, that "the purpose of writing is to evoke emotion" and that's fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't say much. For instance, what kind of emotion? How intense should the emotion be? Why emotion and not, for instance, thought?

Earlier today I came across a quotation that articulates my answer to this question far more eloquently than I could. Unsurprisingly, it is from one of Ernest Hemingway's letters.

Ernest Hemingway On What Makes A Writer

This is the most true thing I've ever read:
All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer. ("Old Newsman Writes : A Letter from Cuba" in Esquire (December 1934), Wikiquote)
What is the purpose of writing? To tell, to communicate, the truth whether that be through evoking emotion or thought. When I say "truth" I don't mean the literal truth, I mean the real truth. But it's not just that, good writing also creates a place, a space, another world for others to experience, if they choose.
I've shared my musings about why we write, what the purpose of all this scribbling is. But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Why do you write? Do you write to evoke emotion in your readers? Do you write to tell the truth--not the literal truth, but the real truth? Do you write to share your world, and your worldview? Or is it something else? 
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I had hoped to write about the importance of making your characters, especially your protagonist, flawed. Oh well. At least I have my blog post for tomorrow!

Other posts you might like:

- Revising Your Manuscript And Building Suspense: Making Your Character's Stakes Both Clear And High
- The Starburst Method: Summarizing Your Story In One Sentence
- F. Scott Fitzgerald On The Price Of Being A Great Writer

Photo credit: "Untitled" by thejbird under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. I agree about Hills Like White Elephants. Epic short fiction, there. Gotta love Papa's "Iceberg Theory" of writing.

    Well said, good lady. I raise my glass to you.



    1. Thanks Simon!

      That brings back memories. the Iceberg Theory. Personally I think it was magic. I've re-read _Hills_ a number of times and I know what Hemingway is writing about (or think I do) but ... Wow. I could never pull that off. No one would know what I was talking about!

      By the way, love the title of your blog: Write drunk, edit sober. It's not often a name gives good advice, well done!

  2. Karen,
    You truly have great posts on your blog. The Hemingway principle states; "Less is more", a maxim of architecture. Rather than making an arch very deep, you can create an illusion, an effect of it being hollow. "Hills like White Elephants" is a literary masterpiece, though few without a habit of reflection will make head or tail out of the story. But I love "The Killers" best for it being more poetic.

    1. Thanks for your kind words.

      The Killers, I haven't read that story in years. I think it's time I remedy that.

  3. People ask me why I climb mountains. What's the purpose? Why do I ride my bike so hard? Why do I run like the devil's chasing me? I can crochet? I can paint? I'm learning a new instrument?

    Why do I write?

    I try not to waste my time on "why", and prefer to waste my time with "how". I don't need a why. I do a thing to the best of my ability, because that is how I spend my time. Other people can decide what my "purpose" was in writing it. I do it because it is impossible NOT to.

    1. Hi Leauxra. Someone once said that if a writer could be dissuaded from writing, they should be. And I think that goes for everything else.

      I wasn't inquiring about the purpose of any particular individual, but about the purpose of writing writ large.

    2. Yes, I can see that, but I don't think that the purpose of writing in general can be divorced from the purpose of a single individual putting pen to paper.

      This may just be me, but when I have an ulterior motive for any creative endeavor I pursue, I will fail.

      Looking back on anything I made, I can say, "Oh, I evoked emotion," or "I am making a political statment that I don't actually agree with here," or "This is a character study." I guarantee that was not what I was thinking about while I wrote, though.

      ... OK... I think I'll just climb back into my hole here.

    3. "... I don't think that the purpose of writing in general can be divorced from the purpose of a single individual putting pen to paper."

      Good point.

      I guess I'm looking at this from the perspective of someone who is writing for an audience. My intention is to tell stories others folks will want to hear, stories they will find interesting.

      For me, that raises a number of questions: What makes a story interesting? Is tragedy essential? And so on.

      Sometimes, though, I do a writing excessive or write a story for myself and then it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks or feels. And, here, I completely agree with you. We write because we cannot do otherwise.

      Good discussion.


Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies. I do appreciate each and every comment.