Hemingway on writing — some practical suggestions

Thursday, September 24, 2015
F: 6:25 a.m. Papa, I have been thinking about it, and sent Aaron Hotchner a copy of our book care of his publisher, and I can’t do anything but wait to see if it gets there, and if he reads it, and if he gets back to me. But I realize that maybe what I should have done [in the first place] is piece together your story in the sequence of your life, rather than produce a transcript of our conversations.
EH: You’ve been over this more than once.
F: I know, but I still can’t help thinking that it wasn’t done right. And now I’m realizing, I didn’t mark the passages [for Hotchner] that were in the wrong font, all at the beginning, just where it would deter people.

EH: It is always going to be a choice, for you particularly, and I don’t know if there is one correct answer. Either you lay out the material in its own terms, or you lay out the process of receiving it, as a sort of “how to” for others. I myself would have presented the smoothest end-product I could, but my ends and yours were somewhat different.
F: If I had it to do again, I still don’t know what I would do. What I do know is that a book that is chock-full of interesting information – interesting to me, anyway, and how else can I judge? – goes nowhere.
EH: Which makes you think you wasted all that work.
F: Well, it makes me feel that the work itself was a wonderful gift, a great time, and I learned a lot, even discounting our own interrelatedness. But I sort of let down the side.
EH: It is an interesting contrast. When my books didn’t sell, I knew I had done my absolute best, so I knew it was the fault of the publisher or the critics, and I often suspected, sometimes rightly, that the literary in-crowd were out to get me because I was too popular and because I couldn’t stand them or their phony half-alive world of playing with words and not meaning it.
F: But you knew you had done your best.
EH: Oh, come on, you know better than that. I knew better than that. Who ever really knows it is his best, or that his best is really good enough this time? It is always a new blank page, like a painter and his blank canvas, and it always says, “are you still up to it?” And often enough it says, or almost says, or you suspect it wants to say, “can you fool them one more time?” Nobody lives without those doubts. I buried mine, ferociously, because I couldn’t afford them. But you know I had them.
F: You surely didn’t have them for The Old Man and the Sea.
EH: No. [I get the image of a face softening in affection.] No, but that one was special.
F: I’ve told people you channeled it.
EH: I know you have, and that isn’t so far wrong. In your time people would say I was “in the zone” the whole time. I’d write from the zone and come out of it and live for the rest of the day and when I went in to write, I’d be right back in it again. If my whole writing career had been like that, life would have been a whole lot easier, and I would have written a dozen more books. But no man has a right to expect miracles every day.
F: Terrific amount of love pours through that little story.
EH: Yes it does.
F: I have seen it said that the old man was modeled on Gregorio Fuentes.
EH: You have read “The Lilies of the Field,” you know how the one sister painted a picture of a Moorish saint and used the black veteran who had helped them as her model? She was painting someone specific that she knew and using him to represent something more than an individual. I didn’t paint Gregorio, so much as I saw a whole class of men through Gregorio. I knew him very well, but I knew the Cuban poor very well, fishermen and not fishermen. I knew their simplicity and their clarity of being. That’s what I was painting, not Gregorio.
F: It strikes me, there were no women in the story.
EH: No women, and no rich or even middle-class, except at a distance. Santiago reads about the baseball in the gran ligas, and the woman asks about the skeleton of the huge fish – and misunderstands, or rather is part of a miscommunication, when the waiter gives her the answer to the question he thought she was asking. That story was about poor men and their world, without any intent to feel sorry for them or to regard them as bit players for the “important people.”
F: As I said, your love shines through it. It suffuses the whole thing.
EH: Let me tell you something that people don’t seem to have noticed. My stories don’t have villains.
F: That’s true, isn’t it? I never happened to think of it.
EH: Well, find me a villain. People do bad things, stupid things, mean and petty things, careless and dangerous things, but you don’t see anybody wearing a black hat. And you know why.
F: You understand, so you don’t condemn.
EH: Not exactly, although that isn’t so far off. Let’s say I don’t project evil onto a powerful antagonist as if he were the cause of the evil in the world. People aren’t the cause of evil, they’re the agents by whom it gets into the world.
F: Yes, I can see the distinction, and it is a more pointed extension of what I was thinking. Carl Jung says somewhere, condemnation always isolates, always oppresses, and only understanding liberates.
But we have strayed from my initial concern, lured by our love of that wonderful story. To get back to it: How can I get our material out to a public that would appreciate it? I thought, maybe I should recast it, but our dialogue is so woven into it, I would have to rewrite it.
EH: So? That would be all right with me. Write it as your own ideas and forget about attribution. How is that going to hurt anybody? You don’t even know that it isn’t all your own thought. Or just put a big “let’s suppose” in front of it and fill it with my opinions of my life and leave out all the rest that will appeal only to those people who want to learn how to do it themselves, or want to eavesdrop on somebody else doing it.
F: That’s sort of what I was doing with “Papa’s Trial.”
EH: No it isn’t. There you were confronting the newly dead Hemingway with the people in his life. Here you would be pretending to be the dead Hemingway sitting on the porch whittling and reminiscing.
F: That’s an idea. One more project –
EH: Well, you like having projects.
F: I do. I don’t much like them running into the sands, though.
EH: What did you say yourself, a few pages ago?
F: Yes, all right, it’s true, the project is its own joy, its own reward. But that doesn’t mean the rest of it isn’t true as well.
EH: Then this time keep your eye on the audience as you reshape it and don’t think you have to be faithful to the record of what happened and how it happened. You’ve done that, it’s there for people to see. Now aim at the Hemingway audience instead of the human-potential audience.
F: I’ll think about it, I do like the idea.
EH: And you don’t have to give up on Papa’s Trial. Just find a way to satisfy yourself that not every moment of my life, not everybody I ever talked to, has to be included. The purpose of the trial – the “past life review” if you want to put it that way – is to bring the soul to insight, not to rehash every moment in the seventh grade.
F: I see that. Okay. Anything else today?
EH: That’s enough for one day.
F: Okay, then. Be well, Papa, and our thanks.

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