Writing is like eating pies; sometimes it’s all you can think of.
When asked what it takes to be a good writer, Ernest Hemingway said, “A lousy childhood.”
He is also quoted in a great book, The Green Hills of Africa, p. 22, as saying this:
“All modern American Literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called, Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.
“But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
He’s being modest of course. Hemingway fits right in there between “before,” and “since.” I personally can think of two authors who fit into the “since” category. One is Cormac McCarthy, and the other is Kurt Vonnegut. American, mind you – and since I am telling this story, no others count.
So before anyone can write a book, a short story, or a sentence, they have to read, read, read. A good place to start is with any book I have written. Since they pale in comparison to any of the authors I’ve just mentioned, I won’t look too bad. But seriously. Start with Huck Finn. Twain is Shakespeare simplified. Reading should not feel like you are reading, and that is what Twain does.
After Twain, Ernest is right. There is a void in American lit. And then came, A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s third novel about a soldier and his love of a nurse he meets while being treated in a hospital during WWI. Hemingway’s art is in his dialogue. He has a style of writing so different from anybody before or since. If you were to write like him today, it would be difficult to get published. It’s tough enough, and today’s editor, trained in today’s educational system, would not know what to do with it.
Kurt Vonnegut, with The Sirens of Titan, writes in his own genre. He talks of his early years when publishers wanted to place him in the science fiction genre. But they were wrong. While a lot of his storylines were of a fantastic theme, he wrote about the human tragedy. But he did it in a philosophically humorous way. And with a sardonic twist which always leaves us smiling. And if we read it again and maybe once more, we may get it.
Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road, is written with a reality and truthfulness that makes us think. I guess you can call it “literature.”
The Road pulls us into the mind of a man tortured in a post-apocalyptic world with the task of keeping his son alive in hopes of finding a place where good might still trump the evil that has taken over the few humans left alive, where life, as it was, might still be. A place where mankind hasn’t been stripped of civilization – that outer shell that binds us to what Spinoza referred to when he suggested that God has determined the universe down to the last detail.
McCarthy’s protagonist holds the belief that God still exists regardless of the lack of civilization. He is put to the test – down to his last breath. It is one of the few books that literally left me crying. Not because of its philosophy, but because of McCarthy’s ability to put it into words.
What tells of a good author is what McCarthy did in this book. He did all this, told a story and never once does he explain what caused the apocalyptic event that ended life as we know it. And you know, I don’t remember asking that question either. He told his story through his frank and simple prose.
That answers the question; “What does it take to be a writer?”