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.