For the past several weeks my students and I have been immersed in the novels of Ernest Hemingway. I have had the pleasure of teaching a course on him and William Faulkner this semester. In most literature courses, we study only the final, published drafts of novels and other works of literature. That gives us the chance to enjoy the final masterpieces, but it doesn’t reveal much about the torment the author went through to make the book as good as it is. How many revisions did it go through? How many false starts were there? How much bad writing did the author produce before he found discovered the right way to tell the story?
A new edition of Hemingway’s masterpiece, A Farewell to Arms, was published earlier this year that sheds light on his careful, sometimes agonizing writing process. Depending on how you count them, Hemingway produced up to 47 different endings. The exact number is tricky to determine because some drafts use bits and pieces of other drafts and therefore are not completely distinct from one another. The editors have grouped the 47 drafts under nine categories, such as “The Nada Ending,” “The Religious Ending,” “The Live-Baby Ending,” and so on.
Examining these very different endings reveals much about the creative process of writing a novel. Here are a few points his methods illustrate:
• Even very good writers are capable of very bad writing.
Hemingway may be a brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning, best-selling author, but some of these drafts are just bad. One of the “Nada” endings, for example, says, “That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.” The first of three “Funeral Ending” drafts says, “When people die you have to bury them but you do not have to write about it. You meet undertakers but you do not have to write about them.” As if realizing how inadequate that ending is, Hemingway wrote two more versions of it, adding to the list of things “you do not have to write about.” The additional words only make it worse.
Fortunately, he abandoned those endings and kept trying. Which brings me to my next point:
• Good writers keep at it until they get it right.
The final published ending of A Farewell to Arms feels just right. The book would have suffered if Hemingway had chosen any of those 47 earlier drafts. However, he must have been tempted at some point to put a stop to all that work and simply settle for one of the other endings. How must he have felt after writing the 23rd version, or the 37th? Many writers would have said, “Enough! I’ll just go with this ending even though I’m not happy with it.” Not Hemingway. He kept writing until he nailed the ending the book needed.
• Great writers keep playing with ideas, knowing there might be a better way.
Hemingway didn’t write all these drafts in one sitting. He kept tinkering, trying new approaches, adding new sentences to earlier attempts, deleting details from old drafts. He kept the novel alive in his mind. He knew there were many viable options for how to tell his story, and he wasn’t afraid to try versions that failed miserably. Sometimes the only way to find the right solution is to give yourself the freedom to try many other ways that turn out wrong.
I’m glad Hemingway kept writing, and I’m grateful that the editors have produced an edition of the book that preserves his failed attempts. These drafts show his commitment to his craft and inspire me to work a little harder on my own projects.