New Year's Resolutions for Writers: Ernest Hemingway's "Truest Sentence"
Should some writing come with a "made-in-China" label? In our digitized 21st century, how much of our writing is too cheap, too quick and too disposable? Has the sheer volume of digitized, podcast, broadcast and hard-copy content spawned a 24/7 static, a persistent distraction?
I have been a lifelong lover of the jigsaw process of writing, of yoking apparently disparate ideas together for a cohesive whole. As a teacher and a writer, I have told my students and myself to "let yourself play in the word box to find that first, unfettered draft."
But lately, I have been questioning my own advice. In the time that it takes us to pen that first draft of a 3,000-word essay or story, have the writing and publishing rules already changed? Has everyone already gone onto the next and louder message?
December has not been a good writing month because the first week was spent in my native Ireland, where I flew across the Atlantic to visit my family and to close out the mourning year for my late father's death.
It has not been a good writing month because my day job was really busy.
It has not been a good writing month because I was jet lagged and tired, addled, anxious and often awake at 3 a.m.
In fact, though I've managed to complete some essays and start a new book project, it hasn't been a very good writing year. For most of 2012, I have been plagued by this sense that some of us are destined to be the gauche maiden aunt at this hyper hip, hyper loud and hyper mercenary party called modern writing.
Or let's put it this way: This December, we tele-witnessed a young man gunning down 20 school children, another man pushing a stranger in front of a speeding train, and another man shooting up firefighters on Christmas.
So what the hell good are we?
And, worse than being ineffectual, aren't we writers--aka "content providers"-- part of the problem? Our words are part of that blathery static that postures and obscures and, by extension, belittles the gut-crushing realities of life, death and loss?
Two nights ago, on the evening of December 30th, I was thinking about all of this when I suddenly remembered that line from Hemingway: "Write the truest sentence that you know."
But after the madness that has been December 2012, I could find or write no fixed, existential truth.
At least, not about anything out there outside my office window.
To atone for our year of spin and cruelty and sycophancy, I tried to call up that one true thing about me.
I wrote down 20.
Some are those bare-knuckled truths that set us on the offensive or make us brace or duck for the next upper cut. Some of my self-truths made me hold my breath. A few made me tremble. One made me cry.
The fact that I wrote 20 truths on 16 single-spaced, handwritten pages doesn't make me super prolific or super honest. It simply and sadly means that, in the busy-ness and babble of life, in the gussied-up version of me that I present to the world, I had abandoned what was true.
Now, all 20 of my truths are written down. They are an excellent blueprint for 2013.
Thank you, Ernest Hemingway. I don't like your writing. Given your macho, hard-living shtick, I probably wouldn't have liked you.
But in a world turned mad and bad, I love your saving advice.