Thursday, September 20, 2012

Searching for a Voice

“I want to write like Ernest Hemingway and sing like Chet Baker’s trumpet”

I have pretty much given up on the second of these wishes, posted for years on the wall above my desk. In spite of the encouragement of my daughter the music professor, no amount of instruction has helped me achieve even a minimally pleasing and accurate vocal tone. I accept that I will never be able to use my voice to summon the naked emotion I hear when Chet Baker made his horn sing. (Mr. Baker’s own singing voice was too cool for my taste--and I don’t think it improved after he got all his teeth knocked out in a brawl.)

As for Mr. Hemingway, I have just finished re-reading A Farewell to Arms for the fourth or fifth time. I read Hemingway for the same reasons people listen to Bach.

I am on the library’s reserve list for the new edition of A Farewell to Arms that includes several endings Hemingway wrote and rejected before deciding on the novel’s exquisite and inevitable final hospital scene. 

Ernest Hemingway’s writing, so naked and exposed, demonstrates his courage far better than any tales of the bulls he ran with at Pamplona. Hemingway was a fearless writer, a man who would use a word three times in a single sentence if that were the one true word he needed. The young Hemingway was befriended by Gertrude Stein in the 1920s, and it’s amusing to imagine that Stein’s rather opaque prose may have given Hemingway the courage to develop his unique spare style (think Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose”). 

Perhaps someone can be taught to write like Hemingway, but I don't think someone can be taught to see like Hemingway, to remember like Hemingway. 

Hemingway’s crystalline prose is in the service of his content. Both For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms are extraordinarily detailed war stories, stories in which you taste the earth and feel the snow. I don’t know which would be more remarkable: to be able to recall such minute detail of a time in one’s past or to create such a world from the imagination. 

Hemingway has no fancy phrases, no ornate figures of speech. His words say what they say, and walk off. Hemingway’s gift is first of all his clear, calm observation, and only secondarily his brave use of language. Hemingway's words are banal, and Hemingway's narratives would be banal if backed by a blunter sensibility. Because life is banal. That’s not an insult, merely a description. 

So if I am to learn to write like Hemingway, I must first find my true content and only then try to find my true words. 

It also wouldn’t hurt to keep in mind one of Papa’s more quotable quotes, applicable to both storytelling and life itself: “Never mistake movement for action.”

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