A Pandemic Is Good Discipline

"All I must do now was stay sound and good in my head
until morning when I would start to work again."
--Ernest Hemingway

This must have been in 1924. In Our Time had not yet been published, Hemingway had quit his job at the Toronto Star, and all his manuscripts had been lost in a suitcase at the Gare de Lyon. He wasn’t making very much money from his writing and was skipping meals, lying to his wife that he was eating out, so she would have more for herself and the boy. “It is necessary to handle yourself better when you have to cut down on food so you will not get too much hunger-thinking. Hunger is good discipline and you learn from it. And as long as they do not understand it you are ahead of them.” He was talking about his readers. “Oh sure,” he thought, “I’m so far ahead of them now that I can’t afford to eat regularly. It would not be bad if they caught up a little.” There’s a bad moment when he finds himself complaining to Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company about money. He catches himself and apologizes. “Forgive you for what?” she says. “Don’t you know that all writers ever talk about is their troubles?”

I’ve been reading A Moveable Feast and it’s pretty good company. I had forgotten his passing mention, in “Hunger Was Good Discipline,” of what was then his “new theory”, or what we now called “the iceberg method”: “you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted, and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” He connected this idea both to his hunger and to his lost manuscripts. There was a whole novel in that suitcase that, he suspected, demonstrated “the lyric facility of boyhood that was a perishable and as deceptive as youth was.” Writing now, he would have to do without it, and he decided this was “probably a good thing”. But he wasn’t ready to write a new novel yet: “it seemed an impossible thing to do when I had been trying with great difficulty to write paragraphs that would be the distillation of what made a novel.” That’s the difficulty I want to address in the coming weeks.

Of course, I’m not a novelist, and neither, I expect, are you. You’re probably trying to write a paper or a dissertation. Maybe you’re trying to write a book. But, like Hemingway, we’re writing prose, and the “distillation” of prose is the paragraph. It’s the “unit” of academic writing. It makes a statement and supports, elaborates or defends it, and any longer text is just a series of statements that have been variously supported, elaborated, and defended. Scholarly writing is the process of composing and arranging paragraphs that state what you know. These days, our process has been interrupted, but we must not complain about our troubles. Not too much. Every morning we get up and work on our paragraphs, our little disciplines. We decide what to put in and what to leave out and our iceberg gains a little of its dignity. Hemingway lived like that for almost two years. Then his readers finally caught up with him.

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