“But it is absolutely true that no matter how much you analyze a classic bit of writing, you can never really figure out what makes talent work.”
Patrick Hemingway, Ernest’s son
A while ago, a new writing friend startled me when she told an audience that she must have rewritten her first chapter at least 27 times. By my count, I’ve rewritten the opening of my YA novel at least 10. But in the revision sweepstakes, I think we can all agree that the reigning champ by a long mile has to be the great Ernest Hemingway.
Back in 1958, in an interview with The Paris Review, our boy Ernest confessed that he had rewritten the ending of A Farewell to Arms “39 times” before he was satisfied with it. Further research by his grandson reveals that there were actually 47 different versions. That’s right: Ernest changed his mind almost 50 times.
In an exciting publishing event, a new edition of the 1929 novel will soon be released that will include all the alternate endings Ernest considered, along with early drafts of other key passages. What a treasure trove!
I remember seeing an exhibit of Oscar Wilde papers awash in changes that he made to some of his most famous plays — and I’ve also been lucky enough to see some of the original edited pages of several Dickens novels. Amazing!
To me, it’s absolutely thrilling to see a writer’s work in its raw state and to trace the changes made as a piece of writing moves from draft to completion. It’s as if you are taking a peek into the author’s brain and are seeing his or her mind grapple with choosing among an ocean of words for those few that will ring true. Suddenly a phrase that was lackluster springs into life with just a deft switch of phrasing or wording. It’s like a magic trick — only with words, not doves or coins. And seeing the “road not taken” — the choices that are rejected and revised — can be so helpful and inspiring!
The alternate endings Hemingway struggled with range from a few words to a few paragraphs. Since the new edition of A Farewell to Arms features handwritten notes and long passages that are deleted, it also gives us a glimpse of how very physical the act of writing can be — crafting sentences on paper is something many of us have forgotten how to do in this age of computers and iPads. Being a paper gal myself, I can totally relate to Ernest’s chicken scratchings. To me, there’s nothing like a paper and pen or pencil to get the creative juices flowing.
When fellow author George Plimpton asked what the problem with his novel’s ending was, Ernest had a simple, four-word answer that speaks volumes: “Getting the words right.” That says it all, doesn’t it? Write on!