Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ernest and The Boxer by “The Boxer”

The Boxer reflects on what he has learned from Ernest Hemingway.

"We won the first with half of the money that we had to spend and he paid 12-1, jumping beautifully, taking command on the far side of the course and coming in four lengths ahead. We saved half of the money and put it away and bet the other half on the second horse who broke ahead, led all the way over the hurdles and on the flat just lasted to the finish line with the favourite gaining on him with every jump and the two whips flailing. We went for a glass of champagne at the bar under the stand and waited for the prices to go up. “My, racing is very hard on people,” my wife said. “Did you see that other horse come up on him.” The horses came by, ours wet with his nostrils working wide to breathe and the jockey patting him.
“Poor him,” my wife said. “We just bet.”"
(A Moveable Feast)

Ernest Hemingway began work as a reporter for the Kansas City Star in 1917 at the age of 18. He resigned from journalism seven years later to write fiction but throughout his career maintained the key journalistic skill of being able to entertain and inform.

Of the many things I have taken from Hemingway’s style is the importance of incorporating a unique viewpoint when writing about everyday experiences. An example of this is shown in the above piece where a couple are in a racecourse champagne bar immediately after winning a large sum of money. They speak of how hard the race was on their nerves before seeing the exhausted winning horse which puts their feelings into context.

The extract above appeared in 1936 and the ability to give a unique viewpoint to an everyday occurrence is as valuable today as it was over 70 years ago.
Hemingway’s sports-writing pieces were informative and to the point. He described Enghein Racecourse, situated outside of Paris, as the ‘small pretty and larcenous track that was the home of the outsider’. In twelve words he has relayed information that is helpful to the newcomer, informative to the expert and interesting to all and this is a fine example of a style that I have strived for over the past two years. It is very easy to presume a reader’s knowledge and this can make an article difficult to understand but the balance must be maintained to ensure fresh information is given for the more knowledgeable spectator’s benefit.

Equally the ability to quickly catch a reader’s attention while relaying the sense and pace of an event is a key aspect of sports-writing and is something I have consciously worked towards; and to this end Hemingway’s boxing writing has helped me immensely:

"The gong rang and Jack turned quick and went out. Walcott came towards him and they touched gloves and as soon as Walcott dropped his hands Jack jumped his left into his face twice…Walcott was after him, going forward all the time with his chin on his chest". (Men without Women)

On a practical level, and without exception, I start every piece of writing by using Hemingway’s mantra of beginning with ‘one true sentence,’ and when writing longer pieces I try as much as possible to ‘always stop when there is [still] something there.’

Emotion is a key aspect of competitive sports and consequently sports reporting and Hemingway was notable for his ability to accurately relay others’ emotions and the characteristics that become apparent in the exultance of victory or defeat’s despair:

"My wife had a horse one time at Auteuil named Chevre d’Or that was 120-1 and leading by 20 lengths when he fell at the last jump with enough savings on him to keep us for six months. We tried never to think of that. She had cried for the horse, I remembered, but not the money". (A Moveable Feast)

As a writer he was very aware of his own limitations and believed you should write ‘what [you] know about truly and care for the most,’. While this statement may seem idealistic in this competitive age I do believe the knowledge that comes from research – and an ongoing love of a sport – will shine through and become the article’s foundation.

Hemingway believed he could write about all sports but that he should not as he did not possess the required knowledge. For this reason he rarely wrote of cycle racing, which he enjoyed, as he felt the quality of his writing could not relay the sport’s essence:

"I have started many stories about bicycle racing but have never written one that is as good as the races are both on the indoor and outdoor tracks and on the roads. But I will get the Velodrome d’Hiver with the smoky light of the afternoon and the whirring sound the tires made on the wood as the riders passed, the effort and the tactics as the riders climbed and plunged, each one a part of his machine". (A Moveable Feast)

A sportswriter must avoid excessive supposition and exercise sound judgement on what is appropriate to report and what is not; and Hemingway, an enthusiastic and reportedly successful gambler, mixed regularly with horse trainers and jockeys in the 1930s when doping was rife. He maintained his journalistic equilibrium by keeping a ‘tight rein’ on hypothesis and overt speculation and reported accurately while avoiding mentioning specific instances or individuals.

‘You had to watch a jumping race from the top of the stands at Auteuil… to see what each horse did and see what horse might have won and did not, and see why or maybe how he did not do what he could have done. You watched the prices and all the shifts of odds each time a horse you were following would start.’ (A Moveable Feast)

In common with current writers Hemingway very often wrote of his personal experiences and day to day situations. His ability to do this was startling given that he was often writing of emotive subjects – such as widespread horse doping. He had the ability to stay true to journalism’s code of ethics; seemly remaining distant from his subject while creating an intimate relationship with the reader that was often almost disturbing in its familiarity:

"I had wanted to go to the races very badly. But at this time I could not afford to go to the races, even though there was money to be made there if you worked at it. It was the days before saliva tests and other methods of detecting artificially encouraged horses and doping was very extensively practiced. But handicapping beasts that are receiving stimulants, and detecting the symptoms in the paddock and acting on your perceptions, which sometimes bordered on the extra sensory, then backing them with money you cannot afford to lose, is not the way for a young man supporting a wife and child to get ahead in the full time job of learning to write prose". (A Moveable Feast)

Undoubtedly the craft of sports writing has changed significantly since the 1930s but I believe that Hemingway’s sports writing skills have stood the test of time. His ability to entertain factions of sports fans with vastly different knowledge levels undoubtedly remains at the heart of good sports reporting. So too, does his ability to maintain journalism’s theoretical balance of what should be done against how it is practised. The above examples of reporting accurately whilst maintaining his subject’s freedom and confidentiality are just an example of how this talented reporter, renowned author and skilled sportswriter maintained journalism’s code of practice.

Hemingway ended Death in the Afternoon (his ‘exhaustive account’ of bullfighting) with an epilogue that I feel is appropriate here. It is his account of a piece of work, such as this, that has been completed but where the author felt he had so much more to say:

‘If I could have made this enough of a book,’ he began, ‘I would have had everything in it. The Prado, looking like some big American college building, with sprinklers watering the grass…’ (Death in the Afternoon)


file said...

the boxer,

this is a great treat, you've clearly been thinking about this and thanks so much for sharing it

I feel sure that I'm not the only one here who hung on every word and then re-read it, twice

Hemingway is so excellent; 'For Whom..' and 'Farewell..' are my faves but I love all of his Cuba, Florida Keys stories too

his prose is well known for it's powerful simplicity, he was a man of action by nature and everything had to be practical, a natural journalist

one aspect of the changes in sports journalism is personal experience, while big Ernest went to so many front lines most of what is written these days was experienced through a monitor, tv, book or paper

I think this is a big problem

did you see Paul Doyle's piece on La Ligue in GU?

not only did he not experience any of the things he wrote about but he'd lifted the whole thang straight from dear Offie

scandalous, but thanks again for this, most entertaining and informative

nesta said...

Thankyou very much Mr Boxer. Entertaining, inspirational and educational.

As for the plagarism at the GU it is all too common. I tried to let other bloggers know about it and when I informed the editor he cancelled my subscription. It is institutional and supported at that paper and anyone who buys it or reads it encourages their stealing.

Once again Boxer. Top work. We should see it under another theiving journalists name at the GU in a month or two.

Ebren said...

Lovely piece - but I would add that you can remove the word "sport" from Hemmingway's comments about writing.

Good writing is good writing, end of. Dickens was a journalist. As was Defoe, Kipling, Orwell, and George Bernard Shaw.

Orwell is particularly good on how to turn a phrase in Shooting an Elephant: And Other Essays.

He points out that words have meaning, and should not be moved around as blocks but considered in and of themselves.

"Think of the think you are trying to describe. Picture it. Then find the words that best describe it."

Simple. But it's not done.

"Hat trick hero Paul Scholes hit three past a hapless Fulham defence as Man U romped home 4-1 winners".

You see tripe like that in national newspapers every day.

Why? Because it's easy. And it means neither the reader nor the writer has to either think or use their imagination. And that makes them happy.

I try to avoid this and follow Orwell's advice. I mostly fail.

Good piece. Thought provoking.

file said...


well I was all set to dispute that writing is writing with a wonderfully turned argument about function

then I remembered the great Kilgore Trout and felt compelled to dig this up:

Creative Writing 101

Now lend me your ears. Here is Creative Writing 101:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

and then I though, oh, you're probably right!

btw/ source?

bluedaddy said...

I really enjoyed this piece. Makes you want to grab some Hemingway, a drink and an easy chair (and ask the kids to put themselves to bed).

Damon Runyon's a big fave too, great for capturing the small picture, and every character earns their spot, no matter how fleeting their appearance.

As for writing rules, I like Elmore Leonard's last:

"10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip".

nesta said...

After walking in the rain I've calmed a bit. People stealing words from Tahiti made my blood boil.

Ebren provides a link to Amazon so we can purchase Orwell's brilliant essay.For those that a bit light in the pocket here is an address for an online etext version.

And file your Creative 101 has opened this inexperienced writers eyes and ears.

I am forever grateful. I've begun a story after fluking an invite to a competition and now with your points I feel confidence instead of despair. thankyou.

andrewm said...

OK, this is an excellent article about a truly great writer. What more do you want? Hemingway's boxing pieces are particularly good, for exactly the reasons you give.

Ebren, you're absolutely right about Orwell. I was re-reading some of his essays the other day. I never get tired of them.

file, I'm no writer but I don't think I agree with anything on that list.

file said...


what a great link, it doesn't work directly but if you click library it takes you to the beef, wow, all of Orwell online

NOT MY 101! sorry if I gave that impression, I am not qualified to write CW1 never mind 101

twas Kurt Vonnegut

and I was struck by the similarities to what 'the boxer' and ebren were saying


Elmore Leonard is cool, have you read Cuba Libra? Like he's assaulting Hemingways right to reign!

nesta said...

Andrew please offer an argument for your disapproval. It could prove helpful in evaporating my confusion.

Nevermind, perhaps some sleep will do the trick.

Cuba Libre! I drank a dozen of those a few weeks back. I'm still recovering.

Zephirine said...

Elmore Leonard is very cool, the only writer I can think of to have written from the point of view of an alligator (it's in Maximum Bob). And can I add Raymond Chandler to the list? A much better writer than he's often given credit for.

This is a super article, thought-provoking and beautifully written, thank you Boxer.

andrewm said...

file, I know it isn't your 101, and I do hate to suddenly be disagreeing with points you raise all the time. I just think it's a very poor list for the most part.

1. Meaningless advice
2. Simplistic
4. Simply untrue
5. Meaningless
6. Unnecessary

It's a very poor list to propose as some kind of guide to writing, if such a thing could exist.

God, I'm such a grump. I do apologise.

bluedaddy said...

Zeph, is there anyone in fiction cooler than Philip Marlowe? Not that I've come across for sure.

I bloody love Chandler.

Leonard's other rules are here:

file said...

'struth, I've gone and upset the football expert du monde entiere now


Hemingway and Vonnegut share an economy of style and a belief in unique perspectives but it was just that ebren led me to thinking about the crossover of the truths in Boxers article from sports writing to creative writing via George Orwell

perhaps Vonnegut is too far out there

it would be interesting to dig up some Wolfe, Thompson or even Stuart Hall to compare their views

bluedaddy said...

KV's advice seems good enough to me AM.

He seems to be saying: Make your characters live, and stay out of the way yourself. That makes for good writing for me.

You, grumpy? No!

Gotta go kick a ball around.

andrewm said...

Sorry kids, didn't mean to be so prickly. I think we're all aware that I know very little about writing.

I know a man who did, though: Frederick Exley. Read him.

guitougoal said...

the boxer,
that was a knock-out.
With my simplistic way of looking at things, I always thought that the finest sportswriters don't write about sports only but about people, their efforts, achievements,passions and failures. And they do it so well that isn't sportwriting it's literature.
Reciprocally, "the old man and the sea" could be considered as one of the finest sportwriting piece in history.Sportwriters should remember this book with a mixture of envy and admiration wishing that they have half the command of language and thoughtful way of making a point that Hemingway did.

guitougoal said...

obviously "about people ,their efforts....etc." I am referring to the Great sportswriters.

Ebren said...

bd - that's all pretty sound advice. But there is an eleventh that needs to be added.

Rules are made to be broken.

That said, these are all also rules for a plot-driven novel. The lyricism of DeBernier wouldn't fit them. Karuoack (SP?!?!) would be left cold.

That said, if you applied them to Dan Brown you could turn the Da Vinci code into a 150 page thriller thjat would actually be rather good (I have often been tempted to do this).

Writing can do very different things and is meant for very different things.

Lazio piece is nothing like my Walkers Stadium piece.

Same with offside's far superior Rowing bit or his Ligue 1 roundup.

And a flick through some of the other stuff on here shows some excellent crusades from Margin some polemics from Postern and assorted silliness from mimi mouth and Zeph. And that's just scratching the surface.

No rules there that would work for all of these. But, as our dear orsay proves, if you do your job well and have decent talent.

The main thing, as far as I am concerned, is to take care with your writing. Put effort in and it will show. Combine it with talent and imagination and you are getting special.

Then again, if the muse strikes you can dash something off in ten minutes and if you get lucky it might be half decent.

Weird - we all seem to play football on Wednesday evenings (mine was cancelled). (we're three points off promotion with three games to play, tense it is).

Best pure writer on GU - probably Harry Pearson.

Ebren said...

it also helps if you read through what you write....

(hope that last post made sense)

Sorry if I've used a lot of my own stuff, it's just I know how the writing was constructed on them.

I should also praise Jimmy R and Marcela from GU in terms of style (for very different reasons). Marina Hyde has a wonderful ear as well.

mimi said...

I owe you all more attention than I have time for right now, but if you're looking for what I would call the best sportswriter of my generation, then it's Hunter S Thompson. And there's a shed load to find in print and on the net. He was a bit of a shit to communicate with - like hardly ever bothered to write back etc, but what a fine and interesting man.

DoctorShoot said...

thank you
for the delicious and mouthwatering reprise....

Big Two-Hearted River...oh yes...and Trout Fishing in Paris....

and Steinbeck's comment?:

It has always been my private conviction that any man who puts his intelligence up against a fish and loses had it coming.
John Steinbeck

and back on boxing, if you have time for just for a little treat have a quick sqiz at Daniel Lane's mini window on Australia's boxing outbackwaters...:

marcela said...

the boxer: very interesting piece, thank you.

i guess it's very difficult to establish firm rules, or laws, and i'm particularly interested to read elmore leonard's list of 'do's and 'don't's ... i once read a script of his prior to publication of any sort and it was amazing how unpolished it appeared, how many chunks of both dialogue and narrative were almost notes to himself. it was as if he had spat the entire thing out in one marathonic go. fascinating.

hemingway was brilliant. i agree guitou, the old man and the sea is perhaps the greatest piece of sportswriting ever. and of course his writing never dates - truly classic.

there was a superb lecture published in two parts on the Guardian some months ago - Zadie Smith on writers and writing. It is excellent. If I have time I will look for the link.

i have to say, though, that the one of the things i have found most exciting about GU blogs is the variety of voices - and i've said it before i'm sure - but the whole point about richness is precisely how there is no one identifiable rule of format. the conversation is a written one.

sportswriting becomes a multidimensional, multifaceted, mobus strip type thing. the story, the opening line, the adverbs or the reported speech all emerge in such different styles and viewpoints. more often than not, it is the same event seen through the same lens that is being dissected and the contrasts and coincidences in interpretation all spring up. witty one liners will interrupt lengthy dissertations...

as a reader, i have found in the threads some of the best sportswriting i have ever read.

i wonder how much this will shape the nature of reporting in the future?

hannibalbrooks said...

There are so many pararllels between the arts of producing good writing and producing good music.

The following sentence leapt out from the screen at me....

'It is very easy to presume a reader’s knowledge and this can make an article difficult to understand but the balance must be maintained to ensure fresh information is given for the more knowledgeable spectator’s benefit.'

I enjoyed the piece very much and re-read it slowly, digesting it. Well done The Boxer.

The comments following it live up to the original's quality.

I have only read The Old Man and The Sea by Ernie, on a long train journey, 20 years ago. I can't say that I enjoyed it particularly, but I was quite young.

guitougoal said...

"a man does not exist until he is drunk."
- off topic Ernest Hemingway-
Mojito the drink was invented a la bodeguita del Medio in Havana. Cuba. where Hemingway drank them. So did Brigitte Bardot, Errol Flynn and many others.
Fill a glass with crushed iced- poor 2oz of light white rhum, ad 6 fresh mint sprigs, 1 oz lime juice, 3/4 of simple syrup, limewedge-

Ebren said...

Crush the mint leaves. You have to crush the mint leaves! Normally before adding the ice.

Dear god, do they teach you nothing in France/USofA!?!?!?!

marcela said...

hannibal do yourself a BIG favour and re-read asap.

i first read it in spanish more than 20 years ago but have enjoyed it again - and more - in english as an adult.

this thread and an e-mail exchange i had with ebren some time ago reminded me of an editor who complained about the length of my features. "C'mon" he said "hemingway wrote perfectly complete articles in 60 lines".

i pointed out that i'm not hemingway. and continued to file long...

i raise my mojito to yous all.

guitougoal said...

yes you right you crush the mint sprigs first and you fill the glass with ice last.
About my universal ignorance, they teached me a little in france, I lost it the USfA.
But at least I know that I don't know-
btw Hemingway as a reporter for the Kansas city Star
developed a minimalist style which had a lot of followers amont the american sportswriters of his time.

guitougoal said...

and Le Boxer.
it's :Enghien- and not Enghein the pretty town of france.
Since I was singled out with no mercy for the futile and pointless detail about the making of a cocktail, i may as well grab an oportunity to show off my geographical knowledge-
btw as the kansas city star reporter Hemingway's minimalist style was imitated by a lot of sportswriters of his period,
I hope you provide us with more stories, thanks again.

marcela said...

The Boxer says:

On a practical level, and without exception, I start every piece of writing by using Hemingway’s mantra of beginning with ‘one true sentence,’

Could this entry be followed with an example? Could we read some of your writings, maybe not about writing?

I would like that.

bluedaddy said...

Nice thread.

Got rolled over 8-1 tonight. Enjoyed myself immensely, far more than winning 5-0 last week. Ran my nuts off in midfield. Apart from the occasional hands on knees wheeze, it was just like being 12 again.

The great thing about reading/writing/music is it often beats watching/participating in the activity itself (if that's not too sad to admit). I just dont get rugby for example, but can feel the surprise and joy in Eb's Eng v Fra piece, or be properly engaged by Jonnyboy's Big Blogger piece about taking on the All Blacks.

BTW just spotted this. Had to share it, and a great comment that followed. The last 90 seconds are solid gold.

"the shuckyduckiousness of the moves will never be matched. If you use just one of those moves at a wedding you wont go home solo"

hannibalbrooks said...

Here is an animated version of the story. I just watched it, I'm glad I did.

hannibalbrooks said...

Great JB clip BD... classic. Funk's gain is football's loss.

Here's some great Bob Dylan. Great writing and great musical performance.

MotM said...

I hoping that "The Boxer" will favour us with more reflections on his sporting life soon. However, he is not a frustrated hack, he's a hack who has little time for anything other than hackery at the moment.

Bring on Round 2!

levremance said...

The Boxer - thanks for putting this up, I really enjoyed it and the blog that followed. Well done.

I read Death in the Afternoon a fair while ago now and I remember that it changed my entire view of bullfighting, which was negative prior to reading the book. That's probably not a huge selling point in these times but it was a great read.

Following on from the links to Shooting the Elephant and other discussion I've now got a list of 4 or 5 books to read. Thanks all.

Zeph said...

Hannibal - good clip, what a sweet young thing Dylan was in those days.
Did you know that Simon and Garfunkel's song 'The Boxer' was supposed to be inspired by Dylan? Or perhaps that was why you posted the clip (duh)..

DoctorShoot said...

ditto zeph
also hurricane in that suite of clips....

Have re-read the boxer's piece and file's boxing piece several times now and finally concluded beyond all reasonable doubt (not that the brilliance of others had not already convinced me as these pages fill) that I can never be an elite sports writer. This now goes into my decision pile along with loss of illusions about being a champion footballer, a singer, a chef of note, an admired sculptor, a witty comedien, an organic gardener, a film maker....etc....

but all the more filled with pleasure in dining upon the feats of others....

MotM said...

Now, now Doc. Let's hear none of that defeatist talk. I'm awaiting a despatch on the Aussie Rules season to date from you, Nesta or Lev - better still, all three!

bluedaddy said...

Brooksie, that's a great Dylan clip. He looks so young and cool, and looks totally at ease with himself, and with his music. I looked at the Constant Sorrow clip that was next to the Tambourine one on youtube, and he was younger and on a TV show, and he looks petrified.

Doctorshoot, your post reminded me of this from Richard Ford's The Sportswriter:

"Why, you might ask, would a man give up a promising literary career--there were some good notices--to become a sportswriter?

It's a good question. For now let me say only this: if sportswriting teaches you anything, and there is much truth to it as well as plenty of lies, it is that for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret. Though you must also manage to avoid it or your life will be ruined.

I believe I have done these two things. Faced down regret. Avoided ruin. And I am still here to tell about it."

I remember once getting a real buzz out of watching a guy in a burger caravan really working his hotplate, with a big queue of eager punters. It was in the cold early hours of the morning, and the guy would chat and joke, and all the while prep food for maybe a dozen orders at a time, always scraping the oozing hot fat away, keeping the food on the move, cooking perfect eggs.

I later ended seven years of vegetarianism at his van. That egg and bacon roll was worth the wait.

marcela said...

mouth -

a hack should be by definition frustrated, non?

at any rate, what i think would be perfect would be for this article to be accompanied by some of 'The Boxer's' already written stuff. Perhaps you could kindly provide a pointer to where some of it could be read?

DoctorShoot said...

Have communication from Nesta and he has a couple of absolute gems in the pipeline.

I have a new piece for Pseud's Other Stuff where the heat is not so intense....

marcela said...

bd - glad you also spent some time clicking on more dylan. constant sorrow tempted me, as did several live versions of tangled up in blues, all over the world, different decades... still listening to good ol bob now, and it's been almost 20 hours since brooksie posted the clip!

the sportswriter is a v. good read indeed. have you read a l kennedy on bullfighting?

bluedaddy said...

Marcela, I havent read her at all actually. She does stand up comedy I believe, so I guess bullfighting is a logical step.

marcela said...


file said...



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