Haunted by Hemingway's "One True Sentence"
I've been working on a memoir and I want to give up
A little way into A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s posthumously published account of his time in Paris as a young writer, he delivers this passage that has haunted me ever since I have made my own living as a writer, and before that too:
Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scroll-work or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.
Some people seem to think this method of writing one true sentence and avoiding anything elaborate is some kind of sage, Papa-delivered advice on overcoming writer’s block.
I happen to think it’s the opposite. It’s Hemingway’s little competitive way of saying to future generations of writers: don’t even try. No one will write truer sentences than me.
I’ve been working on a memoir the past few months. It’s about unfulfilled creative ambition, how we think about legacy, and the ways in which certain writers have been an essential guide for me in my own struggle for legacy and creative fulfillment.
It’s called Idolizing Hemingway. And I want to give up.
How it’s going
A few people have asked me how far along I am in this memoir. The answer depends. The words I currently have down on the page generally fall into three categories:
Total words: 45,000+
Words I’d actually show to a friendly editor: ~15,000
Words I personally think are good: not that many
Or, there is another metric: how many words are true in the sense that Hemingway meant it? How many words are my most honest, truest accounting? So true that they feel more real even than the reality I lived.
The answer is probably none, or close to none.
As I sit in my chaise in the evenings or afternoons or whenever I can drag myself to the keyboard, I increasingly stare at the draft I am producing and think to myself: I’m not good enough. My writing just isn’t good enough.
I am supposed to be writing about how past writers like Hemingway have shaped my feelings about legacy and the creative life, and here I am paralyzed by the exact subject about which I’m supposed to be writing, paralyzed because the bar I’ve got in my head—one true sentence—is apparently too high a bar for me to cross.
Where we get validation
I’ve thought a lot about creative validation. In fact, I made a whole movie about it, run time one hour and fifteen minutes (recently posted to YouTube if you’re interested).
I think sources of creative validation can be separated into a few categories:
Validation from one or a small handful of trusted sources (spouse, friends)
Validation from elites (good reviews)
Validation from audience size (more sales/readership/likes, etc.)
Validation from within
In my film, the main character, an aspiring theatre director named Evelina, is intensely preoccupied with creative validation, especially from audiences and critics. She wants to make “great art,” and her definition of great art is a theatre production that critics and audiences love.
Meanwhile, another character named John, one of the actors in Evelina’s production, is equally preoccupied with validation. Only, he is one hundred percent motivated from within. The only opinion that matters about his performance as an actor is his own.
In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, John has realized he isn’t living up to his own standard for a good performance, launching him into a crisis in which he freezes up, unable to remember any of his lines. He is unsure of whether continuing with the production—or even trying to be an actor—is worth it.
Maybe you’ve guessed, but I’m the John character.
The flaw within
Of course, it’s always nice when you, dear readers, email me a kind reply about how good this or that piece of writing was, and it’s also nice to see new subscribers come in. It makes me feel good that my writing is of some greater resonance, and not just a kind of masturbatory self-help session I carry out in public from time to time.
Still, I already know what is good before I hit the “Publish” button, and a large percentage of the satisfaction I get from writing is already received before my writing ever reaches an audience. This only reinforces my identity as someone who gets their validation from within (because true artists do the art for its own sake, not for the validation of others; their only guide is their own internal muse.)
But there’s a flaw with this line of thinking, and I’ve been aware of it for a while.
I may think I am almost entirely motivated by my own sense of what is or is not good writing. But where did that sense originally come from?
In my head, I have an idea of what is good writing, but that idea was formed by multiple influences from multiple time periods in my past. So, in some sense, I have incorporated those influences into my own internal guide. But in another sense I am actually in the first category of the different kinds of people I mentioned above: I get my validation from a small handful of trusted sources, those sources being the other literary influences from my past.
Of course, this is a horrible place to be in as a writer, comparing myself to the best work of other world-historical writers. No wonder I’m paralyzed.
An alternative way of thinking, equally paralyzing
Hemingway wrote the first draft of his first masterpiece, The Sun Also Rises, in about six weeks of fevered typing. But then the real work began. He went through dozens of drafts before sending it to his publisher. Even then, after getting back the galleys, he went through more than a dozen additional revisions.
When I read about Hemingway’s editing process for that book, a book which I revere, I felt both better and worse about my own writing. Better because I am only on what could be considered my third or fourth revision of certain sections (with others still to be written at all).
But it also made me feel worse because I don’t know if I have it in me to do that much work on a manuscript. If Hemingway went through 30 or 40 drafts, and I’m already getting burned out after three or four, what does that say about me the writer? How much do I really care about the things I’m telling you I care about if I’m not willing to put in the work?
There, now I have said the thing in the plainest way I know how: I want to quit because I am scared I simply don’t have the work ethic to be as good as I want to be.
So where does that leave me?
If you’ve been reading this newsletter for long enough, you may be used to the fact that I don’t always offer prescriptions. No need to wrap things up with a pretty, optimistic bow at the end. Sometimes it’s just a question I have, and this one is unresolved.
I am here in my office at my desk, with the 45,000+ not very good words safely closed away in its file so that I don’t have to stare at writing I am not happy with, and don’t have to do the hard work of making it more true.
And meanwhile, time ticks away, never to come back.