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Learning Hemingway means using powers of details

April 9, 2022
Posted by:
Ron Seybold

Perhaps the most famous novelist of the 20th Century, Ernest Hemingway was a deeply flawed human who wrote about deeply flawed humans. The Ken Burns PBS documentary about the author is surrounded by nine hours of additional content on the Web. The Web content includes panel talks about the aspects of his writing life such as women, war, and food. As a young man, I read him early in my love affair with fiction. There are different things to admire now, forty years after my first reads.

There’s a lot to learn about the artist, including how much of his own story he invented. Nobody starved in Paris, for example, as he claimed to from the times in his Lost Generation days. There was plenty of trust money. Or the backstory behind the picture of him holding his machine gun with his son at his knee. A deep cut into one of his toughest stories, Up in Michigan, gets praised by novelist Edna O’Brien as an example of how much Earnest understood women. More than you’d think, but don’t ask his four wives about that.

One of the primary lessons from his writing is how his narrative uses a few well-plucked details. His short stories were republished as part of the film’s release. One story shows how the details in his narrations worked so hard. In The Light of the World, one character has stagged trousers: rough-cut, to be shorter to avoid accidents. Just a few lines later, “It was cold and the water in the road was freezing at its edges.”

Details are the authentications in your writing. Editor Dave King says when describing a character or location, you are going for quality, not quantity.” Trouser lengths, where the ice forms: there are things being taught about non-dialogue qualities of storytelling. If you missed the show, it’s available on the PBS app (Roku and phones) as well as on the Web — if you’re a Passport supporter of your station.

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