Tag: Writing

Eudora Welty to The New Yorker— The best job application ever

eudora-welty

In March of 1933, Eudora Welty, then 23 and looking for writing work, sent this beautiful letter to the offices of The New Yorker. “It’s difficult,” writes Shaun Usher in his introduction to the letter in Letters of Note, “to imagine a more endearingly written introduction to one’s talents.”

March 15, 1933

Gentlemen,

I suppose you’d be more interested in even a sleight-o’-hand trick than you’d be in an application for a position with your magazine, but as usual you can’t have the thing you want most.

I am 23 years old, six weeks on the loose in N.Y. However, I was a New Yorker for a whole year in 1930– 31 while attending advertising classes in Columbia’s School of Business. Actually I am a southerner, from Mississippi, the nation’s most backward state. Ramifications include Walter H. Page, who, unluckily for me, is no longer connected with Doubleday-Page, which is no longer Doubleday-Page, even. I have a B.A. (’ 29) from the University of Wisconsin, where I majored in English without a care in the world. For the last eighteen months I was languishing in my own office in a radio station in Jackson, Miss., writing continuities, dramas, mule feed advertisements, santa claus talks, and life insurance playlets; now I have given that up.

As to what I might do for you— I have seen an untoward amount of picture galleries and 15¢ movies lately, and could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think; in fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse’s pictures after seeing his latest at the Marie Harriman: concubineapple. That shows you how my mind works—quick, and away from the point. I read simply voraciously, and can drum up an opinion afterwards.

Since I have bought an India print, and a large number of phonograph records from a Mr. Nussbaum who picks them up, and a Cezanne Bathers one inch long (that shows you I read e. e. cummings I hope), I am anxious to have an apartment, not to mention a small portable phonograph. How I would like to work for you! A little paragraph each morning— a little paragraph each night, if you can’t hire me from daylight to dark, although I would work like a slave. I can also draw like Mr. Thurber, in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower painting.

There is no telling where I may apply, if you turn me down; I realize this will not phase you, but consider my other alternative: the U of N.C. offers for $12.00 to let me dance in Vachel Lindsay’s Congo. I congo on. I rest my case, repeating that I am a hard worker.

The New Yorker, missing the obvious talent, ignored her plea before eventually correcting their mistake. Welty went on to win multiple awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1973 for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter.

The Best way to Improve Your Performance

Here are some easy tips, which I elaborate on later, to improve your performance at almost anything.

  1. How you practice makes a big difference. You need to think about feedback loops, deliberate practice, and working in chunks.
  2. The mindset between top performers and amateurs is different.
  3. Sleep is incredibly important.
  4. There is a difference between hard and soft skills.
  5. Leverage tempo, focus, and routines to work for you not against you.
  6. Make sure you have time for rest.
  7. If you want to think, take a walk.

***

Improving Performance

No matter what we do for a living, a common thread is a desire to get better. And yet few of us were taught what matters and what doesn’t when it comes to improving performance.

Given that we spend a lot of time doing things that we never get better at, I thought I’d share my “developing world-class performance” commonplace book with you. (Here commonplace book just a fancy word for a folder with notes in it.)

How you Practice Makes the Difference

Four-time world memory champion Joshua Foer says:

Amateur musicians … tend to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros tend to work through tedious exercises or focus on difficult parts of pieces.

How you practice and who you practice against makes the difference. 

Skill improvement is likely to be minimized when facing substantially inferior opponents, because such opponents will not challenge one to exert maximal or even near-maximal effort when making tactical decisions, and problems or weaknesses in one’s play are unlikely to be exploited. At the same time, the opportunity for learning is also attenuated during matches against much stronger opponents, because no amount of effort or concentration is likely to result in a positive outcome. (source)

Feedback loops are how we get better. Funny isn’t it that we rarely get helpful feedback at work whereas world-class performers in almost all other disciplines get regular feedback from a coach. Now you know why we rarely get better at things we do over and over at work.

In Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Geoff Colvin writes:

You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.

Work in chunks or pulses (and don’t multi-task). Deliberate practice should be so hard that you can only sustain it for a relatively short amount of time.

From Talent is Overrated:

The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.

Your Mindset Makes A Difference

When practicing and playing there is a different mindset between average and top performers. Amateurs believe errors were caused by something other than themselves whereas professionals believe they are responsible for mistakes.

From Talent is Overrated:

Average performers believe their errors were caused by factors outside their control: My opponent got lucky; the task was too hard; I just don’t have the natural ability for this. Top performers, by contrast, believe they are responsible for their errors. Note that this is not just a difference of personality or attitude. Recall that the best performers have set highly specific, technique-based goals and strategies for themselves; they have thought through exactly how they intend to achieve what they want. So when something doesn’t work, they can relate the failure to specific elements of their performance that may have misfired.

Sleep is Key

Aside from practice, sleep is the next most important thing.

In Anders Ericsson’s famous study of violinists, the top performers slept an average of 8 hours out of every 24, including a 20 to 30 minute mid-afternoon nap, some 2 hours a day more than the average American.

The top violinists also reported that except for practice itself, sleep was the second most important factor in improving as violinists. (source)

The Difference Between Hard and Soft Skills

So all of that is great for technical skills (like chess and music) where there are pretty defined rules about good and bad but how can we develop the softer skills? Like Soccer or Swimming?

Change how you practice, increasing the number of repetitions. The way that Brazil develops its soccer players is fascinating. They use a game called futebol de salão, which creates a laboratory of improvisation.

From The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

This insanely fast, tightly compressed five-on-five version of the game— played on a field the size of a basketball court— creates 600 percent more touches, demands instant pattern recognition and, in the words of Emilio Miranda, a professor of soccer at the University of São Paulo, serves as Brazil’s “laboratory of improvisation.”

Copy people who are better than you. Consider how Ben Franklin improved his writing. Franklin intuitively grasped the concept of deliberate practice. As a teenager, Ben received a letter from his father saying his writing was inferior: “in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances,” as Franklin recalled.

From Talent is Overrated:

Ben responded to his father’s observations in several ways. First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would have ever thought of.

It began with his reading a Spectator article and marking brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. …

Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.”

Use Leverage to Accelerate Productivity

In order to do our best work, even thinking, we need to focus on one thing

From Your Brain At Work — Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long:

One of the most effective distraction-management techniques is simple: switch off all communication devices during any thinking work. Your brain prefers to focus on things right in front of you. It takes less effort. If you are trying to focus on a subtle mental thread, allowing yourself to be distracted is like stopping pain to enjoy a mild pleasure: it’s too hard to resist! Blocking out external distractions altogether, especially if you get a lot of them, seems to be one of the best strategies for improving mental performance.

Consciously evaluate your hidden scripts that execute to make sure they’re working for you. For instance, your habit of going to work and checking your email might be a good ritual but it might derail your progress because you’re not matching time and energy effectively.

From Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career:

A ritual is a highly precise behavior you do at a specific time so that it becomes automatic over time and no longer requires much conscious intention or energy.

While we all need routines and habits to free up our brain for some heavy lifting, it’s important that we regularly review our subconscious processing to make sure it’s still what we need.

Your environment matters more than you think. Think of your physical and virtual environments as nudging your unconscious.

 

You Can’t Work 24/7

You need downtime. I don’t care who you are, there is no way you can work 24/7 for weeks. Leisure has been proven to extend your life, reduce stress, and make you more creative. When you’re at work, work. When you’re not there take some time off. Embrace the ability to do nothing.

From Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing:

What comes into your consciousness when you are idle can often be reports from the depths of your unconscious self— and this information may not always be pleasant. Nonetheless, your brain is likely bringing it to your attention for a good reason. Through idleness, great ideas buried in your unconsciousness have the chance to enter your awareness.

Exercise also has numerous health benefits. From Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving At Work, Home, and School:

Just about every mental test possible was tried. No matter how it was measured, the answer was consistently yes: A lifetime of exercise can result in a sometimes astonishing elevation in cognitive performance, compared with those who are sedentary. Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material in order to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work.

Take a Walk Before Deciding

Some philosophers walked to think and others walked to escape. Kant combined walking and habit.

From A Philosophy of Walking:

Like Nietzsche — although with different emphasis — (Kant) was concerned with only two things apart from reading and writing: the importance of his walk, and what he should eat. But their styles differed absolutely. Nietzsche was a great, indefatigable walker, whose hikes were long and sometimes steep; and he usually ate sparingly, like a hermit, always trying out diets, seeking what would least upset his delicate stomach.

Kant by contrast had a good appetite, drank heartily, although not to excess, and spent long hours at the table. But he looked after himself during his daily walk which was always very brief, a bit perfunctory. He couldn’t bear to perspire. So in summer he would walk very slowly, and stop in the shade when he began to overheat.

Putting it Together

There you go. All of these are helpful individually but together they help you accelerate your performance to new and sustainable levels. It’s simple but it’s not easy.

Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom

In response to Ernest Hemingway on Writing a reader passed along a pointer to Advice to Writers, “a compendium of quotes, anecdotes, and writerly wisdom from a dazzling array of literary lights.”

Jon Winokur, author of the bestselling The Portable Curmudgeon, gathers the counsel of more than four hundred celebrated authors in a treasury on the world of writing. Here are literary lions on everything from the passive voice to promotion and publicity: James Baldwin on the practiced illusion of effortless prose, Isaac Asimov on the despotic tendencies of editors, John Cheever on the perils of drink, Ivan Turgenev on matrimony and the Muse.

Here are some words of wisdom found inside:

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” — T. S. Eliot

“A character, to be acceptable as more than a chess piece, has to be ignorant of the future, unsure about the past, and not at all sure of what he’s supposed to be doing.” — Anthony Burgess

“When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away – even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” — Kurt Vonnegut

“People read fiction for emotion—not information” — Sinclair Lewis

“The bad novelist constructs his characters; he directs them and makes them speak. The true novelist listens to them and watches them act; he hears their voices even before he knows them.” — André Gide

“The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities.” — Raymond Chandler

Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two. This you cannot do without temperance.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Keep away from books and from men who get their ideas from books, and your own books will always be fresh.” — George Bernard Shaw

“Listen carefully to the first criticisms of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the critics don’t like — then cultivate it. That’s the part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.” — Jean Cocteau

“The artists who want to be writers, read the reviews; the artists who want to write, don’t.” — William Faulkner

“Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” — Stephen King

“Listen, then make up your own mind.” — Gay Talese

“Write without pay until somebody offers pay; if nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for.” — Mark Twain

Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights is full of interesting and thought-provoking advice. Of course the best advice, is often knowing what to ignore. Before writing Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë wrote the British poet Robert Southey asking if he thought she could be a successful writer. He replied in the negative, Brontë ignored his advice, and the rest is history.

Ernest Hemingway on Writing

"Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had."
“Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had.”

Ernest Hemingway is widely regarded as one of the great writers. His 1954 Nobel acceptance speech on working alone, is one of the keys to his genius. Being alone gives you the space and freedom for “combinatory play.”

To continue my look at writing and great writers, I wanted to take a look at some of Hemingway’s wisdom on the subject. The excellent Hemingway on Writing is the place to start. The book is a compilation of his reflections and musings on the craft, selected from his writings.

***

In this correspondence, found in By-Line: Ernest Hemingway (pp.219–20), Hemingway writing as “Your Correspondent” (YC), offers some straight advice to aspiring writers.

MICE: How can a writer train himself?

Y.C.: Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you the emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had. That’s a five finger exercise.

MICE: All right.

Y.C.: Then get in somebody else’s head for a change. If I bawl you out try to figure what I’m thinking about as well as how you feel about it. If Carlos curses Juan think what both their sides of it are. Don’t just think who is right. As a man things are as they should or shouldn’t be. As a man you know who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.

MICE: All right.

Y.C.: Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When you’re in town stand outside the theatre and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousands ways to practice. And always think of other people.

***

Hemingway comments on overcoming resistance in A Moveable Feast (p. 12).

… sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. 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.

***

In a beautiful 1934 letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway provides some sound advice.

… Second place, a long time ago you stopped listening except to the answers to your own questions. You had good stuff in too that it didn’t need. That’s what dries a writer up (we all dry up. That’s no insult to you in person) not listening. That is where it all comes from. Seeing, listening. You see well enough. But you stop listening. …

***

In A Moveable Feast (p. 134), Hemingway discusses the use of adjectives.

[Ezra was]… the man who had taught me to distrust adjectives as I would later learn to distrust certain people in certain situations …

***

Writing to Horace Liveright in 1925, Hemingway discusses his attitude towards punctuation.

My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. The game of golf would lose a good deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green. You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements.

***

In this letter to Bernard Berenson from 1953, Hemingway suggests that people should read the dictionary “three times” before writing.

Actually if a writer needs a dictionary he should not write. He should have read the dictionary at least three times from beginning to end and then have loaned it to someone who needs it. There are only certain words which are valid and similies (bring me my dictionary) are like defective ammunition (the lowest thing I can think of at this time).

***

Hemingway on Writing is a great place to start if you’re looking for inspiration from the master. Pair with The WAR of ART and the Unlived Life and Anne Lamott: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

Gabriel García Márquez — 1982 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech on The Role of a W

"We, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of the opposite utopia. "

“To oppression, plundering and abandonment, we respond with life.”

***

Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014) was believed by many to be one of the world’s greatest writers. Two of his books, Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude, sit on my shelf.

In the wake of his passing, I dug up his 1982 Nobel acceptance speech, which speaks to the role of a writer.

Antonio Pigafetta, a Florentine navigator who went with Magellan on the first voyage around the world, wrote, upon his passage through our southern lands of America, a strictly accurate account that nonetheless resembles a venture into fantasy. In it he recorded that he had seen hogs with navels on their haunches, clawless birds whose hens laid eggs on the backs of their mates, and others still, resembling tongueless pelicans, with beaks like spoons. He wrote of having seen a misbegotten creature with the head and ears of a mule, a camel’s body, the legs of a deer and the whinny of a horse. He described how the first native encountered in Patagonia was confronted with a mirror, whereupon that impassioned giant lost his senses to the terror of his own image.

This short and fascinating book, which even then contained the seeds of our present-day novels, is by no means the most staggering account of our reality in that age. The Chronicles of the Indies left us countless others. Eldorado, our so avidly sought and illusory land, appeared on numerous maps for many a long year, shifting its place and form to suit the fantasy of cartographers. In his search for the fountain of eternal youth, the mythical Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca explored the north of Mexico for eight years, in a deluded expedition whose members devoured each other and only five of whom returned, of the six hundred who had undertaken it. One of the many unfathomed mysteries of that age is that of the eleven thousand mules, each loaded with one hundred pounds of gold, that left Cuzco one day to pay the ransom of Atahualpa and never reached their destination. Subsequently, in colonial times, hens were sold in Cartagena de Indias, that had been raised on alluvial land and whose gizzards contained tiny lumps of gold. One founder’s lust for gold beset us until recently. As late as the last century, a German mission appointed to study the construction of an interoceanic railroad across the Isthmus of Panama concluded that the project was feasible on one condition: that the rails not be made of iron, which was scarce in the region, but of gold.

Our independence from Spanish domination did not put us beyond the reach of madness. General Antonio López de Santana, three times dictator of Mexico, held a magnificent funeral for the right leg he had lost in the so-called Pastry War. General Gabriel García Moreno ruled Ecuador for sixteen years as an absolute monarch; at his wake, the corpse was seated on the presidential chair, decked out in full-dress uniform and a protective layer of medals. General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, the theosophical despot of El Salvador who had thirty thousand peasants slaughtered in a savage massacre, invented a pendulum to detect poison in his food, and had streetlamps draped in red paper to defeat an epidemic of scarlet fever. The statue to General Francisco Moraz´n erected in the main square of Tegucigalpa is actually one of Marshal Ney, purchased at a Paris warehouse of second-hand sculptures.

Eleven years ago, the Chilean Pablo Neruda, one of the outstanding poets of our time, enlightened this audience with his word. Since then, the Europeans of good will — and sometimes those of bad, as well — have been struck, with ever greater force, by the unearthly tidings of Latin America, that boundless realm of haunted men and historic women, whose unending obstinacy blurs into legend. We have not had a moment’s rest. A promethean president, entrenched in his burning palace, died fighting an entire army, alone; and two suspicious airplane accidents, yet to be explained, cut short the life of another great-hearted president and that of a democratic soldier who had revived the dignity of his people. There have been five wars and seventeen military coups; there emerged a diabolic dictator who is carrying out, in God’s name, the first Latin American ethnocide of our time. In the meantime, twenty million Latin American children died before the age of one — more than have been born in Europe since 1970. Those missing because of repression number nearly one hundred and twenty thousand, which is as if no one could account for all the inhabitants of Uppsala. Numerous women arrested while pregnant have given birth in Argentine prisons, yet nobody knows the whereabouts and identity of their children who were furtively adopted or sent to an orphanage by order of the military authorities. Because they tried to change this state of things, nearly two hundred thousand men and women have died throughout the continent, and over one hundred thousand have lost their lives in three small and ill-fated countries of Central America: Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. If this had happened in the United States, the corresponding figure would be that of one million six hundred thousand violent deaths in four years.

One million people have fled Chile, a country with a tradition of hospitality — that is, ten per cent of its population. Uruguay, a tiny nation of two and a half million inhabitants which considered itself the continent’s most civilized country, has lost to exile one out of every five citizens. Since 1979, the civil war in El Salvador has produced almost one refugee every twenty minutes. The country that could be formed of all the exiles and forced emigrants of Latin America would have a population larger than that of Norway.

I dare to think that it is this outsized reality, and not just its literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters. A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.

And if these difficulties, whose essence we share, hinder us, it is understandable that the rational talents on this side of the world, exalted in the contemplation of their own cultures, should have found themselves without valid means to interpret us. It is only natural that they insist on measuring us with the yardstick that they use for themselves, forgetting that the ravages of life are not the same for all, and that the quest of our own identity is just as arduous and bloody for us as it was for them. The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own, serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary. Venerable Europe would perhaps be more perceptive if it tried to see us in its own past. If only it recalled that London took three hundred years to build its first city wall, and three hundred years more to acquire a bishop; that Rome labored in a gloom of uncertainty for twenty centuries, until an Etruscan King anchored it in history; and that the peaceful Swiss of today, who feast us with their mild cheeses and apathetic watches, bloodied Europe as soldiers of fortune, as late as the Sixteenth Century. Even at the height of the Renaissance, twelve thousand lansquenets in the pay of the imperial armies sacked and devastated Rome and put eight thousand of its inhabitants to the sword.

I do not mean to embody the illusions of Tonio Kröger, whose dreams of uniting a chaste north to a passionate south were exalted here, fifty-three years ago, by Thomas Mann. But I do believe that those clear-sighted Europeans who struggle, here as well, for a more just and humane homeland, could help us far better if they reconsidered their way of seeing us. Solidarity with our dreams will not make us feel less alone, as long as it is not translated into concrete acts of legitimate support for all the peoples that assume the illusion of having a life of their own in the distribution of the world.

Latin America neither wants, nor has any reason, to be a pawn without a will of its own; nor is it merely wishful thinking that its quest for independence and originality should become a Western aspiration. However, the navigational advances that have narrowed such distances between our Americas and Europe seem, conversely, to have accentuated our cultural remoteness. Why is the originality so readily granted us in literature so mistrustfully denied us in our difficult attempts at social change? Why think that the social justice sought by progressive Europeans for their own countries cannot also be a goal for Latin America, with different methods for dissimilar conditions? No: the immeasurable violence and pain of our history are the result of age-old inequities and untold bitterness, and not a conspiracy plotted three thousand leagues from our home. But many European leaders and thinkers have thought so, with the childishness of old-timers who have forgotten the fruitful excess of their youth as if it were impossible to find another destiny than to live at the mercy of the two great masters of the world. This, my friends, is the very scale of our solitude.

In spite of this, to oppression, plundering and abandonment, we respond with life. Neither floods nor plagues, famines nor cataclysms, nor even the eternal wars of century upon century, have been able to subdue the persistent advantage of life over death. An advantage that grows and quickens: every year, there are seventy-four million more births than deaths, a sufficient number of new lives to multiply, each year, the population of New York sevenfold. Most of these births occur in the countries of least resources — including, of course, those of Latin America. Conversely, the most prosperous countries have succeeded in accumulating powers of destruction such as to annihilate, a hundred times over, not only all the human beings that have existed to this day, but also the totality of all living beings that have ever drawn breath on this planet of misfortune.

On a day like today, my master William Faulkner said, “I decline to accept the end of man.” I would fall unworthy of standing in this place that was his, if I were not fully aware that the colossal tragedy he refused to recognize thirty-two years ago is now, for the first time since the beginning of humanity, nothing more than a simple scientific possiblity. Faced with this awesome reality that must have seemed a mere utopia through all of human time, we, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of the opposite utopia. A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.

Still curious? Pair with his excellent 1981 Paris Review interview.

Ernest Hemingway’s 1954 Nobel Acceptance Speech on Working Alone

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.”
— Ernest Hemingway

***

Solitude is an important aspect toward accomplishing great things, creative or otherwise. In fact, it’s one of the commonalities found amongst the routines of great writers and artists.

That’s not to say that if you lock yourself in a room, you’re going to turn into something great. It does suggest, however, that there is something to being alone with your thoughts.

The great philosophers enjoyed walking, in part for the peace and freedom it offered to play with ideas.

Stretches of solitude often enable, rather than prevent, meaningful work and quality time. And for the introverts among us, solitude refreshes our soul.

***

Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in October of 1954. His acceptance speech, found in the 1972 biography Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, is one of the best ever. Unwilling to travel to Stockholm, after two nearly fatal plane crashes, Hemingway asked John C. Cabot, the United States Ambassador to Sweden (at the time), to read his speech.

Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize.

No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.

It would be impossible for me to ask the Ambassador of my country to read a speech in which a writer said all of the things which are in his heart. Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.

I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.