Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Professional Writers

Ernest Hemingway was famously "professional" about his writing. He cultivated a certain seriousness about "the work" of writing, which could be seen in his discipline, his unsentimentality about his own genius, and his principled respect for his fellow writers. Beyond his infectuous (and some would say inisidious) prose style, Hemingway's professionalism was arguably his greatest influence on the literature of his age. This morning, I want to describe this professionalism, and how it was taken up by Norman Mailer in shaping his own writing process. I'll do this with an eye to another post on Thursday about what "professorial" writing might look like by comparison.

Let's begin with discipline. Here's a typical statement of his famous method as it appeared in a 1946 newspaper article.

Not as fast a writer as you might think from his easy style, Mr. Hemingway works on a strict schedule that produces an average of 500 to 1,000 words a day. "I start in at seven in the morning," he says, "and I always quit when I'm going good, so that I'll be able to pick right up again the next day." (Conversations, p. 46)

Notice both the early start and the moderate quantity of writing he gets done. (This blog post, written from 6:00 to 7:00 AM will break 900.) He goes on to note that "a writer doesn't have an office organization to protect him from friends the way a business man does", which is why he needs "enforced discipline". He accomplished this by living in a physically inaccessible house on Cuba, with signs reminding visitors they'd better have an appointment.

In a 1937 speech, he described "the writer's problem" simply as "writing truly". "There is nothing more difficult to do," he says (a professional's pride, of course, is that he's good at something difficult), and the good writer is therefore justly rewarded. Even if these rewards only come posthumously, he says, "a really good writer is sure of eventual recognition. Only romantics think there are such things as unkonwn masters." (Conversations, p. 193) That is: the professional writer is someone who sets out to do good work and expects to rewarded appropriately. I.e., he expects to be paid. He does not complain that people (or whole ages) who won't reward him don't understand his genius.

Ten years after that speech, Time magazine asked Hemingway to identify "once-prominent writers that have slipped or failed to measure up to early promise." He declined to answer the question on the grounds that "A writer has no more right to inform the public of the weaknesses and strengths of his fellow professionals than a doctor or a lawyer has." (Conversations, p. 50) Two years later, in a letter to the New York Review of Books, he put the point forcefully:

Discussing other writers for publication is distasteful. Any good professional writer knows the strong points and the weaknesses of the other professionals. He is not under any obligation to point them out to the other writer's reading public. If te other writer is read the public must find the good in him. I see no reason to try to put him out of business by disillusioning anyone that he may mystify." (Conversations, p. 52)
I'll return to this point in the next post, but do notice that we do (morally) expect doctors and lawyers to put the known frauds among them "out of business" (though we don't hold our breath, to be sure).

Norman Mailer is one of Hemingway's greatest legacies, and he certainly claimed to practice what Papa preached. "To be a professional," he famously said, "is to do good work on a bad day", i.e., to write even when you don't 'feel like it'. (I need to find the reference for this.) He was as disciplined as (and, at times, harder working than) Hemingway. And he adopted the master's faith in the unconscious:

Over the years, I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write. ((The Spooky Art)
This is something I practice too, not least when writing these regularly scheduled blog posts. The theme of Hemingway's professionalism has been with me half-consciously since Thursday.

Another idea I've taken from Mailer, and Mailer has taken from Hemingway, is the idea that one keeps oneself "in shape" by writing, and that one is always working to improve one's style. Mailer sometimes compared himself to Muhammad Ali, and once, as in the following passage, to a professional football player.

In the absence of a greater faith, a professional keeps himself in shape by remaining true to his professionalism. Amateurs write when they are drunk. For a serious writer to do that is equivalent to a professional football player throwing imaginary passes in traffic when he is bombed., and smashing his body into parked cars on the mistaken impression that he is taking out the linebacker. Such a professional football player will feel like crying in the morning when he discovers that his ribs are broken. (Preface to Deaths for the Ladies, reprinted in Existential Errands, p. 200)

Mailer, of course, learned this the hard way, as do many writers. And some never learn it. But no writer who takes himmerherself seriously as a professional can say they have not been warned. The "professional writer" has a long and proud tradition to draw on—and to live up to.

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