A Writer in the Footsteps of Hemingway

Vacations are a double-edged sword for me. They always seem to tear me away at the busiest moment when I have deadlines to meet and writing to crank out (even if all of it is self-imposed). Really, do I have to go? is what I often think when my husband tells me (for the 5th time, most likely) that it is time to pack. On the other hand, they give me new perspectives and new material to write about.

But it isn’t often that I actually get to have a glimpse into another writer’s life while on vacation, and not just any writer but one of the greatest of them. I am, of course, talking about Ernest Hemingway. Who for a time made his home on the lovely island of Key West, where he wrote some of his greatest works.

I have to admit that I don’t actually, ahem, like Hemingway all that much. And here is another confession: Even though I’ve written a book about Kilimanjaro, I  have never even read The Snows of Kilimanjaro. How awful is that?

I did read one of his books, True at First Light, something about hunting game in Africa (long before I had lived in Africa), and I absolutely hated it. (It wasn’t published until 1999, so perhaps it was indeed not his finest work.) Hated his character and the macho way he spoke. I watched For Whom the Bell Tolls once as a teenager and loved it, but that was probably more because of Gary Cooper and the way Ingrid Bergman got to snuggle up with him in the sleeping bag.

Anyway, when we found ourselves in Key West this month for our daughter’s 13th birthday trip (a tradition in our family) to swim with the dolphins, I was determined to see the Hemingway House, no matter how much my husband and daughter dragged their feet. How BORING that would be, they complained, eyes rolling. I’m not sure who was more put off by the idea, husband or teenager.

But it turns out the teenager was completely transformed once there, by the simple fact that over 40 cats live on the premises. Some of them being the descendants of Hemingway’s original 6-toed cat, named Snow White. I mean, what’s not to love about a bunch of cats? I could have taken any museum as a kid if it had only come with the occasional kitten!

hemingway (3)

hemingway (5)

 

Did you count the toes right away? Awesome, right? But the other stuff was cool too. Here is the room Hemingway did all of his writing in. Some of his greatest works were produced there, including A Farewell to ArmsDeath in the Afternoon, and the aforementioned For Whom the Bell Tolls.

hemingway (1)

Not so much unlike my own room. His overlooked a pool, mine overlooks a lot of green grass. I also often get visited by a cat, although mine only has five toes.

In one of the hallways I noticed a small inscription on the movie poster for To Have and Have Not from 1944, which you might recall stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (in her movie debut). Do you know who adapted that book for the screen? None other than William Faulkner, when he was “out of print and broke.” As far as I know, it’s the only time that one nobel prize winning author wrote the screenplay to adapt another nobel prize winning author’s novel.

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There is something important I learned at the Hemingway House, other than about polydactyl cats:

Every writer, even a great writer, once started as a bad or at most mediocre writer.

Go ahead and look at the list of Hemingway’s writings. There is a whole lot of stuff you have to scroll through until you get to anything you recognize, or at least that I (remember, I’m not a huge fan) recognize, which is The Old Man and The Sea as a short story. And then you scroll a good deal more until you get to his actual novels, like The Sun Also Rises.

What I’m trying to say is that you have to write a whole lot of prose until you turn out something that is truly good and might be remembered one day. Perhaps what distinguishes good writers is not so much genius but simple persistence (at least I hope so, because genius, as in Hemingway’s case, too often seems to come with its evil twin, insanity – depression at the least).

Ian Brennan, at his commencement speech at Loyola Chicago this year, summed it up best:

…to any actors out there: Act already. Start yesterday. Audition for everything. They say it takes 10 years to get truly good at something. Well, get up there and start being bad. Because once you stop being bad, you’re going to start being good.”

Don’t you love that? You have to be bad first before you can be good. So in a way, being bad is a good thing!

To us writers he said this:

To writers: Write. That’s the one thing you have to do. Write for an hour every day. I remember I was told that once, and I thought, ‘That sounds horrible.’ And it sort of is. But it doesn’t matter what you write, just write for an hour a day. Two at most. Nobody is creative for more than two hours a day, and if they say they are, they’re lying to you. Stephen King sort of was, but he did loads of cocaine.

Oh yeah, Stephen King. I have a bone to pick with him. After reading his memoir, I set a goal of 1,000 words per day for myself. I kept it up for one month, in October 2014. This year, I’ve averaged only 543, and it feels like I’m friggin’ writing every spare second of the day. It just doesn’t seem possible to do more.* At least not without the cocaine – I haven’t tried that option.

Which brings us back to Hemingway. He is said to have written 500 words a day, come hell or high water, good words or bad words, he wouldn’t stop until he hit 500.

500 words seems much more doable. Especially if I then get senselessly drunk come Happy Hour.

Cheers, Papa Hemingway!

 

* It actually is possible to write more. If I counted all my Facebook posts and comments, I’m probably at 2,000 words per day.

6 comments

  1. Sine – I, too, do not just love Hemingway. I do like his 6-toed cats, but that’s about it. I read The Old Man and the Sea. I read The Sun Also Rises. I remember neither very well. I’ve come to terms with my dislike of his stuff. Even finally got rid of my hardback copies of his books. No apologies. Same bone to pick with Stephen King and I’ll even raise you one on that front. A couple of years ago, I joined this group called NaNoWriMo. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. I’d stalked it from afar for awhile before bravely joining. The idea is this: you take the whole month of November, write every day, approximately 1,800 words/day (yes, 1800 PER DAY!!) and end up with a novel of sorts. The best novel wins. Apparently Water for Elephants came out of this madness. It’s a fantastic idea. I gamely took the challenge. I wrote like a madwoman. Literally, like a madwoman. At the end of November, which, mind you, contains THANKSGIVING, I had accumulated, somehow, 40,000 words, NONE of which anyone would ever want to read. Not even me. However, I did learn the value of writing every day. And the price to paid when I slacked. I actually got better. There was some really coherent, funny stuff in the middle of all that madness. So, cheers to you for keeping it up. I can only assume that’s where all the great stuff I read comes from. From the dogged determination of those who continue on.

    • Andrea, you made me smile with your comment! Yes, I have heard of NaNoWriMo. And dismissed it as something crazy. Had no idea about the Water for Elephants connection though – that is one good book. I’d love to read some of what you wrote. I love that you did that! And I love what you say about the dogged determination. It really does pay off when you write a ton every day, because you also become more creative. You get so immersed in your subject that you constantly have new ideas flooding your brain, whereas when I take a break a couple of weeks, the hurdle to start writing again is so much higher. But oh the price… Your house looks messy, your HAIR looks messy, and it’s frozen pizza every night. And an unread email list 450 long, missed high school band nights, credit card payments, not to mention a husband who thinks you’ve gone off our rocker.

    • You’re right, it does look very similar! Thanks for the link, I had somehow missed that blog post of yours or at least don’t remember reading it:-). Love the guy with the dog “on weed.” That’s so Key West. As well as the chicken crossing the road!

  2. Sine – I found your great post because I’ve started googling the phrase “Be Bad First.” It’s the name of my new book (coming out in March) – and since you’re so intrigued by the concept of being bad first, I thought you might like it. You can find out more at erikaandersen.com

    • Hi Erika,

      I love that title – Be Bad First! In fact, I might propose that as the name for our tennis team:-) It is such a great phrase as it perfectly sums up how you become great – hard work and frustration and yes, not being terribly good at whatever it is you do.

      Thank you so much for commenting, I’ll keep a lookout for your book – good luck with publishing!

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