How A Father’s Letter Led To The Writing Life

I replace the spongy step on the front porch because it may give way and land Steve the mailman in the hospital. I don’t enjoy the work – I’m not handy – so I recruit my brother (who is) to help me. We fix the step and get the desired result: no broken bones.

I write to get results, too. But unlike fixing steps, writing I enjoy. For me, writing is its own reward.

I also write because it’s my job. I’m a copywriter. Every day, I go to work and use words to sell stuff for clients such as Washington Trust, South County Hospital, Schneider Electric, and the Greater Providence YMCA.

Like many English majors, I had dreams of becoming a writer of fiction or poetry. When I took the copywriting position at an ad agency, a fellow would-be poet accused me of selling out. But the job was a godsend. It made we write every day. “Writing is a craft, not an art,” William Zinsser points out in his great book, On Writing Well. “Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.”

How true. There is always a gap between what I want to say and how my first draft says it. T. S. Eliot tells us that “words strain, crack and sometimes break, under the burden, under the tension, slip, slide, perish, decay with imprecision.” A line from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is more direct: “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” But I keep trying.

Because when writers do bridge the gap between writing and reality – when they write so truthfully that we taste the food (Ernest Hemingway) or laugh with abandon (Peter Farrelly) or have our eyes sting with empathy (William Trevor) – we feel the connection, made possible by words.

My parents separated when I was nine years old. I saw no warning signs – no kitchen table arguments, no slammed doors. But one night I walked downstairs to the basement and found my father sitting at a desk, writing. He didn’t hear me. And then his hand lashed out at the ashtray on the desk, hurtling it to the tile floor where it exploded. I went back upstairs.

The next day my father was gone and I found out what he had been writing – letters to my brothers and me. Mine began:

Three pages of gentle words, solace, and assurances followed. In the sea of my sadness, my father’s letter was the raft. And that’s when I fell under the spell of words beautifully expressed and deeply felt.

The writing life beckoned.

What Copywriters Can Learn from Hemingway


Ernest Hemingway was a journalist before he published The Sun Also Rises, and the influence that his newspaper days had on his writing is clear. Of his first novel, the New York Times said: “It is a truly gripping story, told in a lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame.”

Hemingway would have been a great copywriter. When he wrote about food, you could taste it. When he described a fishing trip, you smelled the salt air. His Iceberg Theory has great application for copywriters:

“If a writer knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

In other words, don’t tell your audience everything, just what’s most important – to them. And be sure you are “writing truly enough,” i.e., your promise connects on an emotional level and is informed by a customer benefit that is real.

Which brings us to another, pithier Hemingway quote:

“Develop a built-in bullshit detector.”

After all, if you don’t believe what you are writing, why should anyone else?

Have any other quotes from Hemingway (or other authors) that might guide us in our copywriting? Let me know what you think.

%d bloggers like this: