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.

Writer’s Are Often At A Loss For Words


January has flown by at the speed of light it seems, and I have only today been able to find an opportunity to sit quietly at my desk and contemplate this posting–the first of the new year. It has been a tumultuous time for us all here in America over the past several months, and it has, no doubt, also been equally so for many others around the world. As Americans, we tend to look upon the events in our own native land as primarily our own, when it might be more precise describe them as world events, since we are inextricably linked to the rest of the world by virtue of our standing as a major force in the world. We may wish to turn our focus inward on our own country as a means of coming to terms with the circumstances of the world-at-large, but ultimately, we are, at some point, going to have to face up to the reality of eventually becoming a global community of human beings. I am not inclined to engage in political debates about the wisdom, virtues, or liabilities of becoming a global community of humans, and the purpose of this blog is far removed from such debates, but it is clear that as a sentient, cognitive, emotional, often irrational, historically contentious and radically philosophical and diverse community of humans, we are gradually going to have to acknowledge that our focus on the external world, on the world outside of our own personal subjective experience, will very likely require a much greater emphasis on understanding our internal world, if we are ever going to solve the problems facing us everywhere else.

The image above shows a most unique and thoughtful gift I received this year at our annual family Christmas gathering. Since we have such a large extended family group, for years now we have put everyone’s name in a hat and conducted a Pollyanna method for gift-giving, and our tradition has grown into an enormous barrel of fun as we not only scramble to find our recipient in a house full of celebrating members, but then we increase the torment by going around one-by-one and describing our gift to the gathered multitudes. As you might imagine, there are frequently choruses of “o-o-o-o-o-s” and “a-a-a-ah-h-h-s” as particularly fancy or interesting gifts are displayed, and occasionally, when a gift is clearly a mismatch with or some commentary on the receiver, chaos and laughter generally follow. My received gift of the writer’s quill and ink with a beautifully embossed journal met with a resounding cheer of approval from those present, and the acknowledgement that it would be particularly appropriate as a gift for ME, while not surprising to anyone, was a source of great delight for me as the grateful recipient. As someone who is historically sentimental and overtly emotional, I found myself oddly at a loss for words. The gift, in my heart and mind, clearly was much more one of gratitude for the acknowledgement as a writer, and I muddled through the description phase in a fairly unspectacular manner, only managing afterwards to give a heartfelt expression of thanks to my dear nephew for the sentiment the gift held for me.


After the holidays had settled down a bit, I once again turned to this gift and thought to write some message on the inner leaf as a first use of the quill. It seemed appropriate to me to invoke the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes in view of the acknowledgement that all things contain elements of opposing energies, and in spite of our best efforts, each urgency in life has a time for it to flourish and a time when it wanes, but perhaps none more-so than when writing with a quill. I had some experience with similar ink pens in grammar school, which had the same metal point through which the ink would reach the paper, but the quill presents a unique challenge as the writer must gauge when to pause and when to dip the end into the ink bottle, and finding a method of presenting one’s thoughts in a reasonably consistent flow on the page takes patience and focus. I spent some time practicing on scraps of paper and experimented with my technique for some time, but eventually I concluded that it comes down to achieving a basic understanding of the dynamics of the process and then throwing caution to the wind in order to make any progress at all. What follows is an excerpt from my first entry in the journal. It’s a reasonably consistent flow in the thoughts expressed and a somewhat less consistent display of mastery with the quill:


“Indeed, of all the things that make us human, perhaps none is more important or prominent or significant than brain physiology. So many of our capacities are enabled by the brain, so much of our experience of the world is made possible by cognition–by the firing of neurons and the transfer of ions across barriers from one axon to the next dendrite over the synapses, which send the electrical impulses racing along the neural networks between brain regions.”

While recording these thoughts in the journal, it occurred to me that there was a time in our world when the quill was the one of the most common writing utensils in use for writers of every sort, and it became quickly apparent to me that my mind, having become accustomed to a much quicker pace and a much wider variety of methods for recording its machinations, was clearly unhappy with the slow, steady, and almost draconian pace which the quill forces on the writer. My tendency to change my mind several times in the course of a paragraph or even in a sentence or within a phrase, caused me much consternation when I realized that implementing these changes would require that I either cross something out or inevitably to rewrite entire sections. We have been spoiled by our modern editing tools and alternative methods of recording our thoughts, in ways that allow for changes to occur with very little fanfare.


On the box, the manufacturers in France chose to quote Victor Hugo, who rightly points out that writing with a quill has “the lightness of the wind,” but may, if the writer has some degree of skill in the subject, end up presenting thoughts which act with “the power of lightning.” There have been authors and creative souls of every sort through the ages whose words did indeed act with the power of lightning, and who also recorded those words using the quill and ink. They have my unmitigated admiration for pursuing their thoughts in such a way, and with such patience and determination required just to set them down on paper, let alone empower them with the strength of lightning.

I have recently been at somewhat of a loss for words. There are many thoughts tumbling around in my brain, though, and I am hoping to present a great many more of them for my readers here in the months to come. I hope you will return often to review those I have already recorded, and add your own thoughts on any entries you feel speak with even a hint of that lightning.

With best wishes to everyone here at…….John H.