Poets & Writers

A Forgotten Form

CRISTEN HEMINGWAY JAYNES is an author and a photographer based in London. She is the former editor of chum literary magazine and is the great-granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway. Her story collection, The Smallest of Entryways, was published by Church Row Books in 2016.

ONE summer, when I was nineteen and living in Key West, I rented a typewriter. In the early 1990s one could still do that. On a July afternoon I walked into a copy shop—there was no air conditioning; the room was filled with the smell of warm ink—to photocopy a short story I’d just finished. While I was waiting in line a paunchy man with leathery skin and a long beard said to me, “Are you a writer?” His eyes flashed, as though he were daring me. “I guess so,” I said.

He introduced himself as children’s author and poet Shel Silverstein, whose poem “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out” I had memorized for oral presentation in third-grade summer camp. “If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day,” he said. “Do you write every day?” I paused, nearly said, “Almost,” then settled for the most honest answer: “No.”

Not long after, another great writer, Tess Gallagher, told me unequivocally that, while it is true a writer must write every day, writing letters “counts.”

I had never before seen letters writing. My great-grandfather Ernest Hemingway was a prolific letter writer. In his correspondence there is a crossover between great literature and something that is often playful, satiric, and spiced with inside, often bawdy, jokes. His letters to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Janet Flanner, Ezra Pound, and many other great writers are filled with a humor and poignancy that is meant to be appreciated only by the recipient. Through Hemingway’s correspondence one can glimpse his penchant for nicknames, his ingenious combination of humor and gravity, and his extraordinary gift for painting with words. In a 1925 letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald—which appears in – (Scribner, 1981), edited by Carlos Baker—Hemingway says he likes to write letters “because it’s such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you’ve done something.” In his famous “Grace under pressure” letter to Fitzgerald of April 20, 1926, Hemingway shows his appreciation for his friend’s work by satirically comparing his own soon-to-be-published first novel, , with Fitzgerald’s recently published masterpiece, :

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