The Secret to Writing Well

They say music alters moods and talks to you. Well, Eminem did. The reason I bring up Sing For the Moment, other than the fact of it being a great song which samples a
great song, is that the overall message of the song is that music, and art more generally, can be very influential in people’s lives. Art demands us to feel and to think; sometimes we experience exactly what the artist intended and sometimes we end up with unrelated, unintended thoughts and feelings of our own.

In the song, Em talks about how music can influence the way people talk and dress, it can inspire them to pursue certain careers and it can lead them to find or embrace different aspects of their personality. Acclaimed American author and journalist, Ernest Hemmingway, said that not only did pieces of artwork inspire him but they also helped improve his writing.

In his memoir, A Moveable Feast, Hemmingway recalls when he was doing an apprenticeship in Paris during the 1920s and how he’d study Paul Cézanne’s painting every day at the museum. “I was learning something from the painting of Cézanne
that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides, it was a secret,” he recalled.

There’s a whole genre of poetry dedicated to responding to pieces of art, especially paintings, called ekphrastic poems. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or work of art. Some ekphrastic poems reflect on or narrate the “action” taking place in a painting, scene or sculpture, while others describe its physical qualities. Through an ekphrastic poem, the poet can amplify and expand on the meaning of the artwork.


Ernest Hemmingway (1939).

According to Hemmingway, a writer’s job is to tell the truth. By definition, a true sentence is not a sentence that’s grammatically or structurally accurate but rather a factually true sentence. Hemmingway believed that true sentences were the key to writing well. “‘All you have to do is write one true sentence’ … I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”

To write about something using only true sentences would result in descriptive writing that’s full of objective details. Objective details are helpful in writing because they allow other people to understand something without the interference of opinion or experience, meaning, writing objectively tends to produce clearer, more accurate writing. To write true sentences, one must rely on the facts and relaying them accurately to their audience for them to make sense of the text. Making sure that what you’re writing makes sense helps keep the audience engaged. If the audience has to stop to think “wait, what?” or “I’m confused” you’ve lost their attention and taken them out the world your writing exists in, which is never a good thing.

Writing true sentences is important even when you’re writing about something that isn’t true, like non-fiction. In non-fiction, a true sentence is one that’s based on the facts and rules established which govern the world the story exists in. The famous American writer Mark Twain once said, “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please,” and that’s the approach one should take when writing true sentences about untrue things.

Hemmingway said that he wanted to write as Cezanne painted. In a deleted section of his short story Big Two-Hearted River, Hemmingway wrote about his alter-ego protagonist, Nick Adams, and his literary future. “He broke the whole thing down and built the real thing. It was hell to do … He, Nick, wanted to write about country so it would be there like Cezanne had done it in painting. You had to do it from inside yourself. There wasn’t any trick. Nobody had ever written about country like that.”

It makes sense that this passage was taken from a deleted section of Hemmingway’s work and that he claimed to be “not articulate enough” to explain what he learned. It was a secret.


The Two Hearted River in Michigan.

The key takeaway from the passage is “to write about country so it would be there like Cezanne painted it.” It goes back to the point about true sentences and descriptions. When it comes to visual art, like painting, aspects like colour, depth and focal point give them detail, specificity and make them visually interesting. As a writer, one’s job would be to accurately describe the things that make the painting interesting. So, if describing a painting of a forest it would insufficient to say there were numerous trees, even if the statement is accurate. Good writing would describe the different hues used, the positions of the trees in relation to everything else, a comment on the different styles and techniques employed, among other details to make the description of the painting as close to the objective reality as possible.

Talking about how Hemingway’s trick for writing using paintings reminded me of another technique writers can use to improve their writing through studying art. Many people have argued that listening to classical music can teach writers about narrative structure. In short, the hypothesis states that the rise and fall of classical music teaches writers about building tension, character development and creating narratives.

Back in second year, I wrote an essay for my Listening to Music course comparing the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 to the battles of a war. In the essay, I argued that changes in the music like the dynamics or speed in certain sections or which instruments were used reminded me of different battles within a war. The different battles were represented by different instruments, varying dynamics
and changes in pace.

I argued that the main phrase of the movement, the famous dun-dun-dun-duuuuuuun,
dun-dun-dun-duuuuuuun, was a sergeant in the war who fought many battles, with varying results. The phrase is repeated several times throughout the piece but is arranged differently each time. By changing the rhythm, the dynamics, or the syncopation in different sections of the song, Beethoven was able to make the music feel as if it were moving through time. I noted how the changes in the music occurred gradually, things flowed into each other without being abrupt. Balancing the main theme with loud dynamic sections met by periods of softer slower music, evoked feelings from anxiety to loss.

A good story will follow a similar floor plan. Introduce your main character early and feature them regularly throughout the piece. The audience learns about the main character through their actions and their interactions with others throughout the story. There are high-energy scenes, like a battle, sandwiched between more intense, intimate moments like two soldiers having a conversation. Most importantly, in the story, something happens. If the main phrase were to be repeated over and over and over, the music wouldn’t be a story it’d just be a repetition, a loop.

I got a 96 on the essay, and I’m not bringing that up to flex my academic muscle. In truth, I think I got a 96 on the essay because I identified and explained the connection between music and writing, specifically storytelling. Classical music has long been used to accompany plays, ballets and movies for just this reason; music tells a story by the way it opens, unfolds and finally closes. For example, music from the classical era (1750s-1820s) was usually divided into four sections: an Allegro in sonata form, a slow movement, a scherzo or minuet in a triple metre and a closing allegro. So in theory, if you know this formula all you need to do is fill in sections with the instruments you need for the story you’re telling.

But sadly, it’s not that simple. Experts and greats have a tendency to make complicated things seem effortless. They also tend to downplay the difficulty of said thing when they talk about it to non-experts. While people may say “oh, it’s nothing, anybody could do it,” that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do or understand. Like flying a plane, knowing how to write well takes more than knowing the function of the buttons at your disposal. Yes, it’s helpful and possibly important to know about true sentences and the narrative flow of classical music when it comes to writing but it is not enough to make one’s writing great. It’s up to you, the writer, to craft a piece with the right formula of structure and details. Let art inform and inspire you so you can create for your own.

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