Key West recently celebrated Ernest Hemingway’s birthday. Papa, as he was fondly called, is 119 years-old. Key West, as you probably know, was home to Hemingway from 1928 to 1940. Hemingway did some of his best work there. After alienating many of his friends because of an affair, he divorced his wife and married Martha Gelhorn. Strange as it may seem, he imposed a self-exile on himself, leaving Key West and moving to Cuba. There he wrote perhaps one of the best stories ever written. The Old Man and the Sea.
It’s the crowning masterpiece of a large set of literary accomplishments from a hardworking writer. The story isn’t long. But it’s packed with style and character, and it turned the literary world on its ear with its stark, simple writing. It earned him both the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. As a writer, I admire this especially in a world where so much writing is bombastic and self-aggrandizing.
I’ve always admired Hemingway’s writing though his personal life leaves a lot to be desired. Hemingway was no saint. Make no mistake about it. But none of us are. We struggle in the human condition, each of us making our share of mistakes, and all we can hope for is forgiveness and mercy from ourselves, each other, and God.
Hemingway once said the most essential thing a writer must have is a built-in “bullsh** detector.” I know I must drive my wife crazy, but I guess it’s the writer in me, so when I hear something that’s odd or hard to believe, I always ask: “Who said it?” Or “How do you know this?” And when she tells me who told her, I ask: “How do they know?” At this point, she sometimes grows frustrated, but the writer in me has to ask. Maybe like Donald Trump I’m wary of fake news. Though I think our motives are far different. I want to verify the facts. Our president only wants to acknowledge the ones that fit into his bizarre sense of reality
It’s not that I don’t believe things that I read or are told to me. It’s just that when things don’t make sense, my built-in bullsh** detector goes wild, clicking like a metal detector over a pile of pirate booty buried in the sand off the nearby Garden City Pier.
Another thing I learned from Hemingway is that if you want to accomplish something, you have to park your rear-end in a chair and keep it there till you’ve made some significant headway. He started work somewhere between 8:00 and 9:00 each morning and pretty much stayed with it till way past noon. He would have his maid bring him a sandwich and something to drink and leave it outside the studio door over the carriage house where he worked.
He would then finish up his writing early in the afternoon. Not a bad day’s work for a writer who had to labor in the oppressive heat of Key West without air conditioning. Only then would he stop. He would then spend the next hour or so with his wife, Pauline, where they would often swim nude in the only inground pool for 100 miles around. Under penalty of being fired, his housekeeper was given strict orders not to disturb them or pry.
Hemingway no doubt could have gone on for another hour or two, but he once said that when you drain the well, you have to give it time to fill back up. As a result, he always made it a point to stop short of putting everything down on paper. That way when he came back the next day, he would already be deep in the middle of a scene instead of staring out the window, wondering what he was going to have for lunch that day.
Hemingway had a reputation for being a boozer, a reputation he deserved. But did you know he had a rule to never drink before writing and to never drink while writing? A lot of writers think alcohol makes them wittier, cleverer, or somehow opens the heavens so that the muses throw themselves at their feet. Hemingway was smart. He knew what seemed so ingenious during an alcohol-fueled writing session was just a lot of crap. His own built-in bullsh** detector wouldn’t allow even himself a free pass.
Hemingway rarely missed a day of writing. There were exceptions. The day his new fishing boat, the Pilar, was delivered was one of them. I can only imagine the excitement when he got news it was docked not far from his house. Not much got written that day, or the next or the next, or the day after that, but the creative energy triggered that day more than compensated for the time away from his writing table.
Wherever you are tonight, Papa, I hope you know what a difference you made in literature. I also hope you know that that built-in bullsh** detector is as important today as it was when you lived on Whitehead Street in Key West.
Happy Birthday, Ernest. Enjoy your lunch, savor your swim, and tell St. Peter I said to pour you a couple extra ones. You deserve it!