Writing Lessons

The Odd Couple


By Brenda Wineapple

June 2, 2014



The best advice about writing I ever received came from two very different people. They were contemporaries more or less but didn’t know each other, and that’s no matter, for I’m not sure they would have gotten along, which is naturally of no consequence. And if I could have met Ernest Hemingway, I’m not sure his advice would have meant as much to me as it did coming from his odd, vengeful, nostalgic and at times beautiful memoir, A Moveable Feast. There, he said that he always stopped writing just when he knew what was going to happen the next day. Always stop, that is, when you think you know where you are—even if, when the next day comes, you cross out, delete, and start over. For nothing diminishes the fear of the day ahead like knowing where you’ll begin it.

The other advice, far more personal, came from the wonderful Sybille Bedford, who wrote, among other books, A Legacy, one of the finest novels of the second half of the 20th century. I had interviewed her about Janet Flanner, and much to my delight, Sybille and I became friends. So when I finished my book on Flanner, I worriedly confided that she might not recognize Flanner in my pages. What if she didn’t, I moaned; what if I didn’t get Flanner “right”? Sybille waved away my fear. “I have my Janet Flanner. You have yours. And Janet had hers,” she said.

I was stunned. And free.

Brenda Wineapple is a member of the editorial board of The American Scholar. She is the author of Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877.

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