Motivational Monday: Prose is architecture . . .

Ernest Hemmingway Quote 2

Love this quote. Don’t just dress up your story, build it to last.


6 thoughts on “Motivational Monday: Prose is architecture . . .

  1. With respect to Papa Hemingway, I think he got it wrong this time, or he’s thinking of design in an extremely reductive way that doesn’t do the term justice. I’m sure the Sistine Chapel is a wonderful building, but do we really want to dismiss Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling simple because they don’t contribute to the architectural integrity of the structure? Good design is essential to the effective function of any structure; it’s the difference between, on the one hand, a room filled with cubicles and in which no one interacts positively, and, on the other hand, a space in which people are able to communicate and collaborate freely and meaningfully. Frank Lloyd Wright was meticulous about the interior design of his buildings (including windows, light fixtures, and furniture) because the experience of the people who inhabited his structures mattered to him. And that’s how I approach my writing. I want the overarching structure of my writing to work, but I also want the fine details of word choice and rhythm and syntax to work just as well. I want my writing, like a well-built and well-designed home, to be not only an expedient shelter from the elements but a home, a place in which people want to dwell because they draw some kind of sustenance from the way it feels to be there. To me, that’s both architecture and design.


    • Coming from a background in Architecture, I have to disagree with your assessment. I think your definitions of architecture and interior design are what differs from Hemmingway’s comment. You see, I believe when he speaks of Architecture, he is referring to the overarching design of a structure which includes structure, form, function, and asthetics. Architecture, as a form of art, takes in to consideration all these things, forming a work that satisfies the utilitarian use as well as pleasing the senses with its beauty. Hemmingway’s definition of interior design, is the superficial changes one makes to a structure to change an appearance, not necessarily being inherent to the overall quality of the building. FLW in particular was an excellent example of this, as he adhered to the idea that “form follows function”, much like the William Morris quote of: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Frank wouldn’t have just changed the paint color and the drapes and hung a new painting. His work was integral from the structure of the building, to the use of the building, to the asthetic design and so on. This is what Hemmingway is saying. Do not dress up your prose with words that are not useful or beautiful, or both. And as for the Sistine Chapel, I hardly think Michaelangelo’s work can be considered interior design in the modern sense (which I believe Hemmingway meant) as those paintings are masterpieces and far beyond just design. You make a good point, but I believe the differing definitions make Hemmingway’s quote quite right and applicable to writing.


      • I see your point. So then for you is there any distinction between interior *design* and interior *decoration*? If so, what? Because to me, design and decoration don’t at all mean the same thing.


      • First, I think the important thing regarding Hemmingway’s quote is to understand it as he meant it. I think I explained how I feel Hemmingway meant it, but as I’m not him, I can’t be certain. 🙂 As for my own opinions, it’s been seven years since I worked in any field relating to Architecture and design, so to be honest I haven’t thought much about the definitions. True design should be integral to the structure, function and asthetics of a building if it is to be called art. I guess that would mean the act of “decorating” is more about changing superficial elements to give something a different look, but not actually complementing the design. So maybe Hemmingway should have used the word “decoration” instead of “design” but I think we are getting too involved in semantics here and not focusing on the point. Good writing is beautiful and useful, and this will be found in the structure of your sentences, the beauty of your words and the usefulness of them getting their point across.

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      • As someone with a background in rhetoric and a particular interest in medieval rhetoric, I also reacted because this sounded so much to me like the old division of style from substance, with style (like interior design) being the superfluous stepchild, This view so often treats style as something that can be eliminated or at least made invisible (like a clear pane of glass) so that substance shines through, rather than the idea (which I hold) that even the “cleanest” style is as much a style as the most ornate. I don’t know whether that’s where you (or Hemingway) were going, but that was part of what I reacted against.


  2. I fear I’m belaboring this past the point of tedium, but I want to add a few final (I promise) statements to clarify why I think it’s worth belaboring. I agree with everything you said in your last sentence about good writing. I would only add that for me, good writing reaches beyond usefulness concerning the point to include usefulness concerning the emotional/sensual/(can I say?) spiritual experience of the reader. That is, I have read writing that has beauty and usefulness, but doesn’t engage me; I get the point of it, but am unmoved. I actually love Hemingway because, at his best, his writing evokes things that can’t quite be stated. He does things not useful to the point, but essential to my emotional engagement. I also completely agree I’m talking about small semantic distinctions. Here I would add that as a writer, precise semantics is where I live. Much of my drafting, and even more of my revision, involves parsing exactly these kinds of small but to me crucial differences in meaning and tone. There is the quote attributed to Twain that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. These differences may appear picayune, but their effects can be transformative. And I really appreciate your indulgence in letting me go on about this.


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