Learning From Hemingway

By Sheila C Skillman

Ernest Hemingway said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit-detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.” By this Hemingway signalled the vital importance of honesty and truth in creative writing – and these two are not easily found, least of all by the writer himself in the very act of writing.

I have known these words of Hemingway’s for two or three decades now; and on several occasions in my writing life they have come to the fore of my consciousness. Not only have I personally experienced their relevance in all the failings and small triumphs of my writing life; but I see that Hemingway touches upon something so vital, it never loses its relevance and practical importance throughout a writer’s life, to the moment of death.

When I write a first draft of a novel, even if writing to a rough plan, I find that I write most fluently in the same way I used to “waffle” in my English essays at school. That is the only way to get a first draft completed, I find, in a relatively short period of time (i.e. a couple of months). The greatest challenge lies in the writer’s ability to keep writing despite the fact that they strongly suspect Hemingway’s detector, referred to above, would probably break down through wear and tear if it ranged over this particular manuscript.

The time for Hemingway’s detector to spring into action is when you come to read over your manuscript. I have found that there is nothing so exposing as creative writing. If you are a snob, or a racist, or a prude, or greedy, or morally shabby or lazy, be sure your writing will find you out. I have struggled with the things I have learned about myself which stand exposed in my own manuscript. This may well be why so many would-be writers give up. But if you are a true writer, you will take hold of Hemingway’s detector and scan it over your manuscript. I have found all sorts of moralising, self-righteousness, pontificating elements in my tone and plot and ideas, whilst using Hemingway’s detector; and have transformed my own attitude to the behaviour of my characters.

What I have learned from the use of Hemingway’s detector is that in creative writing, none of us have the right to stand in judgement over the behaviour of our own characters. If we do, be sure it will register on Hemingway’s detector.

Therefore, the key points of the lesson are painful and strict self-examination; followed by the guts to go forward with what you have learned, and to act on it. We all know Hemingway did that, in his writing. But I believe this applies to every writer, at whatever stage. If this were not true, his words wouldn’t keep surfacing through the years, and reminding me of the challenge I have set myself.

S.C. Skillman is the author of “Mystical Circles” – a psychological thriller. “Intense psychological drama in a beasutiful setting.” You can buy the book on Amazon and through the Kindle Bookstore, or visit the author’s website to find out more, and click the secure payment gateway to buy a signed copy at [http://www.scskillman.co.uk]http://www.scskillman.co.uk.

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