An Extraordinary Life

“See, hear, learn, and understand; and write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after.” –Ernest Hemingway

It’s good advice to use your experience of life, to take in what you perceive in the interest of a better understanding of life, and then to write when you feel a degree of confidence in what you think you know.  There still may be a bit more to add based on what you think you know, but it’s probably a good idea to limit your conclusions afterwards.  Don’t take too much for granted.

I have a vivid memory of typing on my father’s manual typewriter as a very young person.  I do not remember being very serious about it, nor having any concept of what I might put on the paper of any significance. The keys required a fair amount of pressure to make their marks, and the ribbons were always so overused and threadbare by the time I would be able to have my turn at it that there wasn’t much point in being serious in the first place. Seeing the close-ups of those keys in the PBS series, “Hemingway,” brought the memory of that childhood experience vividly back to life as I watched.

Seeing Ernest as a young boy with his mother made my own image at the same age seem ordinary by comparison.  We all start out in life in whatever circumstance we are born into without any say in the matter, and those circumstances can be formative in one way or another, but can also be compensated for in a number of ways later on if we have the right approach and enough encouragement from those around us.  

I was not especially serious as a student in my early education, and didn’t respond especially well to the environment in which I found myself, but I did love books and reading when the choice of subject was my own. I remember resisting the choices that were forced upon me in this regard all throughout my formal education, and was also very interested in writing by the time I arrived in high school.  Courses in English grammar and spelling were my favorites, and the requirements of courses in reading comprehension only worked well for me when the selections were appealing to me in some way.  I contributed to the school papers and was the editor of our literary magazine, but I enjoyed much more creating and organizing my own writing projects along the way.

I was an enthusiastic student at Temple University in Philadelphia, and accepted an invitation to participate in an honors seminar program at the ripe old age of eighteen. I also very much enjoyed all of the resources made available to me as a student in that program, but it seems I was ill-prepared for the wide range of opportunities which existed outside of the classroom. After two years of mixed results both inside and outside of the course work, I left the university to enlist in the military. There can be little doubt that the adventures which followed were well beyond anything I would have likely encountered otherwise, and while there wasn’t any way I could have known that at the time, it felt completely right to make that choice, even though I knew virtually nothing about the world when I made it.


As a young boy, Hemingway’s room was on the third floor of the family home, the same as it was for me in our family home, and I remember retreating there often when I felt troubled or lonely or ill. You never pay very close attention to those things when you are a young person, but reflecting on those days now I can get a very clear sense of what it felt like to be in that room and some of my memories of being there are so vivid, that the mention of it in the series stood out to me.

At one point in the program, upon receiving a letter informing Ernest of the decision to marry another man by a woman he had very much wanted to marry, I was struck by the coincidence of having experienced the same dilemma as a young soldier, and it struck such a familiar chord within me at that point in the film that I felt the sting of the words from the letter I received all over again.  The letter from his mother telling him to move on and make something of himself also had a ring of familiarity to it, enhanced by the date at the top of the page, July 24th, 1920, thirty-three years to the day before I would make my first appearance in the world.

The image of Hemingway as young man at the beginning of his life as a writer is startling and evocative of an intensity that I recall having myself as a young man; only I wasn’t courageous enough to make the same kind of choices that he made along the way. For some, the pursuit of fame and fortune holds a particular appeal that I never really understood completely. Our modern society seems to promote it at nearly every turn, in spite of the many lessons of human history, which have often demonstrated just how fleeting and unpredictable it usually is or can be.

It seems I was destined to suffer a degree of obscurity that he would not have been able to tolerate.  At the same time, his struggles and tragic events far exceeded any that I encountered, and while my life could not compare in any number of ways, it also held much less tragedy and destructive power. What made Hemingway’s writing so compelling had less to do with his personal strengths and failings and had much more to do with his creative talent, unique style, prolific output, and dogged determination to produce reliable results as a writer.

While his fame was reaching its zenith, his personal life was slowly unraveling and devolving into a destructive pattern that eventually led to his decision to end his life by his own hand.  The trail of disappointment and disrupted and diminished lives he left behind does little to recommend such a life as the one Hemingway lived, but it clearly provided a great deal of resource material for him to incorporate into his stories and novels. 

While I would not generally wish to describe my own life as being “ordinary,” at least not in retrospect, especially considering the extraordinary nature of some parts of my life’s experiences, viewing the PBS series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick gives one pause to consider the price of fame, and I highly recommend the program for anyone interested in a better understanding of a writer’s life, and of how fortunes can change, even for those lives which seem privileged and enviable.

9 thoughts on “An Extraordinary Life

    1. Hello, Dillali…Thank you for stopping by for a visit. I visited your pages tonight and it seems you are off to a good start. It takes time and patience and effort to build up a blog, so keep at it and keep writing. I’ve been working on my blog for a long time, and I’m still at it too! Best of luck to you!

  1. I spent months reading Papa H’s every written word, then months reading what others had to say of him even long after his death. I judged him once (for his suicide), but I loved as well as admired his writing. Not until this wonderful documentary series, though, did I see that his courage wasn’t just macho posturing where others could see wherever he feared he’d be measured — his courage was real where none could see. I wish he knew that of us, John. Great thoughtful post, as always.

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply to my post. The program really does shed light on the fullness of the story behind his successes and setbacks throughout his life, and I agree that no matter what he may wish to say about what he may have lacked in his personal life, he was quite courageous much more often than we previously thought. There still was some macho posturing at times, but it was part of the public face he put forward and he was kind of stuck with it after a while.

      You are very generous in your comments about my blog and I appreciate it very much. John H.

  2. ” I was ill-prepared for the wide range of opportunities which existed outside of the classroom”

    Yes, I can certainly relate to that. Equally your puzzlement on what makes success or (relative) failure in life strikes a chord with me.

    I am not sure quite what it was I thought I wanted to achieve in early life – money? Fame perhaps. In any event, I never became Bill Gates.

    You seem to have found peace with that. Perhaps in part your realization that Hemingway’s life was not one you would have wanted to have led has helped. Perhaps also your realisation that fame and achievement are so often fleeting.

    I have been reflecting recently on determinism – brought up because I have been watching the lectures of the wonderful Robert Sapolsky from Stanford University.

    I’m not sure, but perhaps there has been something almost comforting in that. We are what our physiology and our environment have made us and so guilt, praise and blame are pointless.

    It is hard to believe we do not have free will but there again it might explain why it seems so hard sometimes to determine and choose one’s behaviours and feelings. And one’s successes or otherwise in life.

    In any event John, your reflections are prescient and helpful.

    Best wishes

    1. In a certain sense, there is a credible argument to be made that we do, to some degree, act according to unconscious inclinations which are the result of our physiology and influenced by our experience of our environment prior to our actions at a particular moment, and in that way qualify as being deterministic in nature. Generally speaking, if we grow up in a nurturing and safe environment, our actions based on specific stimuli may reflect the influences of that environment, and if we grow up in a dangerous and abusive environment, our actions might be starkly different in response to a similar stimulus, but history has shown that this is not universally true. Sometimes, in spite of every advantage and good health generally, people can become antisocial or destructive as a result of subsequent experience or physiological changes, and people who struggle constantly with life and suffer chronic health issues, can still become productive and exceptional individuals in spite of it all.

      Sapolsky is an interesting character to be sure, but I have found some of his arguments to be unnecessarily dismissive of more mainstream ideas, and his approach to supporting his arguments occasionally falling somewhere between arrogance and cynicism, instead of being balanced and thoughtful. The interplay between our cognitive capacities and emotional resources with regard to behaviors is enormously complex when you consider the complexity of information processing in the brain, our psychological stability based on our life experiences, and the innumerable other influences of societal and cultural interactions. At some point though, whether or not we believe that we are responsible for our actions, there are consequences to our actions, and when we make bad choices, the consequences are generally also bad and vice versa. Our ability to learn from our mistakes shows that it is at least possible to overcome those influences and make different choices. Our intelligence and character, partly a genetic endowment and partly influenced by our environment, can either be embraced or overwhelmed or destroyed by our own hands. We can live thoughtfully and deliberately, or we can simply blindly follow what we’ve always done without questioning anything. This, to me, signifies that whatever influences our behaviors, subconsciously or unconsciously, we have at least the capacity to choose a different criteria, if we have the intelligence and character that is needed to do so.

      Kind regards…John H.

  3. My liking and admiration for Sapolsky may well spring, incidentally, from an automatic human response which he talks about a lot in his books and his lectures. That we respond far better towards those we subliminally consider “us” than those we consider “them”. I consider Sapolski to be “us” (part of “my” group) for a number of reasons which may well account for why I find him so compelling.

    Firstly he is by upbringing an orthodox Jew – he abandoned his religion aged 13 and became an atheist and determinist who saw no purpose in the universe – which he actually admits is quite depressing.

    On one side of my family there is a strong Jewish element. Immigrants from Russia like the Sapolskis.

    He is also an “us” since his views are humane, decent and leftwing. He sees poverty as the cause of most human misery and longs for a society which has abandoned the “market” and capitalism and adopts instead an economy which has no “ownership”.

    Such views are well expressed in Zeitgeist: Moving Forward.

    I confess that I have not found arrogance either in his arguments or his demeanor although you may justly accuse him of cynicism. Again, perhaps his cynicism is another reason I consider him to be in “my group”.

    Of course we currently have no definitive answers to many of the questions he raises. And much of what he talks about can therefore only be incomplete – a belief, if you like.

    I do not have many “beliefs” as such. There are things I would like to be true and things I would like to be untrue.

    Perhaps my only real belief is that we need to build a better and fairer world. Even then, I have no doubt that it could be argued my feelings on this matter may be as a result of my past and my physiology and my life experiences.

    There are no easy answers in this realm!

    1. I finally had an opportunity to review the film, “Zeitgeist: Moving Forward,” and looked at a few of the other videos of lectures by Sapolsky, and definitely can see why he is compelling to someone of your experience in financial markets and considering your connections to him as part of your group as you described it. I do admire his accomplishments and his obviously high degree of expertise in the subjects he discusses and appreciate very much anyone who dedicates themselves to educational endeavors in the same degree as Sapolsky obviously has done. I occasionally had professors like Sapolsky at the universities I attended, and found them to be both admirable and a bit impatient with their students for not grasping their ideas in full as they presented them. In one of the lectures I reviewed, Sapolsky begrudgingly acknowledged a minor point of contention with his views on the existence of free will, but really expressed his position as though it was beyond dispute in the main, and for me, a teacher or professor really ought to at least encourage his students to inquire and question and consider differing views, and not insist that their view is the only right one. I get why a professor of his stature feels like we ought to just take his word for it that his view is obviously correct, but if anyone disagrees or questions any idea, even one based on a high level of expertise, it still ought to be acceptable to do so.

      I liked very much the material in the Zeitgeist film which explains so well the problems with the way the world is working currently, and found the hypothetical beginning of the duplicate Earth with none of the problems or arrangements that we currently endure, and the process for starting over with the “new” Earth very interesting for its explanatory power in showing us what’s wrong with the way things work now. It’s still quite a slog to get through the film, but it is definitely worth the effort if we want to understand where we went wrong and what needs to happen to repair the situation in the world so that future generations have a better chance of surviving and thriving.

      I also found the discussion about the role of genetic factors and how they are, in some cases, not quite as influential as previously thought, especially compelling and thought-provoking. I’m glad you suggested the link.

      We are greatly influenced by our physiology, our early childhood environment, and our life experiences, and you are absolutely correct to assert that the answers will not be easily found, but unless we are willing to engage in consideration of beliefs other than those we hold dear, and to be able to question the “experts,” progress will no doubt be harder to come by.

      I am genuinely grateful to you for offering your views here and for the enormously appealing contributions available on your own blog site.

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