Hemingway & Hummelshøj

[This article was first written for a Danish blog, but I thought some of my English readers might want to read it.]

Recently I was reminded that I am not very good at following the ten writers’ commandments.

It happened while I was adding the finishing touches to “Anna Märklin’s Family Chronicles”.

I had problems with this sentence,

If you discounted the tall salt and pepper mills in beechwood, Karin’s modest collection of spices was lined up in alphabetical order with uniform screw tops that looked exactly like army caps.”

I asked for help in an English forum for writers, and into the bargain I got the question, “why do you mention the beechwood mills?” Implicitly; aren’t they superfluous?

Ugh, yes, when you think about it, most of the sentence is probably superfluous. I could remove it word by word, and no one in the whole, wide world would miss Karin’s spice rack or the tiny army cap screw tops. Except for the author, that is.

You don’t just break the ten commandments. You know, Elmore Leonard’s celebrated writers’ decalogue, clearly inspired by Hemingway’s iceberg principle. Using adjectives is the deadliest sin of them all, and a good story is like an artichoke: the more you remove, the better. Now Papa Hemingway would probably have loved seeing millions of humble writers following his rules religiously. As we all know, you just have to follow these rules in order to write perfectly polished, hard-boiled crime stories.

And small wonder that three quarters of little Hummelshøj’s readers are women. She ought to feel contrite, pull herself together and do all she can to follow in Hemingway’s larger-than-life footprints.

But wait, come to think about it I’m neither macho man, misogynist or nihilist, and I have always considered my crime stories soft-boiled and humorous. So perhaps I could find inspiration in other places?

In the beginning God created Adam. Afterwards the two of them stood there, looking at each other, in complete silence. Quite soon Adam realized how lonely and quiet Paradise would be without Eve. He begged and entreated, he even sacrificed a rib to have female company.

He probably regretted it now and then, poor Adam. Swallowed a couple of painkillers for his headache and suffered in secret because of his chatty helpmate. But he didn’t send her back, after all.

Plenty of points to Hemingway, who was a competent and inspiring author. I have even tried toddling around in his tiny, black shoes. To tell you the truth, they were far too tight. Both heel and toe. Because Hemingway the man was also an ultra-conservative macho man. Complex, unhappy and scared of strong, independent women. At the end of his life he was so depressed and disillusioned that he chose to take his own life. I am a cheerful and positive woman who is never happier than when I am able to dive into my huge bin of collected words. An old, wise vocabulary enthusiast who chooses her own role models. In many ways the direct opposite of Papa Hemingway, so why let a very dead man determine my writing style? What is the point of inventing all those gorgeous, tasty words if we are not allowed to use them?

Ernestly, no way. I’m a free writer. Free to trot along in Anna Storm’s Kenzo sandals one day, Olivia Cadbury-Flake’s seductive Manolo Blahnik’s the next day, and change into Rhapsody Gershwin’s matter-of-fact lace-up shoes at will. Or kick off my footwear and let the toes jut out at random.

I can almost hear Hemingway turn over in his grave at all these superfluous words. Perhaps my stories just appeal to the chattering half? Well, Hemingway, at least I had fun while I wrote them. And perhaps there are enough readers in this world for both of us?

Hemingway is dead, Hummelshøj is alive, and she arranges her spices exactly the way she wants. Period.

About Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen

I am a Danish teacher. In my spare time I read, write and review crime fiction.
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8 Responses to Hemingway & Hummelshøj

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Dorte – There’s absolutely nothing at all wrong with finding the writing style that works to tell your stories and then…telling them. There’s a balance between conveying meaning well (which every writer should do, I think) and writing in an alien style because it follows certain rules. There’s a balance between improving one’s work (which every writer should try to do) and losing one’s work because one’s made it into someone else’s story.

  2. lrbauthor says:

    You have your own style and should never compromise it because of what someone else says…let alone a DEAD someone else! LOL We love your writing because it’s YOURS, not someone else’s!

  3. Ann says:

    Interesting post. When people tell me how writing “should be” I think of all those painters and artists who broke the mold and struck out in their own style. I think of the impressionists who brought us new colorful paintings, not with the rigid lines that had been expected. How sad it would have been if they’d said, but that’s not the right way to paint so I shouldn’t do it.
    Bet true to yourself. If you love your writing, others will too.
    By the way, the sentence tells me a lot about Karin, she wasn’t over indulgent “modest” but she was particular “alphabetical order” and I like to visualization of the army caps. The sentence is definitely not wasted.

  4. Thank you, friends.

    And I am glad you like Karin’s spice rack, Ann. That sentence meant so much to me it made me consider WHY I write the way I do 🙂

  5. Barbara says:

    Dorte, Heminway’s works are wonderful in their own way, but how boring reading would be if everyone wrote like him. I read a variety of styles and a wide variety of genres, reading opens my mind and my heart to a great world and that’s a big part of why I read. That spice rack does give the reader insight into who Karin is after all. Please be yourself because your readers love your writing style.

  6. It is so kind of you to say so, Barbara.

  7. Ben Solomon says:

    I say that as long as a writer, half-baked, par-boiled, whatever, consciously follows or disregards “rules” of any kind, then all’s fair. To borrow some other choice words:
    The play’s the thing
    it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
    If an artistic work plays, hang the rules!

  8. I’m sure you are right there 😉
    And I wrote the post for two reasons: to figure out what I felt about the subject myself, and to tell other writers they’ll have to figure out what is the right way for them.

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