In her review of a new edition of A Farewell to Arms, Julie Bosman writes of the 1958 interview in “Paris Review,” in which Ernest Hemingway told George Plimpton that he had written 39 endings to the novel before he got it right. Many of the early endings, which are in the book’s appendix, were simple and beautiful, and Plimpton asked what the stumbling block had been.
“Getting the words right,” said Hemingway.
Writing is an art form in which each word is as important to the whole as a brush stroke on a canvas or a note in a symphony. And yet we live in a world which seems to have little respect for the beauty of words.
We learn to write with a thesaurus, as if words were interchangeable parts without any particular meaning in themselves.
We mistake $20 words for erudition.
We use words to obfuscate our meaning, to hide our own lack of clarity, to dazzle our audiences.
In political campaigns, candidates are drilled relentlessly to stay “on message,” which means, not to choose the right words in response to a question, but to repeat the same words robotically over and over again.
In doing so, we rob language of its beauty . . . but not of its power, for we become vulnerable to those who manipulate it for their own uses. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty told Alice, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
The difference between the art of writing and propaganda is the truth of the words themselves. It is getting the words right.