“Write Drunk, Edit Sober”: Ernest Hemingway’s Writing Philosophy

Ernest Hemingway was famous for two things: writing and drinking.  So perhaps it’s no surprise that his writing philosophy combines the two great constants in his life.  It’s definitely no surprise to anyone who’s ever read any of his books, except maybe The Old Man and the Sea.  Maybe.

Typing with one hand, holding a drink with the other.

While I the first book of his that I ever read was that very book, the first time I read and loved him was A Farewell to Arms.  Perhaps I felt a sort of kindredness with the protagonist in the story because we were both expatriates.   I was living in France at the time, in Dijon, and there was a rumor that the great writer had studied French in the same program that I was in.  While I hadn’t really enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea (I was barely out of high school the first time I read it, and I think that I was just too inexperienced to really understand the book at that point in my life), I decided to give Old Hem another shot.  He did, after all, love Paris, so he couldn’t be all bad.  I bought A Farewell to Arms in the Gare de Lyon while I was waiting for a train (I sort of think I was headed toward Berlin, oddly enough, because I was on my own, but I really could have been going anywhere, I suppose).  After I put the book down, I had changed my mind about Ernie.

In the following years, my love affair with Hemingway deepened.  I’ve read most of his books while living in various European cities, and I think that a big part of my connection to Hemingway draws from the fact that he was writing about expatriate life at the same time as I was experiencing it.  He so perfectly captured the loneliness and the excitement and the pureness of friendships between expats.  The Sun Also Rises.  A Moveable Feast.  These books were my expat bibles.

People who have read my work are always shocked to hear that I have been influenced by Ernest Hemingway.  His tight, concise style seems in direct conflict with my own style, which tends toward the verbose, often waxing emotional and quasi-poetic.  I think that people just roll their eyes and say, “You’re probably influenced by Shakespeare and Stephen King too.”  And it’s true, when I’m writing, I totally ignore Ernie’s spare voice.  But when I’m editing?  He is the heavy bird-of-prey on my shoulder saying, “Cut it.  Throw it to me.”

Which leads me nicely to my point.  Hemingway once (supposedly) said, “Write drunk.  Edit sober.”  And while I have no doubt that he meant the statement (at least partly) literally, that’s not how I read it.  Personally, I’m a horrible writer when I’m tipsy, and if I ever gave it a shot when I was flat out drunk, I’m pretty sure it would be a horrible, rambling mess.

But what I think that Hem was getting at was this: the time to censor yourself is not when you are writing.  When you are writing, you should let yourself go, put on the page (or the screen) whatever comes into your mind, whether it makes logical sense or not.  We’re talking stream-of-consciousness, wild and crazy stuff.  As though you are the drunk dude at the bar at the end of the night, hugging everybody and telling them how nobody loves him like his mother and it’s been three years since the last time he got laid and he really hates his job because his office smells terrible.  Nobody is really interested in what he has to say, but HE is interested.  It means something to him.  And when he wakes up the next afternoon, he will wonder what the hell he was talking about.  He will wish he hadn’t said certain things.  He will edit.

See what I’m saying?  More importantly, see what Ernie’s saying?  He’s telling you to let yourself go when you put pen to paper.  Follow your imagination wherever it takes you.  Enjoy yourself.  Make stupid jokes.  Bring in characters who don’t belong.  Make up indiscriminate love affairs and ill-conceived antics and senseless crimes.   Fall in love with every word you write.  Become drunk with the power of creating your own universe, being the god of that universe.  If you censor yourself from the very beginning, you’ll never get anywhere.

And then, when you’ve written the last word, get yourself a strong cup of coffee.  You’re going to need it.  Now you’ve got to edit this mess.