Tag Archives: Writing

James Joyce and his decent silk hat

I’m currently deep into Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce, an 800-page opus which is, in parts, almost as detailed as “Ulysses” itself.

As such, I’m well into the world of Joyce-words: ‘europicola’, ‘allalluvial’, ‘douncestears’, to pick three among thousands. At times it’s not easy going, and it got me thinking. Did the man himself ever read his work into a microphone? What did the colossus of Modernism actually sound like?

The answers are: yes, and like a slightly stiff Irish lawyer.

In November 1924 Joyce made a recording of a section of “Ulysses”. The audio, set down at the HMV studio in Paris, would be one of only two such artifacts he made (five years later he would make an eight-minute recording of an extract from Finnegans Wake).

The excerpt Joyce picked is from the ‘Aoelus’ episode of ‘Ulysses’, a section known as ‘The John F Taylor speech’. The passage is a metaphorical take on the relationship of Ireland and England. Joyce picked it, his friend and publisher Sylvia Beach later said, because he reckoned that it was the only part of his book fit to lifted out and ‘declaimed’.

'Portrait of James Joyce' Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

‘Portrait of James Joyce’
Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

Listened to the audio down the passage of 90 years it sounds strange – ethereal and formal in equal parts. It didn’t inject much color into my impression of Joyce – but it did lead me onward, to the footage above.

It is one of only two pieces of film I can find of the Irish writer, both shot in Paris in the 1920s (the other features the writer and his wife strolling down the street – here at 3:00 minutes). In the clip Joyce stands on the street, holding a conversation with someone off camera and looking like a skinny Irish version of Vito Corleone as he stares dismissively into the camera.

It’s spliced with a brief clip of the writer stepping out of a house, a child running before him. Again the vibe is one of a literary made man.

The footage casts little, if any light on the writer himself. That’s no unfortunate thing, given that Joyce’s life is woven so extensively into his work already. If anything the film represents a brief respite from the latter, writing that’s at times entertaining, eye-opening, and hugely frustrating (usually in the same paragraph).

At the risk of sounding simplistic this brief clip also shows that, despite the poverty, drinking and illness, the writer could certainly pull off some nice threads.

Or, as he wrote in the short story ‘Grace’: “He had never been seen in the city without a silk hat of some decency and a pair of gaiters. By grace of these two articles of clothing, he said, a man could always pass muster…”

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Creating great content – Hemingway style

Ernest Hemingway, 1939

Ernest Hemingway, 1939

The two habits of successful content creators are simple ones: write and cut.

It’s as easy – and as complicated – as that. Put as much of the good stuff down as you can, and then start paring it back. When you’re finished paring it back, rewrite it. Then repeat the process.

When you’re done, proofread it. Then proofread it again.

The process may sound mechanical, something which goes against the creative flow, but each revision will improve the work.

The ‘rinse, repeat’ strategy came to mind this week as I read Paul Hendrickson’s recent biography of Ernest Hemingway.

At one point Hendrickson recounts the guidance Hemingway gave to aspirant writer Arnold Samuelson.

“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it,” the author told his friend, before issuing his often-cited advice on revision.

“Every day go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing and when it gets too long, read at least two or three chapters before you start to write and at least once a week go back to the start. That way you make it one piece. And when you go over it, cut out everything you can.”

This may explain why Hemingway wrote 47 endings to A Farewell To Arms and revised the entirety of Across The River and Into The Trees 206 times (or so he wrote to a pal).

Whether you call it writing or authoring or content creation, and whether you’ve an hour, a day or a week to do it, the secret to the best content is fiendishly simple. Write, cut and repeat.

Ernest Hemingway's first-page draft for “A Farewell to Arms.” Pic: John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Ernest Hemingway’s first-page draft for A Farewell to Arms. Pic: John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

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The running advice that keeps me on track

Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami

One of the best insights I’ve encountered about running came not from a coach, or a sub-three hour marathon runner, or an athlete interviewed with a new medal.

Instead it came from a (then) 56-year-old man who I’d never met, and who’d made his name writing stories about – among other things – talking cats and alternate realities accessed through wells.

When Haruki Murkami wasn’t dreaming up his postmodern fables, he spent a lot of time running. And a lot of that time was spent running marathons (Murakami’s tackled the Boston Marathon six times).

His experiences led to his 2007 book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a memoir which recounts how the Murakami-the-writer became Murakami-the-writer-and-obsessive-runner.

In his mid-50s at the time, Murakami was familiar with the highs all runners know. Given his age, and the strain marathons place on joints approaching their sixth decade, he knew the lows too, the tough days on the track.

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional…The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself,” Murakami writes.

When you’re running well – in my case 75% of the time – such thoughts never cross your mind.  But Murakami’s advice has become a critical mantra to get me through the hard sessions, the mornings when my plantar faciitis kicks off, or my shins begin to splint, or I simply find myself slogging through 45 minutes of steady wind and rain.

And pulling through those sessions is, to me, what the spirit of running is all about.

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

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This happens to the best and to the worst

FullSizeRender (6)You sit and stare into space.

You change tack – by sitting and staring at a blank screen.

You’ll do it tomorrow, and tomorrow – you said yesterday, and the day before.

You take a morning trip to the city centre, walk around, drink coffee, get rained on, hope that something will strike.

You return home.

You reckon you could squeeze out something on Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra, or your sign-up to Spotify, or running in December. Or that plate of sprats you ate in London, unlike any other you’d had.

You don’t – the blank screen’s in the way.

You make lunch and eat it. You pack a bag for a trip to see your father. You dig out a Sonny Rollins CD you bought a month ago but haven’t listened to. You google details about the CD.

You text your wife, telling her you’re set to start. You check Facebook, again.

You want to finish a book of short stories but you’ve promised yourself that you’ll do this first.

You assure yourself that this happens to the best and to the worst of them.

In desperation you copy a trait from a novel you’re just finished, writing in the second person narrative.

You start.

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Revise, revise…and then revise

Hemingway's first-page draft for A Farewell to Arms. Pic: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Hemingway’s first-page draft for A Farewell to Arms.
Pic: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Ernest Hemingway’s war novel A Farewell To Arms could have ended any one of 39 ways.

We know this because Hemingway told us so but also because, two years ago, an edition of the book was published containing each of those endings, and a further eight more to boot.

Some are more optimistic than the final, fatal closing paragraphs, some are minor variations, some entirely different to what was published.

But, as far as the writer was concerned, it took 39 attempts to nail it, “39 times before I was satisfied”.

Three decades later, asked what had made the task so difficult, Hemingway answered, simply: “Getting the words right.”

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A 2012 news story on the new edition of the novel was shared with me this week by M, a fellow soldier in the journalistic trenches.

It sparked my interest. My daily workload involves revision, three or four times for every article edited, reading closely for facts and legal. This blog likewise.

But I doubt I’ve subjected any piece of writing to more than a dozen revisions, let alone three dozen, before filing it away.

The Beatles, 1964

The Beatles, 1964

Hemingway’s dogged rewriting of his novel’s closing paragraphs put me in mind of Malcolm Gladwell’s observation on the success of The Beatles.

He estimated that the group performed 1,200 live shows in the four years before they broke through to stardom, in 1964.

Reading Hemingway, or large parts of his work at least, or listening to The Beatles, it’s easy to presume that finely tuned words or close-to-perfect melodies occur, when they do, more or less naturally.

Such artists laboured on their art, of course, but their inspiration surely ran far beyond Edison’s fabled one per cent?

However, the older I get the clearer the importance of revisiting, remaking and repeating, becomes.

To the extent that the secret of producing the best creative work can be reduced, for me, to a simple practice.

To improve it, revise it; when you can’t revise it any more, you can’t improve it.

Ernest Hemingway in London at Dorchester Hotel 1944. Pic: NARA

Ernest Hemingway at Dorchester Hotel, London, 1944.
Pic: NARA

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Note: I like the idea of ‘life hacks’ – pieces of advice, knowledge, insight, admonitions; discrete mind shots that improve life and produce an awareness of living.
The Lifehacks section of the blog is where I’m collecting and collating them.

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Home in the rue Cardinal Lemoine

At 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine

At 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Ernest Hemingway’s ghost has long since fled the Place Contrescarpe, in the fifth arrondissement of Paris, and is likely easier found now in San Sebastian, Havana or Ketchum.

But Paris being Paris, the building where he lived in the early 1920s, “very poor and very happy” with his wife and newborn son, still stands.

I discovered this on a visit last weekend, when my wife and I walked up the winding Rue Cardinal Lemoine, away from the bustle of the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

There are more famous literary landmarks in the City of Light, and more famous Hemingway ones even.

But, on a pristine Parisian afternoon this small symbol of domesticity, hope, ambition and youth in a life later strewn with great success and personal wreckage was our destination.

The book which brought us there was A Moveable Feast, the collection of vignettes Hemingway wrote in Cuba in his last, declining years, at a remove of almost half a century from “the early days”, as he described them, spent as a journalist and sometimes-starving writer eking out a living in the cafes of Montparnasse.

The work famously contains distilled and stripped portraits of fellow writers, not least Hemingway’s fellow ex-pats Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein (revealing how the latter borrowed her famous ‘lost generation’ comment from a local mechanic, no less). But written into and between these accounts are fascinating small details of the writer’s day-to-day acts of work, love, eating and drinking.

Clare and I had travelled to Paris from Dublin exhausted, pulled taut by stress, sleep-deprived and weary. Hemingway’s accounts of a less-complicated (on the surface only, of course) domestic and working life had appealed to us for sometime. And so we found ourselves outside a chipped blue door, beneath a simple white plaque, stepping aside as a resident returned home with her shopping.

Hemingway in Paris, 1924

Hemingway in Paris, 1924.
Pic: Ernest Hemingway Collection (JFK Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

In 1922 Hemingway lived with Hadley Richardson on the third floor at 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine, “a two-room flat that had no hot water and no inside toilet facilities…With a fine view and a good mattress and springs for a comfortable bed on the floor”.

Lunch there was “little radishes, and a good foie de veau with mashed potatoes and an endive salad. Apple tart”.

Rising early Hemingway walked to work daily, to a garret-room at a nearby hotel on Rue Descartes, where he would attempt to write “one true sentence, and then go on from there”. He later declared: “Work could cure almost anything, I believed then, and I believe now.”

Sitting on the Place Contrescarpe, dry and bright unlike its rain-lashed, impoverished appearance at the opening of A Moveable Feast, Clare and I discussed these simple pleasures and truisms.

Very poor rarely means very happy. And the opposite is not the case, either. So we go on seeking the balance. Some days or hours or nights, we find it.

That evening we returned to our rented apartment and later walked the hill at Montmartre to look on Paris below. Hungry, we went on to Le Comptoir des Belettes on Rue Lamarck, where we ate tartines and characturie and drank rose.

Then we returned home to the night breeze on our balcony, the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur above and the murmur of the streets below.

And we were happy.

Charcuterie plate at Le Comptoir des Belettes, 18e

Charcuterie plate at Le Comptoir des Belettes, 18e


All quotes in this post are from A Moveable Feast

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