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!
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 Arms, Death in the Afternoon, and the aforementioned For Whom the Bell Tolls.
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.
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.