Reading list: A Moveable Feast

How to start: A Moveable Feast is an fun, easy read. Like Karl Ove Knausgaard who wrote that when a journalist alluded to his collection of books he’d answered that he hadn’t read most of them “and the ones I have I don’t remember a thing about” I too remember very little of the books I’ve read. I think that’s why I take care to write out quotes I like. In the case of this book, I have only one. “They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that in those who made jokes in life the seeds were covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure.”

What I like better than that quote is one by Francine Prose. She writes:

Finally, before we leave the subject of sentences, let’s return once more to Hemingway, and to the passage from his memoir of his youth in Paris, A Moveable Feast, in which he describes his working method and which subsequent generations of writers have taken as a form of implicit literary advice:

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going… 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 scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

For years, I’ve heard this passage about the one true sentence cited as a sort of credo. And I’ve nodded my head, not wanting to admit that I honestly had no idea what in the world Hemingway was talking about. What is a ‘true’ sentence in this context – that is, the context of fiction? What makes Hemingway’s advice so hard to follow is that he never quite explains what ‘true’ means.

Perhaps it’s wisest to assume that Hemingway, like countless others, was simply confusing truth with beauty. Possibly what he really meant was a beautiful sentence – a concept that, as we have seen, is almost as hard to define as the one true sentence.

In any case, it should encourage us. Hemingway was not only thinking about the good and beautiful and true sentence, but also using it as sustenance – as a goal to focus on, as a way to keep himself going. And though it’s obvious that times have changed, that what was true in Hemingway’s era may no longer be true today, the fact remains that Hemingway not only cared about sentences, not only told his publishers that they mattered to him, but told his readers, and told the world. (Reading Like A Writer, pages 61-62) 

Ernest Hemingway also compiled and published writing advice. The Brain Pickings blog features a sample.