A Moveable Feast: A Lesson in Writing From Nobel Prize Winner Ernest Hemingway

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A Moveable Feast Cover

Ernest Hemingway is best known as a novelist, but he started his career in journalism. For some time he was based in Paris, travelling Europe and writing for the Canadian newspaper The Toronto Star. It was here that he developed the concise, economical writing style that would win him the Nobel Prize for Literature.

A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s memoir of those early days in Paris, as he made the transition from journalist to novelist. It features his friendships with Gertrude Stein, Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound; his visits to Sylvia Bleach’s original Shakespeare & Company bookshop; gambling, cafes and ski trips.

The book inspired Woody Allen’s film Midnight In Paris and gave me some ideas for my article about the city’s creative heritage.

The book also contains thoughts about writing and creativity. I’ve always admired Hemingway’s direct and deceptively simple style. I’ve tried to emulate it, and it’s always made what I’ve written more powerful, so this book was educational as well as interesting.

The aim of this post is to draw out Hemingway’s direct advice and thoughts on being a writer. I hope it helps – please write your own thoughts in the comments section, or Tweet me @AshBhardwaj.

How To Start

Cold_Paris

A Cold Morning In Paris

The book starts with a walk to a café, where Hemingway will write for the day. He evokes Paris with a few sentences about the cold weather, poor streets and the taste of oysters washed down with white wine. He talk of his routine:

“I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day…”

And he muses on doubts and discipline:

“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. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time and it was good and severe discipline.”

I learned a lot from this paragraph. It explains his method – and his belief in the importance of discipline – which contrasts with some characters in the book. He talks about getting himself in the right mindset:

“I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; listening I hoped” and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself important to do it.”

Later, when he couldn’t afford to eat, he says that paintings by Cézanne “were sharper and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry.” He is talking about actual physical hunger, but he reflects on hunger driving him and how “Cézanne was probably hungry in a different way.”

He also says that he “was learning something from the painting of Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them.”

The Bay of Marseille, Cezanne

The Bay of Marseilles by Cézanne

There are wonderful examples of his storytelling too. In Chapter Four he casts a dark premonition that’s almost painful. He describes a happy scene with his wife, which ends with, “’We’re always lucky,’ I said. And like a fool I did not knock on wood. There was wood everywhere in that apartment to knock on too.”

That final sentence, which seems so simple, adds layers of frustration, complacency and futility. For the rest of the book, each happy, loving scene with his wife tastes bittersweet to the reader.

Lessons: 

  • Treat work as a profession. Discipline yourself to write daily, and just to sit down and write one sentence. No matter how bad it is, it will get you started.
  • If you don’t know what to write about, just write something true; write about something you’ve done.
  • Write simply, and reduce ornamentation in your writing. Cut back relentlessly.

Descriptions

Hemingway recounts his comings and goings from Paris. He talks about the time his wife lost his papers, meals in cafes, chicken in Lyon. And it’s all done using half the word-count of any other writer, yet more evocative because of that.

He talks of “my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew what you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” 

But he includes details that I would not think of. Of the garden near Montparnasse he says, “the horse chestnut trees were in blossom and there were many children playing on the gravelled walks with their nurses sitting on the benches, and I saw wood pigeons in the trees and heard others that I could not see.”

This type of sentence, which almost feels too long, is typical of Hemingway, adding one more thing than you would think of including: “with their nurses sitting on the benches”…. “and heard others that I could not see.”

He doesn’t describe what the nurses are wearing, or how the wood pigeons sounds, but it’s enough to take you there.

Lessons:

  • Write what you see and hear, nothing more. Don’t over-describe.
  • Paint the scene in a minimalist fashion.

 Conversations

Hemingway’s conversations bounce back and forth like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting For Godot (written by Beckett, who was also in Paris for much of his adult life) – the best of which is a conversation about social hierarchy with Ford Madox Ford. His conversations with his wife sound like scripts from old Hollywood movies, but they stand out as romantic and honest.

Hemingway the Apprentice

Beach and Hemingway

Sylvia Beach, with an older Hemingway

Hemingway makes the most of Sylvia Beach’s library, discovering new writers and learning from them. He says that “to have come on all this new world of writing, with time to read in a city like Paris where there was a way of living well and working, no matter how poor you were, was like having a great treasure given to you.”

He says Dostoyevsky and Tolstoi could be “so true they changed you as you read them; frailty and madness, wickedness and saintliness… the roads in Turgenev, and the movement of troops, the terrain and the officers.”

He is confused by Dostoyevsky because his style is the opposite of the lean style Hemingway uses – “he almost never used the ‘mot juste’ – the one and only correct word to use – and yet made his people come alive at times, as almost no one else did…. How can a man write so badly, so unbelievably badly, and make you feel so deeply.”

He talks this through with Ezra Pound, the man Hemingway “liked and trusted most as a critic, then the man who believed in the ‘mot juste’ – the man who had taught me to distrust adjectives.”

This is why Hemingway’s writing is so economical, and why it often took him “a whole morning just to write a single paragraph.” 

Lessons:

  • Study writing through reading – think about what different writers do, and their styles.
  • Find friends and mentors who are practising writers and talk to them about what you’ve read.
  • Find your style, but recognise that it’s not the ONLY style.
  • Try to find the ‘mot juste’ – the one true word for something.

Authenticity or refinement

Whilst on a road-trip, Fitzgerald tells Hemingway the story of his wife, Zelda, having an affair. Hemingway reflects on how refining a story dilutes its authenticity.

“Later he told me other versions of it as though trying them for use in a novel, but none was as sad as this first one and I always believed the first one, although any of them might have been true. They were told better each time; but they never hurt you the same way the first one did.”

Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Writing, drinking and discipline

The amount of drinking matches Hemingway’s legend, but it still seems a lot. He regularly drinks one or two bottles of wine over lunch or whilst reading a book in the park, although his “training was never to drink after dinner, nor before I wrote, nor while I was writing.”

It is through Hemingway’s friendship with Fitzgerald that he sees the problems of alcohol, for “anything that [Fitzgerald] drank seemed to stimulated him too much and then poison him.”

Hemingway appreciates the educational aspects of this friendship, such as when Fitzgerald “gave me a sort of oral Ph.D. thesis I Michael Arlen.”

We also learn about destructive forces around creativity, such as Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda who “was jealous of Scott’s work…. She smiled happily… as he drank the wine. I learned to know that smile very well. It meant she knew Scott would not be able to write.”

Lessons:

  • Drink. But not too much.
  • Be weary of saboteurs who will distract you from your vocation.

Some of my favourite quotes

“Everything good or bad left an emptiness when it stopped.” – Hemingway

“Anything you have to bet on to get a kick isn’t worth seeing.” – Mike Ward

“We need more mystery in our lives.” – Evan Shipman

“I felt the death loneliness that comes at the end of every day that is wasted in your life.” – Hemingway

Summary

This is what I took from A Moveable Feast on a single reading. Far more in-depth analyses have been done elsewhere, and I have steered clear of the controversies that surround it, the aspersions he casts on others, and the less savoury parts of Hemingway’s character. Hemingway was no perfect role model, but his legacy on writing is immense.

To discover more of his writing style, start with the Old Man And The Sea.  It’s the short novel (you can read it in a train journey) that helpd him win the Nobel Prize For Literature.

 

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What I Learned From Interviewing James Hilton of AKQA

Photo of James Hilton interview

The spread in the magazine

Back when I attended every networking event I could find, I saw a talk by Ajaz Ahmed, one of the founders of media agency AKQA.  AKQA is one of the most respected and successful agencies of the last decade, producing work for Nike that revolutionised how they engage with their fans, and integrating apps, digital and marketing in ground-breaking ways.

Fascinated by how they had driven innovation, I interviewed James Hilton, who was then the Chief Creative Officer of AKQA, and wrote this feature for Etihad Inflight magazine.

It’s still one of my favourite interviews, and I learned plenty about Creative Leadership, Inspiration, and innovative thought.  Check it out.

Interview With James Hilton of AKQA

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The Creative Heritage of Paris: An Article I Wrote for Etihad

 

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Paris

In 2013 I visited Paris to do some research about the city’s heritage, and the personalities that lived there. I discovered some remarkable stories about Paris’s creative past, and how it echoes in the city today. Check out the article below. It features photos by my mate Levison Wood – before photographers were taking pictures of him!

The Creative Legacy Of Paris

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Doing Digital Properly: Top Tips From BBC Worldwide’s Alex Ayling

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Today, anyone can broadcast through platforms like YouTube. With amateurs producing incredible content, and organisations like Vice creating films specifically for online broadcast, where do traditional broadcasters like the BBC fit in?

“When done badly, digital for TV amounts to a Twitter hashtag and crap microsite,” says Alex Ayling, Head of BBC Worldwide Digital Studios, and the man responsible for online elements of the BBC’s most recognisable shows, including Top Gear, Dr Who and Sherlock.

“But it doesn’t need to be like that. With a little planning and awareness, digital can add a huge amount of value to traditional television.”

As an alumnus of Ones To Watch (the Edinburgh TV Festival talent scheme) I was lucky enough to hear Alex speak at an alumni event in London. Here’s a summary of his key points, but follow him on Twitter @alexjayling to get tips directly from the man himself.

Stop Broadcasting, Start Conversing

In the old broadcast model, the viewer has no involvement until transmission, but with digital, they can be involved at every stage.

For Dr Who, Alex and his team created a YouTube channel (Dr Who: The Fan Show) to complement the TV series.  A few innovations made it more relevant to online:

  • Hired a fan as a researcher for Development (she became the presenter).
  • Asked fans to send in ideas for Pre-Production.
  • Found (and paid) fan experts to Produce content (such as a Minecraft version of an episode).
  • Kept fans updated during Post-Production, using relevant platforms (Twitter, Snapchat & Instagram).
  • Asked for comment, interaction and feedback during online Transmission.
  • Curated and shared fan content, such as YouTube channels that feature reviews of the show, encouraging conversation.
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Dr Who: The Fan Show

Storytelling hasn’t changed; Methods of consumption have

Online, the storytelling structure is shifted:

  • TV magazine pieces need an intro, middle and ending.
  • Online viewers search for a specific topic and select a video based on its Title and Thumbnail.
  • That’s the intro done, so jump right into the meat of the story; the video itself is the “middle” requiring no intro.
  • The “ending” is the online conversation afterwards, rather than a summary in the video.

Hire (or be) the right people

If digital deliverables are planned from the start, they are quick, cheap and easy to produce. Check out “Move” by STA Travel. All it required was one minute of identical filming each day. But to make that happen, the producers had to know what they wanted and plan locations. Just like regular TV.

Self-contained opportunistic content can work really well. During filming of “The Hunt,” a polar bear ate all the crew’s food, but left the Marmite. It made for humorous content that wouldn’t work in the main show, but which connected with viewers and generated lots of PR. Making the most of these opportunities requires someone who is thinking beyond the main show.

Find people who love what you do, and they’ll do your marketing for you. Get them involved at an early stage, so they have a sense of ownership and excitement. Dr Who The Fan Show is a brilliant example of this: enthusiasm and authenticity is essential, but technical skills can be taught.

You don’t need to be an expert at everything to make ephemeral content, just good enough to make it happen: be a “digital Swiss Army Knife” – producer, editor, presenter and researcher.

Be Curious

Use different platforms to reach different audiences, or to have different effects.

  • Google Plus is great for special interest and technical fields
  • LinkedIn generates massive shares and referrals in finance and professional services
  • Snapchat is good for behind-the-scenes updates
  • Instagram works better for heavily-posed PR-style updates
  • Periscope is good for press and marketing
  • Twitch works well for Livestreaming
  • Whatsapp data is impossible to track, but results in lots of traffic through referral
  • Facebook pages need to be long-life. For documentary series, make it part of a broader “fan page” – such as the BBC Nature series.

Summary

  • Stop broadcasting. Start Conversing
  • Storytelling hasn’t changed; Methods of consumption have
  • Hire (or be) the right people
  • Be curious

If you haven’t already, apply for a place on Ones To Watch or The Network; they’re completely free and give you an all-expenses pass to the Edinburgh Television Festival, and access to monthly alumni events, such as the one at which Alex shared his advice. It’s the best thing I’ve done to develop my career in TV.

 

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Buddhist Festival in Ladakh

Girls in Ladakh

In the summer of 2015 I visited Ladakh for the first time.  It’s like nowhere else in India, as the barrier of the Himalayan range means it is both dry (because it’s in the rain shadow) and culturally distinct.

The area is much more akin to Tibet in environment, people and culture.  Whilst I was there, a Tibetan lama came to the area to give a blessing and sermon.  It was a day out and festival for the people of Ladakh.

Have a look at the Flickr album I put together of the festival.

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How To Ace Twitter

Barney Ace TwitterAs a producer, I like to use Twitter to share my work.  But I’ve always felt that I could be doing it better.  Last November, Dr Rhiannon MacDonnell (Marketing Professor at Cass Business School), Barney Worfolk-Smith (Director at creative social agency That Lot), and David Levin (Creative Director at That Lot) gave their expert advice on how to use the micro-blogging tool at a City Unrulyversity event.  The chance to learn about Twitter from an academic and commercial perspective was too good to pass up.

This isn’t an exhaustive blog of their talk, but some of the tips that I found most useful for me.  Be sure to Tweet Rhiannon, David or Barney directly to find out more, on @Rhiannon @DavidLevin123 and @MightyBarnski

Be Human

When you’re interacting with people on Twitter, remember to be human and speak to other humans.  After all, that’s who’s behind a Twitter account.  Think of the metaphor of a first date: what’s an appropriate way to interact, and what would be a disaster?

Here are some common mistakes.

  • Moving too fast and being demanding (will you marry me?!)
  • Moving too slow (not speaking at all)
  • Not answering questions (being unresponsive)
  • Only talking about yourself
  • Only talking about one thing

What's In It For Them?

What Works

  • Be interested in your followers and people you interact with. Ask them questions and put THEIR experience first.  Make them feel special.
  • Talk about a range of topics and ideas – not just what you do.
  • Express emotion – the more emotive something is, the more it will be shared.
  • Continue real-world conversations online. If someone has a project or work that’s interested or excited you, mention it.
  • Help promote others
  • Look at what regularly features in your followers’ bios – if there’s a common theme, you have common interests, so tweet on those subjects.

What To Do

Well-received Tweets tend to contain one of three things: Information, Insight or Humour.

  • Have recurring formats, themes, hashtags or “features” that you regularly use – like in a magazine, such as quizzes or Top Tens
  • Use more images. Tweets with images get 1/3 more Retweets
  • Jump on opportunities – check out the Douwe Egberts conversation with @The_Dolphin_Pub for an example of this.

Rhiannon - Twitter
This barely scratches the surface of Barney, David and Rhiannon’s advice.
Follow them on Twitter to find out when one of them is speaking next – if Twitter, Social Media or Digital Marketing has an impact on what you do, their advice will be invaluable.

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Sparking Your Fire: Ian Wharton on Creativity

Cloud I’ve wanted to write an article about creativity for a while: how does one nurture it; what working environments help; what blocks it?  But until a chance encounter one winter’s eve, I was at a loss about how to approach such a vast topic.

In December 2014 I was invited to talk at Kingston University on the subject of creative careers. The speaker that followed me was far more qualified to do so: Ian Wharton is an award-winning Group Creative Director at innovation and ideas company AKQA.  His career has spanned every creative field you can imagine: film-making, animation, art directing, publishing and writing.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he spent his free time developing modern dance interpretations of Icelandic sagas.

He has even written a book on creativity, “Spark for the Fire,” which I picked up the next day. Ian’s key message is that, as children, we’re naturally creative. But conditioning, discouragement and misguided education, gradually eliminate some of the skills essential to creative success.

I met up with Ian after reading the book to ask him a few questions. Below that are my notes from the book, and at the very bottom (if you don’t want to read the whole article) are my top take-away points from our conversation.  All the same, I’d recommend reading the book yourself, as his ideas are much more powerful within the context of the narrative that he skilfully weaves.

1. Embrace The Ridiculous – don’t let reason and experience determine “a good idea”

Youthful creativity is good because of a lack of “mental furniture”.  As we get older, we second-guess our intuition and rationalise good ideas away.  Initially, at least, there are no wrong or stupid ideas in creativity, so we must have the confidence to say illogical, fun and outlandish things.  Because reason is based on precedent, it can reduce innovation into repetition and mediocrity.

2. Creativity Is Transferable – do lots of different things

Sticking to one skill doesn’t necessarily generate mastery: there’s a world of difference between 10,000 hours of passion and 10,000 hours of tolerance.  Setting ourselves challenges and stepping out from our comfort zone is how we improve, whilst being good at a single craft suggests we’ve found a good process and learnt how to repeat it. A skill is a launchpad, and a platform to perform on: it might not be the end-point, but a catalyst to achieve something else.

For Jamie Oliver, a career as an educator, TV personality, entrepreneur and writer came from a willingness to explore beyond his primary skill. Cooking was the catalyst, the platform that allowed him to explore other fields, and the approach he brought to cooking could be applied to those other fields.

Don’t just “do one thing and do it well,” but do whatever your imagination and desire demands of you.  Then you can’t help but do it well.

Do Something 3. Beware Invisibility – sell yourself

Ian defines “selling yourself” as two things:

  1. To make known the things we have already achieved (showcasing our talents & ability in the work and things we have done)
  2. To communicate the things we have yet to achieve (Expressing our goals and vision of where or who we want to be)

Self-promotion begets recognition, which builds career momentum. But you have to put yourself under the right spotlight to be recognised. This isn’t something to be ashamed of, but a habit that is essential to building a profile. It’s something of a myth that great creativity is discovered and awarded: you have to enter competitions (even the Oscars have a submission process!).  Too many people believe that “if I just do good work, they’ll find me.” Unfortunately, unless you are very lucky, you may be waiting a long time to be found.

Recognition also leads to collaboration. A large part of Ian’s career has been shaped by opportunities and advice from AKQA founder Ajaz Ahmed. They met during an award ceremony for Solar (Ian’s first animated film). Had Ian not submitted an entry to a competition, they may never have met.  Serendipity favours those who create opportunities for it.

And tell people what you want to do next because, if you don’t ask, you don’t get: Arnold Schwarzenegger was told he couldn’t go straight to serving as a governor, but should serve in lower offices such as city council and the mayor’s office first.  He broke the rules and found a way to become the Governator.

Be ambitious. When pitching, don’t make it a multiple-choice scenario and offer different choices. Why would you dissipate your energy on developing ideas you don’t fully believe in? Pick your best idea and pitch that.

4. Curiosity And Purpose

Compare the Purpose of a business leader: “To generate profit, grow the company and reward shareholders” to the Purpose of a surgeon: “To use the skills and knowledge I have acquired to save and improve lives.”  The surgeon’s reply comes from a long-term belief.  It denotes Purpose, rather than outcome.

Purpose is the sense of “Why” we do things. In business and creativity alike, it’s more rewarding and fun to create products, content and services that start with a why.  This requires curiosity, or having a sense of wonder. And appreciation, that process of continuously noticing, which provides a master-key for unlocking creative potential.

There are 3 muscles of creativity that we must exercise to stay creative:

  1. Curiosity: Our capacity to learn relies on asking questions.  “He who asks is a fool for five minutes.  He who doesn’t ask is a fool forever.”
  2. Appreciation: This is the ability to step into the shoes of others, to understand who they are and how things work. By listening and understanding to what people need, we could solve many problems by creatively adapting existing technology and solutions.
  3. Imagination: Question your behaviour.  Challenging the habits that helped individuals and companies grow is scary and uncertain.  But diversity, rather than conformity is what makes us thrive.

5. Learn Forever and Play

Because we invest so heavily in our self-image, drawing attention to our weaknesses feels dangerous. But it’s only by asking how to do something that you’ll learn and grown.  Listen to, learn from and be inspired by those who are successful in your field.

Becoming good at a job can mean your time is too precious to be spent exploring unknowns. But there’s an innate hunger to learn new things, which must be fed to allow continuous development. This requires a playful work culture, where people aren’t afraid to look a bit stupid.

Over the long haul, when these two things (play and desire to learn) are missing, it stops becoming a labour of love, and we miss out on our true potential.

6. Dare To Fail

Creativity is just being stupid enough to not realise that you can’t do something. Nearly all of us have been struck by a great idea that we felt had to be pursued. But most never fully executed it. Is is fear of failure that we succumb to. Creatives have an obligation to put their ideas into practice.  It challenges the way things are, and results in breakthroughs and evolution.

Adam Bird of McKinsey & Company points out that “failure” has negative connotations and we should instead consider “experimentation.”  Dyson says that he made 5,127 prototypes of his vacuum cleaner before he got it right.  There were 5,126 failures.  But he learned from each one, which is how he came up with a solution.

It would be inhuman to have no self-doubt, but it’s easy to see people at the top and think that they have no fear of failure.  They do.   They’re just courageous enough to carry on in spite of that fear.  If you have an idea driven by a passion that you are not sure you can achieve, do it anyway.

Ian’s book, Spark for the Fire, is available from Amazon

60-second summary

  • Back yourself
  • Don’t worry about those older than you or above you in the creative industries.  Just because they have spent more time in the industry doesn’t make them better than you. People often become more conservative with time, so their ideas become less innovative. And given the pace of technological change, you might even have more relevant experience than they do.
  • Don’t limit yourself to a certain practice. Be happy to try things that you want to do.
  • Don’t make or do things that you don’t want to be known for.
  • Be careful of the notion of the 10,000 hour rule. Passion trumps tolerance.
  • Sell yourself and get agencies to represent you. No-one will notice you if you quietly beaver away in the corner. Enter awards to raise your profile
  • Be careful to not do things purely for the money, or you’ll hate the work. Pitch big and pitch creatively.
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