Lean and sinewy: Imagining writing as a fit body

In  A Moveable Feast, the chapterBirth of a New School” begins with Hemingway-as-narrator evoking the coolness and the cleanness of a café early in the morning, a seemingly pure space in which he can write uninterrupted. Narrator-Hemingway vividly imagines walking right into the woods of his fictional world: the reader is invited to imagine the smell and feel of a weathered leather pack,  a pencil sharpened with a knife, pine needles under his feet as he walks by a lake. . . Then the fantasy is interrupted by a young man, who asks derisively “What are you trying to do? Write in a café?”

A it turns out, the “tall, fat” young man is an aspiring writer who ironically disrupts Hemingway’s writerly intentions by chattering about how hard it is to write. Hemingway minces no words with the intruder, calling him a “bitch in full cry” and offering to shoot him if his life is so hard. When this fails to dissuade the young man, Hemingway buys him a drink and encourages him to abandon writing and become a critic instead.

This chapter is potentially very funny, given the juxtaposition of Hemingway’s solitary, disciplined writing practice with the young man’s thoughtless chatter, as well as the dig at failed writers who become critics. The young man gets in a few digs himself: he takes up Hemingway’s suggestion to critique, and tells Hemingway that his writing is “too stripped, too lean, too sinewy.” Since the chapter has already given us several reasons not to trust the young man’s judgment, we’re not to take Hemingway too seriously when he replies that he’ll try to “fatten it up a little.” “Not obese,” warns the tall, fat young man. “I’ll avoid that as long as I can,” promises Hemingway.

I’d like to laugh along with this joke, but the scene has always left a bad taste in my mouth. To create the humorous juxtaposition here, Hemingway relies on several overlapping binaries: sinewy and fat, solitary and gregarious, masculine and feminine. It’s clear that Hemingway, in his solitary masculine reverie with his stripped-down sinewy writing, is the hard-boiled hero here. The critic, feminine and fleshy and pointlessly nattering, is the butt of this chapter’s joke: despite being a “bitch in full cry,” he will not go on to birth a new school of anti-sinewiness criticism (at least according to Hemingway, narrating these events long after they took place).

Though certainly there are some exceptions with numerous footnotes and languorous long sentences, most writing is understood to be “good” when it is lean. Good writing is bare muscle trimmed free of fat, a pencil shaved down to a fine point with a knife. Good writing gives just enough and no more: “spare” and “minimalist” are compliments, even virtues. And as the scene with the fat young writer suggests, that trimness and thrift of verbiage is gendered masculine: when we think prose says too much, we call it florid or purple. Superfluity of words or flesh is a womanly trait in the phallogocentric imagination.

So you can imagine my curiosity when I discovered The Writer’s Diet Test.

Not to be confused with The Writing Diet (which asserts that channeling your creative spirit will help you lose weight), The Writer’s Diet is a style guide that challenges academics to trim down bloated or repetitive scholarly writing. I’m intrigued by this premise, both as an academic and as a copywriter for scholarly texts.  The latter often involves adapting lengthy, specialized explanations of the texts into more concise, engaging summaries; I think of this as trimming, which to me invokes both addition (trimming the tree) and subtraction (trimming hair). The Writer’s Diet takes the subtractive angle of trimming and expands it into a conceit of weight loss and muscle toning. Is your writing flabby or fit?, asks the site; you’re invited to run sections of your prose through a web application to see how close it is to having a heart attack, and then refer to the book for the recommended writing workout plan.

This writing diet taps into the contemporary cultural obsession with dieting and toning, which works from slightly different anxieties than Hemingway’s sinewy prose, but they do share some of the binary oppositions. Less is more. Excess is indulgent and bad. Austerity is strong, disciplined, and good.

There is some value in thinking of the work of the mind in terms of the work of the body. For one, it reaffirms the mind-body coexistence that classic philosophy spent so many centuries disavowing: speaking, writing, imagining are all embodied activities, and to some degree they are physical exertions. But it’s worth considering, too, what is lost or excluded if the writing we idealize is best figured as the lean, masculine body of an athlete.

(The Writer’s Diet FAQ discourages you from putting famous authors to the test; it’s only meant as a rough guide, not an evaluation of fine writing. But if you’re curious, the first part of “The Birth of a New School” is “Fit and Trim.” “The Good Anna,” by Hemingway’s bud Gertrude Stein, is overall “Fit and Trim” although use of “waste words” (that, there, etc.) “Needs Toning.” This blog post is mostly “Lean” but the be-verbs (is, are, etc.) are so “Flabby” that the whole thing “Need Toning.”)

2 responses to “Lean and sinewy: Imagining writing as a fit body

  1. Great post. You nailed that feeling of discomfort I also feel when reading Hemingway in scenes like that… Whenever I get paranoid about writing with “too much femininity” I think of Rumi. Nothing but metaphors, adjectives, ecstasy. I know he was a man, but how audaciously feminine. And, interestingly, egoless. Certainly if I had to pick the collected works of H. or those of R. to bring to a desert island, Rumi would win hands down.

    • Thanks for dropping in, Kim! I’m not familiar with Rumi, but I can certainly appreciate his style as you describe it. Sounds luscious.

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