Being Ernest: On ” Writing One True Sentence”

I used to read Ernest “Papa” Hemingway’s novels. Clean, spare prose, mixed up with some keen observations about human nature, his writing – and his adventurous life – took me places I yearned to go. But, later on, even more enticing to me was his nonfiction. I can’t tell you how many times I read A Moveable Feast, his somewhat mythologized saga about his life in Paris. As with just about everything related to Hemingway and his works, that book had its scandalous moments, too.

When I wandered around Hemingway’s house in Key West, the experience a bit mangled by the hordes of cruise-ship tourists just as eager as I to walk in the footsteps of the great writer, I saw how such a setting could be inspiring. No waterfront, true, which – as a Pisces – I would most certainly require for optimum productivity. (For more about the writing lives of famous – and not so famous – writers, take a look at Gary Allen’s newest book, How to Write a Great Book.) But the gardens alone, along with the ministrations of the six-toed cats that have the run of the house, no doubt allowed Hemingway to feel a certain peace of mind and spirit. At least after he built the red-brick wall surrounding the house, aimed at cutting off the view from the gaping tourists of the time.

Papa’s famous adage, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know,” could be boiled down to something even simpler: “Write one word. Then write another.” Then, according to Arthur Quiller-Couch, the writer needs to “murder your darlings.” In other words, precisely (!), many of those beautiful words must be sacrificed for the good of the work.

I’ve always wondered how Hemingway knew his one true sentence. And that, dear reader, is why writing is a such a grand adventure. What will be discovered by writing even just one word?


Key West (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)