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The One Hemingway Sentence That Changed Me as a Writer

The one Ernest Hemingway sentence that changed me as a writer was in The Old Man and the Sea in the third paragraph.

The sentence: "Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated."

When I read that sentence, my mind was blown. How could a sentence that explains what isn't explain so much about what is?

I picked up The Old Man and the Sea from the library ten years ago because I'd never read Hemingway and I heard it was good. I started it right before bed that night and I hate to admit this but my first impression of his writing was jealousy. How could something that read so simply (or as Faulkner said of him, "has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary...") was so engaging, illustrative, and concise?

Book cover of "The Old Man and the Sea"
The book cover I printed and framed that hangs by my front door

That night when I sat the book down on the nightstand, I dreamed of it all night. All night! I took that as a sign that this book spoke to me on a deep, maybe even spiritual, level, and the next day finished it in a matter of hours (to its defense, it's only 26,531 words). It stayed with me for weeks, and when I talked to my best friend about it, she told me her take on it was that it's about the fall of masculinity and the ability to persevere based on wisdom from old age. This led me to print out this book cover I found online, frame it, and hang it by my front door, where it is to this day.

The sentence "Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated," remained with me and still influences my writing almost ten years later.

Instead of explaining what my character is, I think, how can I explain what isn't?

For instance, while writing Becoming the Cat Lady, my women's fiction novel, I used this technique in the first chapter when my main character, Brooke McGovern, walks into a coffee shop. A side effect of her fatal flaw (fear of being abandoned) is perfection, but instead of explaining how she made sure she was perfect before heading out the for the day, I explained what wasn't perfect about her: her hair. She had gotten a bad dye job (for reasons explained in the novel) and she couldn't stop narrowing in on that part of her. It not only explained her physically, but let me show interiority.

"Even though Brooke had prepared for this in every way possible: trimming her nose hairs, getting a manicure, and buying a new wardrobe, her mind narrowed in on the one thing that wasn’t perfect: her hair... she crunched the dry and thick yellow braid that lay across the shoulder of her black blazer and shuddered at the thought of its brassy pieces, yellow at the roots with stringy extensions visible at the scalp."

My main character is not just a perfectionist. She lacks confidence, worries what other people think of her, and was so desperate to hide her identity from the world that she purposely went to a low-rated hair salon to ensure no one would recognize her, and dyed her hair to boot!

I would have loved to steal his sentence more directly and written something like "Everything about her was perfect except her hair and it was the same color as a banana and was brassy and stringy and defeated," but if that's not plagiarism, it's morally corrupt!

I have to add here that I hate comparing myself to Hemingway and I am in no way thinking I am at his level (self deprecation, much, Kate?)! But loved the way he influenced this part of my story. If you read more of Becoming the Cat Lady, you'll see me use this technique about ten more times!

Stay tuned for updates on Becoming the Cat Lady by Kate Pforr. Happy reading and writing!

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