The Hemingway Way

by Tom Swift

Leave something in the tank.

That is another parallel between writing and lifting. Both the writer and the lifter benefit when she or he learns just how hard to work. This means two things: (1) starting and (2) knowing the right time to stop.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

I carry with me a story about Ernest Hemingway, which is more of a vignette than a story — more of a habit, really, come to think of it — that he used to end his writing session each day in the middle of a sentence. Or at least after reaching an aspect of his story that had him exited. The idea being that he put a proverbial bookmark in a place in his work that he knew would have him motivated to continue that work again the next day. So he didn’t have to start anew. He merely had to continue on.

The way Hemingway described it, he:

“Learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it. 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.

I want to parse that some:

– “Never empty the well.” There is such a thing as working too hard. You write to exhaustion, you lift to exhaustion.

– “Always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well.” You could write further, could perform another lift, but there is a cost: the extra effort would leave you with nothing left.

– “Let it refill.” The well, he means. The lifter needs allows the muscles to recover. The writer needs time to let the writing muscle recover. The process is similar; you break down so you can build back up better than before.

– “I always worked until I had something done.” I am saying a lot here about not working too hard; most definitely there is such a thing as not working hard enough. The writer is not going to be excited to work the next morning having written half a sentence; the lifter won’t feel pumped if she or or he has not at all pushed against the wall.

– “That way I could always be sure …” My personal theory — very possibly this is my own primary problem projected; I know for sure I am not alone, however — is that a writer’s primary challenge is simply not starting often enough. It’s the same problem for the lifter: not going to the gym regularly. The blank page — the thought of pain or inconveniencethese are primary barriers to finished books and better bodies.

I am a big believer in momentum. Hemingway published volumes read by large audiences decades after his death by writing 500 words a day. You expend energy to gain energy. Hemingway knew how to build and sustain momentum. He knew how to leave the right amount in the tank.