The Most Essential Gift for Writers: Hemingway’s Shit-Detector

onoff“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit-detector.” –Ernest Hemingway

Who could argue with Papa Hemingway’s advice? Actually, there are lots of good reasons to argue with him, starting with his suicide. After all, if you off yourself, you cannot continue to detect and eliminate the shit from your writing. You can’t do any writing. You can’t do anything. Except be dead. Being dead sucks.

Therefore, we shall modify Hemingway’s adage accordingly: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit-detector with an on-off switch.”

Now, a bit on the shit-detector part: a writer must be honest with herself about the quality of what’s on the page. She has to know what the prose is supposed to be doing, and she has to know if it’s doing it. She has to be able to see when she’s bluffing, when she’s making smokescreens with words instead of cutting to the chase. She has to recognize when her prose is merely ornamental, and, no matter how much she likes that turn of phrase, if it doesn’t do its job, she has to get rid of it. (This is known, among writers, as “murdering your darlings.” Here’s a bit more on the painful process from a Writer’s Digest article by Jim Kelly.)

However. You cannot do the important work of shit-detecting if you haven’t written anything. This is why the on-off switch on the shit-detector is essential–do not give this item to any writer on your list unless you have made sure the on-off switch is present.

What I mean is this: to get a draft that you can subsequently scrutinize, pulverize, rewriterize (err, revise), you have to first write something. And a lot of what you write is going to be shit. (Here’s a pdf of Anne Lamott’s two cents on shitty first drafts.) If that damn detector is going off constantly while you are trying to write, things are going to get ugly. You will get frustrated. You will despair. You will stop writing.

Good writing comes after plenty of shitty writing, but you can’t simply skip the shit. You have to go through it to get to the place where you can detect–and do something about–the rotten bits.

But once there is a draft, we have to be ready to look at it for what it is, with eyes unclouded by our own visions of grandeur. “I wrote a novel!” is wonderful. “I’m revising my novel!” is more important.

Here’s to working hard, being patient with the shit in your work, and then sniffing it all out.

Best wishes for a peaceful holiday season to all who have been and are celebrating.

*Photo credit: Scott Witt


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