What makes for good writing?
Opinions abound, but Hemingway’s near-obsession, his never-ending quest for a “true” or “perfect sentence,” strikes me as the most succinct articulation of the fundamentals—the first principles of this illusive art.
All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know
Consider an excerpt from Alfred Kazin’s review of A Moveable Feast:
All his writing life Hemingway labored after that “true sentence.” He sought, I think, the sentence that would have the primacy of experience, that would relive a single unit of experience. Hemingway had often been close to death, he always felt death to be near, and his prose, like the poetry of the seventeenth-century metaphysicals, sought to make the ultimate experience come close. Someone might yet record death in the sentient flesh — as intimate a sensation as eating, drinking, and lovemaking. But the “true sentence” could be recognized only if it had the right cadence and the tease of subtlety in some culminating word. Hemingway wanted to unsettle the reader just enough to make him sit up and notice a different way of saying things.
We’re all familiar with Charles Dickens’ riveting introduction to A Tale of Two Cities. Or, I should hope, with Victor Hugo’s somewhat “lofty” epilogue and prologue to Les Misérables. For a less well-known though equally striking example, however, consider F. Scott Fitzgerald’s opening and closing lines of Great Gatsby—still one of the top contenders for the Great American Novel:
- In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
- So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. 
Either of Scott Fitzgerald’s two sentences reverberates with profound truth, utter simplicity, and concision. They’re “perfect” in every Hemingesqian way.
If there is a “method” embedded in Heminway’s sage advice, it has to be this: proceed slowly, step-by-step or brick-by-brick. Or “bird by bird,” as Anne Lamott would have it.
But this brings me to the subject at hand—my long-entertained desire to add my two cents to this already well-covered topic! You may think it presumptuous given that there’s certainly no shortage of “creative writing” instructors and many literati, not to mention men and women of letters, luminaries all, each more than willing to share the tricks of the trade, and then some. And they’d done so ad infinitum, as the vast literature on the writings process—all the dos and the don’ts!–attests. 
Well, my much-awaited project, on the back burner until now, received an unexpected boost last week from Alan Kurtz, an ole BC colleague and friend, and an accomplished writer in his own right.  Out of genuine concern, Alan was kind enough to submit an article for publication on our hopefully burgeoning website to generate more traffic and greater reader engagement, but more on that later.
Meanwhile, if you still think I need to justify yet another posting on this already well-traversed topic, let me say that it all stems from personal experience. And my personal experience, in my not-so-humble opinion, is unique enough to count.
In the interest of not being dogmatic, I’m posting this article under the “Creative Writing” genre on a take-it or leave-it basis. “Make of it what you will,” is all I ask!
It’s but a temporary designation, for in time, we may have to come up with a brand new category, such as “Language and Culture,” for instance. Not only would it be a far better fit for articles such as this. It would also establish the primacy of language, our language, as the very antecedent, if not a determinant, of our culture, society, and what else have you.
But that’s further down the line—subject perhaps to this article’s reception by you, the reader. In the interim, I sincerely hope you’ll look forward to the continuation.
- The term obsession is on point. See, for example, “Alfred Kazin on Hemingway” in The Atlantic, Fiction 2005 Issue. “Most writers [according to the Atlantic editorial staff] struggle to produce well-crafted sentences. But as the literary critic and author Alfred Kazin explained in 1964, for Hemingway the perfect sentence was almost an obsession.” 1964 references the date of Kazin’s earlier review of A Moveable Feast in The Atlantic (see note #3).As to Mr. Kazin, he was a literary critic and scholar par excellence. His interests ranged from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne to F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Theodore Dreiser, Hemingway, and Norman Mailer. See, for instance, this entry in Britannica.
- See “The Hemingway Sentence: A Daily Practice for Better Writing”
- See “Hemingway as His Own Fable” in Powell’s Books, originally published in the Atlantic Monthly, June 1964.
- See, for example, Kit Whitfield blog, March 28, 2013 entry.
- See Venky’s July 27, 2013 entry in Blogternator.
- For a list of “best” books on the craft of writing, I recommend Broke by Books, my first choice. The Write Life is another invaluable compendium. Aside from accomplished authors on either list—Stephen King, John Gardner, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Chuck Palaniuk, to name but a few– there’re others, many others! Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer—number five on Broke’s list—is one of my favorites, despite her far from complimentary assessment of Hemingway, and I quote: “Hemingway should have stayed in the Midwest. He ruined things for the rest of us, telling all those lies. The lie about courage, the lie about every red-blooded male needing to kill a bull or climb Mount Kilimanjaro.” Though perfectly understandable from a feminist viewpoint, agree or disagree, Francine’s pointers on the art of reading and writing are invaluable. Here is a brief, 14- minutes-read summary.
- See, for instance, January 5, 2011 article, “Uncompromising Kurtz,” in the I Witness blog. For Alan’s more recent work, see this entry on amazon.com.