Sunday, March 13, 2016

Ernest Hemingway on Writing and Having Had an Unhappy Childhood

I recently saw on Twitter that Ernest Hemingway said that an unhappy childhood is great training for a writer.

See AdviceToWriters.

I've been thinking about what this statement might mean.

Children are born learners; from both their experiences and formal education, they gradually, over a fairly long period of time, develop into who they will be as adults. I think that for the most part our experiences in childhood come to us uninvited. Whether a person has a happy childhood is out of his control; he has no control over the family and environment he was born into and whether it is poor, rich, abusive, or kind. Most families are comprised of a mixture of those things. I do agree with Hemingway in that an unhappy childhood is great training for a writer, especially for a literary one. It's also great training for criminals and psychopaths and generally unhappy adults in all walks of life.

Of course, 'happiness' is a difficult concept to define. Philosophers have given it various definitions. But, for this statement, I think that what we're talking about is, besides having the basics of food, clothing, and shelter, we have both the absence of abuse and the presence of  loving kindness toward us in childhood, the combination of which tips the balance of experience in childhood, maybe in adulthood too, in favor of a feeling of well being and happiness.

To some degree, whether your childhood was happy or unhappy is a matter of perspective. We can certainly have selective memory. Also, people with similar childhood experiences can have different opinions about their childhood, some saying it was happy and others saying it was unhappy.

There's always the possibility that Hemingway was being facetious. Nevertheless, this statement of his begs the question: which is better  for a person wanting to be a writer, to be most anything for that matter, to have had, an unhappy childhood or a happy one?

Which kind of childhood did you have, happy or unhappy?

If you had an unhappy childhood, have you managed to overcome the pain and find happiness?

Which would you rather have if you could do it over again?

Which would you rather your own child or children have?


Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

I was shocked to see a post. You haven't 'been around' lately.


Richard Hughes said...

Hi, Mac,
No, I haven't. I'm trying to return to regular posts.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

This was a thought provoking post. I do think we need shadows as well as light in life, but if there is too much shadow, it's hard to find light. I think Hemingway would have been a writer and a good one, even with a happy childhood, and he might not have caused so much pain to others.

Richard Hughes said...

Elizabeth, I have to agree.

Denise Covey said...

Hi Richard. I just wrote a tribute to Pat Conroy on my of my favourite authors of all time. He would agree with Hemingway...“One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family,” Conroy said. Conroy certainly used his angst over his troubled childhood in his magnificent stories...Prince of Tides, Beach Music, South of Broad...etc...

I had a rough and tumble country childhood. My parents did their best with what they had. And my childhood does turn up in some of my short stories, startling me.

Denise :-)

Richard Hughes said...

Denise, a line I deleted from my post, but which I think is probably true, is that a happy childhood is a rare thing. Probably many writers use their childhood experiences in their writing, or are influenced by them.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Richard, I had a very happy childhood, I think that's the reason I can only write happy, cute and fun stories. Your post is making me wonder why I have not tried writing about a protagonist who was unhappy in childhood.

Richard Hughes said...

Rachna, you're fortunate to have had a happy childhood. I'm sure it shows up in your writing.

KamilleE said...

I can't think of what kind of childhood I had. I actually still feel like I have one foot stuck in my child/teen years with one foot being dragged into adulthood against my will.

I'll admit I feel very nostalgic for my own childhood but it was pretty unhappy at times. I was sheltered for much of it. I lived in a rough neighbourhood so my parents tried to keep us safe by not letting us play around outside. Thus, when I think of childhood I think of my small, cramped bedroom and not the garden that was littered with cigarette stumps thanks to the people living in the flats above us.

I don't think writers have to be unhappy though to be good writers. It's weird how this myth has prevailed that to be a good write you have had to have witnessed or experienced a brutal or horrific childhood or during your young adult years when most people do not have such experiences. There are writers out there who have had the happiest times in the past. I feel maybe it's just people with the worst childhoods managing to talk about it the loudest.