I’m a writer.
At least, I think I am.
I mean, I haven’t seen, heard, or smelled a bullfight…experienced, first-hand, the horrors of war…lived in Cuba…caroused in a quaint Italian village…or consumed my weight in absinthe.
While I’m at it, I also haven’t hobnobbed with the literati in Paris…watched the sun rise in Spain…or won a Pulitzer Prize (much less a Nobel Prize).
So what kind of writer could I possibly be?
As the old saying goes, writers write. And, as the old saying goes further, writers write what they know.
But what if you haven’t lived a life like Ernest Hemingway’s? What if stabbing a bull with a long spear is abhorrent to you? What if you crinkle your nose at the taste of absinthe? What if the closest you’ll ever get to Paris, France, is Paris, Michigan?
Sure, you can write. But if what you know pales in comparison to the world-traveling exploits of E.M.H. then what?
I used to envy Ernie his experiences. “Ah, now Ernest Hemingway is a man’s man,” I’d say. (But not out loud because no one was around to hear me.) “Sure, he’s the 20th century’s most important author. If I’d done all those things I would be too.”
(A person can say a lot of things when he’s alone.)
And what about that “Hemingway Style” of writing, a style that has been explained, analyzed, copied, and critiqued endlessly. Hemingway wrote in nearly Morse Code-like bursts, no extra words, no added sentences. Just the barest essence of thoughts to convey meaning. (Here’s a good example of an analysis of his style as it applies to copywriting.)
All well and good. But what happens when you combine (a) his world-traveling and hard-living lifestyle with (b) his bare-essence writing style?
You get a dichotomy, one that I haven’t seen anyone examine before.
The question I’ve pondered lately is this: “Is it Hemingway’s legendary style of writing that made him famous? Or is it what he wrote about that captivated readers around the world for generations?
In other words, take two writers, both of equal ability. Writer A has traveled the world, lived a hundred lifetimes in the span most barely live one, and has seen/done/heard things most will never experience. Writer B has traveled virtually nowhere, ekes out a living day by day, and has done very little of note. Both have a short-burst, no-extra-words style of writing that eschews obfuscation.
Which writer do you think would be the more interesting to read?
I thought so.
Everyone talks about the Hemingway Style of writing. But if he hadn’t been the man he was — a true man’s man, a hard-drinking, hard-living, grab-the-bull-by-the-horns chap able to wax eloquent about nightlife in France, driving an ambulance in the war, attending bull fights in Spain, and watching the sun set over the ocean in Cuba — would anyone remember him today?
Even Woody Allen, back in his standup days in the 1960s, joked about Hemingway. Here’s Woody’s hilarious bit, called “The Lost Generation”:
I mentioned before that I was in Europe. It’s not the first time I was in Europe. I was in Europe many years ago with Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway had just written his first novel and Gertrude Stein and I read it and we said that it was a good novel, but not a great one, that it needed some work. But it could be a fine book. We laughed over it. Hemingway punched me in the mouth. That winter, Picasso lived on the Rue de Bach and he’d just painted a picture of a naked dental hygienist in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Gertrude Stein said it was a good picture but not a great one. I said it could be a fine picture. We laughed over it. Hemingway punched me in the mouth. I remember Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald came home from their wild New Year’s Eve party. It was April. Scott had just written Great Expectations and Gertrude Stein and I read it. We said it was a good book but there was no need to have written it because Charles Dickens had already written it. We laughed over it and Hemingway punched me in the mouth. That winter we went to Spain to see Manolete fight. He looked to be 18 but Gertrude Stein said no he was 19 but that he only looked 18. And I said sometimes a boy of 18 will look 19 whereas other times a 19 year old can easily look 18. That’s the way it is with a true Spaniard. And we laughed over that. And Gertrude Stein punched me in the mouth.
For the longest time, I wished I could have lived the life Hemingway did. (Only I wouldn’t have punched Woody in the mouth.) To this day, I think, “How can I write unless I actually do something? Or, to put it bluntly, “What if I don’t know shit?”
Of course, I miss the point entirely. “Write what you know” does not have to mean I have to experience everything I write about – only that I know about which I write. Knowing could mean (a) I write about things I’ve experienced, however minor in comparison to Ernie’s experience, and/or (b) I conduct research to attain verisimilitude about a given subject matter. It could also mean (c) I make it up. I use my imagination.
After all, I seriously doubt J. K. Rowling actually spent time playing Quidditch, battling He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and attending a wizarding school named Hogwarts. But she wrote as if she was there – and became one of the most successful authors in history.
Gene Roddenberry created the world of Star Trek without setting so much as his big toe in space. Rod Serling invented The Twilight Zone though he never entered it himself. John D. MacDonald spawned 21 novels featuring Travis McGee – despite his own lack of brawny, beach-bum features. Salvador Dali likely never saw a clock melt over the branch of a leafless tree, but he managed to paint one.
Maybe I don’t need to envy Ernie or fear his legendary style of writing.
Maybe all I need is the passion and the discipline to paint pictures with words. Experience is important. But, as I noted above, not essential.
So, Mr. H., thank you for your amazing novels, short stories, and works of non-fiction. I humbly bow to your talent. And I stand on your shoulders for inspiration.
It’s my turn.