How To Pick Apart Great Writing: Joan Didion on Ernest Hemingway

Can you pick apart the magic in a great piece of writing? Not completely, perhaps. But you can learn a hell of a lot trying. Watch Joan Didion, back in 1998 in The New Yorker, do so with one of Hemingway’s most mysteriously gorgeous passages:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

So goes the famous first paragraph of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” which I was moved to reread by the recent announcement that what was said to be Hemingway’s last novel would be published posthumously next year. That paragraph, which was published in 1929, bears examination: four deceptively simple sentences, one hundred and twenty-six words, the arrangement of which remains as mysterious and thrilling to me now as it did when I first read them, at twelve or thirteen, and imagined that if I studied them closely enough and practiced hard enough I might one day arrange one hundred and twenty-six such words myself. Only one of the words has three syllables. Twenty-two have two. The other hundred and three have one. Twenty-four of the words are “the,” fifteen are “and.” There are four commas. The liturgical cadence of the paragraph derives in part from the placement of the commas (their presence in the second and fourth sentences, their absence in the first and third), but also from that repetition of “the” and of “and,” creating a rhythm so pronounced that the omission of “the” before the word “leaves” in the fourth sentence (“and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling”) casts exactly what it was meant to cast, a chill, a premonition, a foreshadowing of the story to come, the awareness that the author has already shifted his attention from late summer to a darker season. The power of the paragraph…derives precisely from this kind of deliberate omission, from the tension of withheld information. In the late summer of what year? What river, what mountains, what troops?

Discussions of what nonfiction writers can learn from fiction often focus on close reporting, vivid scene description, the use of dialogue, or a strong emphasis on plot. These are all important. But the best fiction also generates meaning, and much of its power to entrance, not just through those more visible devices, but through the sort of veil work that Didion writes of here — the generation of meaning through mystery, presence through absence, creation through concealment.

Link: Life and Letters: Last Words

The article is paywalled but well worth it. It includes a wonderful assessment — a reminder still valuable — of how radically Hemingway affected writing, in ways we still feel today. A teaser:

The didactic momentum of the biography was such that we sometimes forgot that this was a writer who had in his time made the English language new, changed the rhythms of the way both his own and the next few generations would speak and write and think. The very grammar of a Hemingway sentence dictated, or was dictated by, a certain way of looking at the world, a way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism distinctly adapted to its time and source.

Modernism embodified, in other words, but in service to a ferocious engagement with the few parts of the world that could be trusted: the natural world; physical engagements with the natural world, especially fishing (but including bicycling, which now seems ironic); a small handful of people and experiences with integrity.  Hemingway’s engagement with and representation of post-Great-War modern experience was much different than that of Virginia Woolf. An astonishing amount of writing since then bears the mark of one or the other — or, very often, both.

Related at Neuron Culture:

How I Write: With Spies, Revolvers, Whiskey, and Luck

The Only Time Gabriel Garcia Marquez Saw Ernest Hemingway

Patrick O’Brian on Finding Your Own Voice

Hemingway mojo in particular:

Play That F**king Little Sixteenth Note (NC Moving Party Track 5)

Listen: Hemingway’s Short, Moving Nobel Prize Speech

Why I Love Hemingway (and Why I Write)

Papa on work routines

For more on work routines and great writing advice (including some from Didion and Hemingway), see The Daily Routines of Famous Writers | Brain Pickings

One response

  1. I’d love someone to make a chart of the evolutionary history of writers, arranging just our Western, English and American, ones in a single, huge arrangement of their relations and similarities. It would be nothing if not an invitation for disagreement, but such fun.

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