Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Lesson from Hemingway

In the car on my long lovely drive from Colorado to Indiana, I listened to 11 1/2 hours of The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, a fictionalized account of Hemingway's marriage to Hadley Richardson. I loved it: already a Francophile, I loved spending time in 1920s Paris in the company of all those expatriate writers, I loved the heartbreaking doomed romance between Ernest and Hadley, and I loved McLain's presentation of Hemingway's journey to become a giant of twentieth century American letters.

What stuck me most about Hemingway's early career as a writer was how seriously he took writing during years of rejection. Although he had some success as a journalist, he was all but unpublished as a literary writer. Nonetheless, he moved to Paris simply because Sherwood Anderson told him that was the place for an aspiring writer to be. So there he went. He wrote all day, every day, for years, mingling with more successful writers (making use of Anderson's letters of introduction); he never seemed to question whether there was anything else he should be doing instead of putting pen to paper, or typing away on his Corona typewriter, day after day after day.

In the novel's most nightmarish episode, taken directly from real life, Hadley is traveling to meet Ernest, bringing with her a valise filled with ALL of his writings from the past three years, every single draft of every single manuscript (save one) on which he had toiled for so many months - and it's stolen from her on the train. Gone. I kept listening expecting somehow that it would be found again - didn't it HAVE to be found again? Wasn't it just too horrible to be true that it wouldn't be found again? But it wasn't. And so Ernest Hemingway had to start all over again. And in starting all over again, he wrote the sketches that became his first commercially published book, In Our Time, and then his first masterpiece, The Sun Also Rises.

Of course, it helped a lot that he had Hadley loving him, praising him, supporting him both financially and emotionally, even if she was the one who was responsible for allowing the valise full of manuscripts to be stolen.

But still: it made me wonder what all of us as writers could accomplish if we wrote steadily for year after year, giving our writing our best, refusing to be discouraged by constant rejections and horrific, crushing setbacks. It did make me wonder.

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