Last week I traveled to Danville, Va., for a part of the job that disappeared in recent years because of the economy (no travel budget means no travel), meeting one-on-one with reporters to critique their writing and talk about what they can do to become better writers. When I meet with a reporter who honestly wants advice and will discuss his or her writing, it recharges me, and it had been a long time since I was able to have any meetings like this, so I was overdue for a charge. When I started doing these in 2002, I took a kitchen sink approach, addressing everything from style and grammar to storytelling. It didn’t take long for me to realize that was not a good approach. Being nitpicky helped no one and swamped the more worthwhile parts of the discussion. Since then, what I focus on is more or less what Ernest Hemingway described in a portion of “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter,” which he wrote in 1935 for Esquire. (I read it in “Byline: Ernest Hemingway,” a collection of Hemingway’s journalism.) “Monologue” recounts a conversation between Hemingway (Y.C., for “your correspondent”) and a young writer he called Maestro (Mice) during a fishing trip. The relevant portion:
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 thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.