Paying homage at Hemingway’s Paris shrines

I’m responding to a Daily Writing Prompt which, interestingly, resonates with a blog entry I wrote two years ago. The idea is to show some sort of homage, which I did, once; I could only show homage to Hemingway, because his simple, but profound, suggestions to writers formed a neural network in my brain that hasn’t been erased by time or experience. 

Writing For Non-Writers

I did something while in Paris last month that I actively rail against, and ordinarily deplore: I worshipped at two of the shrines associated with Ernest Hemingway. I struggle with the why of this, since it goes against everything I preach to beginning writers. My only excuse is that I was an English major three times over, and Hemingway said some very important things about writing, and so homage was due.

I deplore the worship of ‘the capital A’ author. I wish we didn’t put these people (usually, but not always, men) up on pedestals, then compare ourselves to them, telling ourselves their creativity is a unique act of divine inspiration we’re too ordinary to match, that The Author was stroked on the forehead at birth by a muse that will never visit us.

In other words, we take mere mortals and turn them into statues, dipped in the…

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Paying homage at Hemingway’s Paris shrines

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I did something while in Paris last month that I actively rail against, and ordinarily deplore: I worshipped at two of the shrines associated with Ernest Hemingway. I struggle with the why of this, since it goes against everything I preach to beginning writers. My only excuse is that I was an English major three times over, and Hemingway said some very important things about writing, and so homage was due.

I deplore the worship of ‘the capital A’ author. I wish we didn’t put these people (usually, but not always, men) up on pedestals, then compare ourselves to them, telling ourselves their creativity is a unique act of divine inspiration we’re too ordinary to match, that The Author was stroked on the forehead at birth by a muse that will never visit us.

In other words, we take mere mortals and turn them into statues, dipped in the bronze of genius, all because they have a facility with words. Words have power and magic, as all sorcerers and witches have made use of for thousands of years, and we allow ourselves to be mesmerized by their binding spells, even now. It’s probably so deeply inculcated in me to worship at an author’s shrine that I couldn’t help myself.

It might also stem from honest curiosity; I really did, at one time, feel a kind of bond with Hemingway. He has said some marvellously true things about writing that I have always sought to emulate. As writers, if we let ourself ‘just write,’ instead of sitting at the feet of the Author, we discover that the Great Man wrestled with language too, and that he failed from time to time, which makes him more human and real.

Hemingway, like Mark Twain and Sinclair Lewis, began his writing career as a journalist. In the short time that Hemingway worked for the Kansas City Star he learned some stylistic lessons that would later influence his fiction. The newspaper advocated short sentences, short paragraphs, active verbs, authenticity, compression, clarity and immediacy.

Hemingway later said: “Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I’ve never forgotten them.” Although he stayed there for only six months he relied on the Star’s style guide as a foundation for his writing: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.”

Hemingway began to take himself seriously as a writer in Paris, initially working as foreign correspondent for The Toronto Star. His aspirations for himself as a writer changed when he became part of Gertrude Stein’s infamous literary and artistic salons, meeting modernist painters like Picasso and Juan Gris, but being influenced by older, more mature writers. This is where he met F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it was their competitive and inspiring friendship that spurred him to write his first novel, The Sun Also Rises.

Paris was inexpensive in the 1920s for poor expatriate writers. James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, and T. S. Eliot were all drawn to the glittering center of intellectual and artistic expression in Europe. Hemingway met Ezra Pound serendipitously one day at Shakespeare and Co., pictured above (one of the two shrines where English majors tend to congregate when visiting Paris). Hemingway honed his writing skills while publishing short stories and editing The Transatlantic Review with Madox Ford.

While sitting in the now-famous, and sadly, touristy, Les Deux Magots (translation: the two figurines or statues, in this case two Chinese merchants, pictured above) I imagined Hemingway sipping a coffee, facing the street, looking out at pedestrians passing by. I visualised someone walking in and greeting him, what Hemingway said in reply, and what Paris would have been like almost 100 years ago. It was an illusion, an attempt to imagine the past and what it must have been like to be alive in that moment, but it made me feel a little bit closer to this icon of the modern American novel.

The pictures taken above include one hanging on the wall in the café, of an older Hemingway during his return to war-ravaged Paris, a city in the throes of liberation from the Germans. But I prefer to think of the young Hemingway sitting casually, one leg crossed over the other, leaning into his writer’s notebook perched on top of a tiny outdoor table under the trees on the Boulevard St. Germain, and what Paris must have been like for him, as he grew into the writer he would become.

Writing as a way of healing

Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives opens with these lines:

“Writing has helped me heal. Writing has changed my life. Writing has saved my life.”

She says that writing has helped her friends, students, and other writers heal from loss, grief, or personal tragedy. Writers who have endured personal trauma turn to their diaries, or write memoirs, fiction, poetry, and biographical essays as a means of making sense of what happened to them.

In fact, I have found that these are some of the life events that too often prevent writers from writing in the first place; we don’t feel strong enough in the face of life trauma to be able to get past the depths of our pain. The interesting thing is, if you think about it, most writing is about something truly awful that happened to someone; or it refers to an emotionally turbulent time in someone’s life, or it deals with an otherwise difficult subject, hard to understand, even harder to talk about.

Writers who find a way to broach their pain enter into terrain that often threatens to pull them under if they don’t express the emotions in some way.

You don’t have to rely solely on writing, though; painting, music, dance, or theatre, are all effective ways to crack open your creativity. No matter how you express yourself, the goal is to allow yourself to have these feelings, to get them out: “If we begin to value our creative urges, we begin to value ourselves. If we deny our creative urges, we deny that our lives have meaning and significance.” 

Yet we stop ourselves from expressing these truths, often for very good reasons. They are too painful, or too near, or too personal. Often, we can barely think about these things, let alone write about them, or tell anyone else what happened. For this reason, DeSalvo suggests having professional guidance to help you cope with your memories.

You can’t run the risk of re-traumatizing yourself without a professional there to guide you through whatever comes up. DeSalvo says “letting ourselves have our emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them as we work is an important (and all-too-often ignored) skill for us to develop,” but having our emotions is risky without someone who has traversed the terrain available during this process.

Because the piece of writing is “complete” when you read it (I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, or Mrs. Dalloway, or Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, or Fitzgerald’s memoir of his nervous breakdown at thirty-nine, The Crack-Up),it isn’t immediately obvious that these famous writers were once in pain, struggling with life experiences, using writing as their “sturdy ladder out of the pit.”

DeSalvo, quoting Fitzgerald, says during the process of writing The Crack-Up, this multiply published author, already famous in his own time, learned “he’d led an inauthentic life, a non-reflective, reactive life.” He had done “very little thinking”… rather than knowing himself, he had allowed others to tell him who he was. He admitted to always feeling confused, which lead to his desire “to go out and get drunk.”

If the writing is to be a healing experience, though, we must rely on “nonjudgemental, self-reflective witnessing of ourselves as writers” which helps us “not ruminate about our feelings (a destructive practice) or to engage in accusation or self-blame.” Instead, as I will discuss in another entry, DeSalvo suggests keeping a process journal which “invites us to focus upon defining ourselves as active and engaged, not as passive, helpless and hopeless.”

The purported link between creativity and madness

There is a strong social bias or prejudice in favor of believing that genius comes along with some form of psychosis. Depression, anxiety, even mania, are frequently associated with creative ability. Writers have often done little to dispel this myth; even psychologists who specialise in understanding and explaining human behavior seem to have a vested interest in maintaining this belief.

A study done in the late 80s (and reinforced by later studies on a similar theme) interviewed and followed 30 participants who had all been published writers and taught writing for at least 15 years at University of Iowa‘s writing workshop. The study indicated that 80% of these writers had some kind of affective illness. Now, the catch with studies like this (and this one in particular) is that it was conducted by one person, and none of the “evidence” was corroborated by peers. In other words, the author of the study, a psychologist, might be said to have found what she was looking for.

This is a problem for writers, this perception (reinforced by society, writers themselves, and the entire history of Western civilization going back to Plato, for crying out loud) that writing is a form of “madness,” that creativity is a gift, a divine inspiration given to us “by the gods” (thanks, Plato) and that we who write (or do any kind of creative act, really) are of necessity better at it when we’re looking for our muse at the bottom of the bottle, let’s say, or in the arms of our best friend’s wife, or some other such nonsense.

You can also take the time to make a list of all the writers you can think of who have been known to be in some way ‘crazy’ or suffering from some kind of affective disorder (to put it in the words of psychologists). I think you’ll find the list is long, indicating that writing is something we associate with various forms of mental illness. It’s entirely possible that since writing is a form of catharsis, the predominant writing that holds our collective attention is mostly that which has been shaped by difficulty, tragedy, or loss.

Click here for an excellent online resource for further research into this perplexing topic.