What Hemingway Taught Me about Life and Writing

As the author said himself, "True nobility lies in being superior to your former self."

The closest I ever got to Ernest Hemingway's legacy was about 400 feet. I was standing outside the grounds of his Key West home as my wife and I explored the small town during a shore day on our cruise.

As I think about that house now, I remember two things. First, Hemingway the writer spent a good deal of time there poring over chapters, paragraphs, and sentences. Two, his tropical unicorn of a house seemed so different in comparison to the Idaho cabin where Hemingway took his own life. Within these two images, I find a common presence that challenges me as both a writer and as a man.

The Art of Writing

A good deal of writing is not glamorous or transcendent or revelatory. As a series of moments, it's just three sentences here, a backspace there, one more sentence, delete, a Facebook notification, a cup of coffee, and more sentences. As a whole, it's a craft to which you can dedicate your entire life.

I'll admit that I am as cynical a writer as you'll find – I think most of today’s writers depreciate the craft. But don’t blame me for this. Blame Hemingway. His writing taught me that to call yourself a writer is to assent to a lifetime of pursuing greatness, helplessly. Here's what he said at the Nobel banquet held in his honor in 1954:

"How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him."

You can see how I would lean hard against the philosophies that rely on rewriting what has already been written, following Hemingway in hoping to push that style back into the void of mimicry from where they came. But writing is more to me than pushing against things that frustrate me. It's my own quest for that lonely place where, like Hemingway, I'm striving towards something that no one has ever done before.

Do I believe I can? No, not all the time. But that sense of going out past where I can go, out where no one can help – it's like knowing that there are corners of the universe untouched and that you want to be there to explore even if you don’t believe it’s possible. You want that unique form of solitude that comes with unmatched exploration.

And all that insight into writing led me to a broader question: What happens when I get to that place where no one can help? Or what if I never reach it?

Living as a Man With Broken Places

I don’t want to ruin Hemingway’s best novels for you by unveiling endings, so I’ll preface this section with his first sentence in The Old Man and the Sea:

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

If I could explain to you the feeling I most often endure as I wrestle with my role as a writer, husband, father and friend, it's that sentence. And I say this knowing that you probably feel the same way from time to time, even if you rarely admit it.

As men, we often deal with veiled frustration. We are never as good, never as strong or as successful as we want to be. And even if we are all these things at once, there's an inevitable sense that we have left unused some measure of love or fire.

That is where I find myself at times. I am the guy who got a Division I athletics scholarship only to quit after his redshirt year, who published a book through a traditional publisher only to be met with paltry sales, who moved to Europe with his wife only to return home three years later with a painful awareness that he lacks in areas where he felt strongest. And now I am here, as I said before: a husband, father, friend and writer. I am here in my skiff in the Gulf Stream, and whichever metaphorical fish I wanted to land is nowhere in sight.

Fighting Past the Fractures

My last point – and listen well, because you will need to tell yourself the same thing from time to time – is that you should expect to be broken. And then keep pressing for greatness.

The men in several of Hemingway’s greatest works were true heroes. They fought for their own cause, loved their women as best they could, and broke under the life they ordered in whatever way seemed best to them. As a man who has his own demons and fractured places, I encourage you to review your philosophy of failure. Hemingway did, and in doing so, he forced me to do the same. Here, one of his most famous quotes, is what he wrote about this matter:

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.”

I am certain that you and I will reach once more the point of being broken. It is a good place. Stay there, be honest with yourself, allow the fracture and be fierce anew. And, for God’s sake, read more Hemingway.

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