The Last Page of A Farewell to Arms


How much rewriting do you do?


It depends. I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.


Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?


Getting the words right.

Ernest Hemingway stood at his typewriter to work. He kept a disciplined schedule, and no one told him he had to do it. He believed in the work.  He woke early, and began to write. He worked steadily, everyday, until noon. He would not end his work session until he had written a sentence which he knew would launch him the next morning. He only stopped writing when he was sure of what he was going to do next.

But he did not believe he had ever written anything perfectly. The work of an artist is to start and restart, to begin again and again. There are layers of effort and emotion buried in the words. Worlds of thought worked into the flesh of the text.

Hemingway re-wrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms 39 times. He left nothing to chance. Every word had to carry a certain weight. Every punctuation mark had to exert control and rhythm. Every inflection had to create a shimmering field of emotional frequencies. Every word had to be right.

He did not want to betray his gifts. He knew he only had so many books he could write in his lifetime. Each one had to be a work of art.

So it can be with anything anyone does. Our plumber once installed a new hot water heater and reconfigured the layout of the pipes.

When he was finished, he and I stood back and looked at his work. It was a series of perfectly positioned and measured copper pathways, each solder with bright chrome fittings, bracketed and nestled in the tight space of a closet wall.

“That’s incredible work,” I told him.

“It’s going to work perfectly too,” he said. “But I want it to look the best. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be beautiful.”

Such prideful ownership of one’s work leads to the creation of functional and durable art. With relentless discipline, one can make anything have lasting beauty.


Author: talbirdsey

I am writing a postcard to the President everyday.

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