Friday, July 22, 2011

In Mr. Hemingway's Country or Finding a Writing Mentor

Ernest Hemingway's birthday was yesterday. He was born on July 21, 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois.

That was 112 years ago, if you're keeping track, which it's quite likely you're not.

You see, I can't help being aware that the books of Hemingway are no longer fashionable. If he's mentioned, he's controversial. He's gone from being a household brand-name author to a historical relic.

His two novels of war, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, though they're as anti-war as anything ever written by anyone, are unlikely to be Oprah picks anytime soon.

His first novel, The Sun Also Rises, has fared better. I know some of my students who have identified with Hemingway's take on the Lost Generation as his characters seek to assuage their post-war trauma through the pleasures of drink, sex, bull fighting,and trout fishing. It seems as if many of my students went through another kind of war, slogging through the days and years with one of their parents missing in action...

As for The Old Man and the Sea, perhaps Hemingway's greatest piece of writing, it made its debut as a special booklet bound into Life magazine for the entire nation to read.

This could be my finest garage sale find...
a Book Club Edition, but it's from 1952, the year of publication.

Nowadays this classic literary text's fate is different. It is solemnly delievered to high school students who can't read anything called a "novel" if it's more than 200 pages long.

What is going on here?

The Hemingway Problem(s)
Many people do not care for Hemingway's aggressive, testosterone-soaked personality and how his life made almost as much news as his books.

Some argue, with some justice, that he did a poor job of writing about women.

As for the famous Hemingway style, those pared down with a hunting knife series of almost adjective-less sentences, the longest ones being bricked together with conjunctions and conjunctions and conjunctions, guess what? That kind of writing now strikes many as mannered or just a gimmick.

Then there' the main thing Hemingway the writer set out to do--to render a scene and a sensation in such a way that it is as if it has been alchemically converted into nothing but WORDS.

This ability of his has lost some of it's luster and magic, made irrelevant by wonders of technology. Consider this paragraph of description from the short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro.":

In the Black Forest, after the war, we rented a trout stream and there were two ways to walk to it. One was down the valley from Triberg and around the valley road in the shade of the trees that bordered the white road, and then up a side road that went up through the hills past many small farms, with the big Schwarzwald houses, until that road crossed the stream...The other way was to climb steeply up to the edge of the woods and then go across the top of the hills through the pine woods, and then out to the edge of a meadow and down across this meadow to the bridge. There were birches along the stream and it was not big, but narrow, clear and fast, with pools where it had cut under the roots of the birches...

The twenty-first century person seeking diversion and information might very well ask why they should bother to read all this up and down and over the road stuff with birch trees and whatever when it would be much easier and more accurate to simply switch on a high definition video camera. Or use Google Earth. Or just wait for the movie to come out.

Everything Hemingway meticulously mentions can be captured through the lens except for the smell, taste, and touch. And those elements seem minor compared to the great pillars of all writers' description: sight and sound.

Speaking of sound, what about Hemingway's famous ear for dialogue? Could it be that men and women used to speak differently? Because sometimes to modern ears what he puts on the page just doesn't sound right. Listen to this exchange between husband and wife in the story "Get a Seeing-Eye Dog."

"You remember better all the time. And you're getting strong."

"I am strong," he said. "Now if you--"

"If me what?"

"If you'd go away for a while and get a rest and a change from this."

"Don't you want me?"

"Of course I want you darling."

"Then why do we have to talk about me going away? I know I'm not good at looking after you but I can do things other people can't do and we do love each other. You love me and you know it and we know things nobody else knows."

"We do wonderful things in the dark," he said.

"And we did wonderful things in the daytime too."

"You know I rather like the dark. In some ways it is an improvement."

"Don't lie too much," she said. "You don't have to be so bloody humble."

"Listen to it rain," he said. "How is the tide now?"


On the Other Hand
Knowing all the foregoing objections, I could attempt to rebut them by spending time pointing out some compensatory factors. The chief one is that Hemingway was the first writer to do the equivalent of what Paul Simon has done with his music: Hemingway was an American who used his writing to bring the culture of other lands to our doorstep.

Just as Paul Simon is steeped in World Music, Hemingway exposed himself to languages and experiences in Europe, Africa, and Cuba that he could write about.

I admire such ambition. But that's still not why I turn to this writer more than any other.

A Writing Mentor
I've been writing and publishing here and there long enough that I've developed some theories about what might sustain and develop a person in this difficult and demanding craft. One thing that worked for me fairly early on was to find a mentor.

It was Hemingway. But he didn't come to me easily.

I began with a plan. I kind of liked it as it cost me no money (I was poor college student) and it involved no risk of asking, "Will you be my mentor?" and being humiliated as some great woman or great man turned me down. All I had to do was:

1 - Go to the library.

2 - Pick out an interesting author.

3 - Take down a book of theirs from the shelf.

4 - After I read that book, take the next one on the shelf down and read it.

5 - Repeat this process until I read all the author's books all the way across the shelf.

One caveat: I knew it might not be a good idea to choose someone like Charles Dickens or Henry James since reading the entirety of their oeuvre could be a monumental task. The mentoring is supposed to take a few years, not decades.

In my case, I began by reading everything I could get my hands on by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I loved the passions and elegance of the rich! So I sucked up everything Fitzgerald had to say about this world. I even rode the rickety elevator up to one of the high floors of Yale's Sterling Memorial Library where I could take off the shelf a rare and fragile copy of Fitzgerald's obscure play The Vegetable.

As I said, I read everything.

But there was a problem with F. Scott Fitzgerald. I could read all the words he wrote and love them, yet I still could not write similar elegant, poetic sentences myself. I didn't produce even a cheap imitation. My attempts were forced and purely verbose.

So I took stock and started over, without much enthusiasm, on Fitzgerald's contemporary and polar opposite in writing style, Ernest Hemingway.

That was when I made a surprising discovery. I could take 1/10 of Fitzgerald and add about 9/10 of Hemingway and suddenly I had my style. And when I had a style, people began to publish my work.

Finding my style was mostly due to Hemingway? How could that be? I wasn't a gun loving, sportsman-type young man. But then it dawned on me. A writer's style wasn't about what he or she wrote about. The style was about who the writer was--deep down.

I might be infected with F. Scott Fitzgerald's sort of romanticism on occasion, but at a bedrock level I was a straight forward, tolerate no B.S. personality like many members of my family, a bunch of Okies who knew more about red dirt than they did tinkling glasses of champagne.

Further, my personality had been shaped by where I had grown up: Wyoming, Colorado, Alaska. These were Hemingway-style places. Ice-age orphans. Hard, scoured, physically demanding. I'd grown up in empty spaces and that spaciousness had gone inside of me. I wasn't meant to be effusive; I was primed to write "lean."

He writes standing up!
Besides providing me with a style I found hospitable and that I could imitate, Hemingway helped me in another way. More than the other writers I'd read he didn't mind sharing a few tips about his craft. I think of scenes in Green Hills of Africa where everyone sits around the campfire and talks about great writers and great books. I think of some of the reflections in A Moveable Feast on how he got his work done. I think of his Paris Review interview from the 1950s.

Hemingway made me realize that writing is a serious business. Before I'd thought writing was just about filling up pages with words. I would be excited when I had covered every inch of a notebook or when I'd type up my drafts and now had a five-inch stack. When the writing flowed and came easily I thought I was doing great!
 Truth was, I was poised to be a hack. Someone who spends his words profligately.

Then I looked at Hemingway. He devoted himself to each sentence as if he were fashioning something of lasting importance. Where some scribbled, he sought to chisel. Writing was serious business.

“Writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else that I have ever done.”

I slowed down. I became more intentional. About everything I wrote. Finding the right words takes time.

Put Down Pen, Pick Up Book
There's one more thing I'd like to share about Hemingway's influence on me. It's how he's become a part of my normal summer routine. It's nothing less than a summertime tradition around here. Like putting on shorts or making potato salad.

Sometime during June, July or August I always re-read a book by Ernest Hemingway.

               My shelf of E.H. Yes, I sprang for the leatherbound complete works years ago...

For me summer and Hemingway go together. The timing is such that I have a bit of downtime and I also could use a refresher course in the kind of writing I aspire to. Think of it as an outdoor writing workshop, if you will, as Hemingway's immaculately constructed stories take me to the mountains of Spain, the Carribean sea, the plains of Africa, the forests of Michigan, or the cafes of Paris.

This year I'm re-reading Men Without Women, one of his early collections of short stories, which includes the classics "The Killers," "Hills Like White Elephants," "Fifty Grand." It will be like sitting down to chat again with an old writer friend, one who really knows what he's doing.

Is it possible you still don't like/appreciate Hemingway? No problem! There are lots of writers out there. If you're interested in writing yourself, what I'd do is find one. Ride their coattails as you feast your eyes this summer on words that resonate with you. The next time you sit down to write, you will be rewarded. - V.W.


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