I read that book in eighth grade. I had an overly ambitious or optimistic English teacher who had bought copies of that novel and Steinbeck’s The Pearl and The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Orwell’s Animal Farm and other “short books (novellas) by great authors.” She wanted to introduce us to literature and famous writers before we went to high school. I read all of them that year. I didn’t understand all of what I read, but it was influential. And she loved me for reading them.
It worked with me. I went on to read several other books by those two writers on my own that year and many others in the years that followed. I recall liking The Red Pony as I was going through a horseback riding phase and the other two books seemed a bit preachy to me. I went back to all three books eventually and Hemingway’s novel now is the one that is the strongest.
Ernest Hemingway had been working on a very long novel that he called The Sea Book. It was inspired by that WWII period when he was on his Pilar fishing boat looking for submarines in his attempt to be part of the war. That original manuscript was in three sections: “The Sea When Young,” “The Sea When Absent,” and “The Sea in Being.” It had an epilogue about an old fisherman.
Some aspects of it did appear in the posthumously published Islands in the Stream(1970). Hemingway also mentions the real-life experience of an old fisherman that seems almost identical to that of Santiago and his marlin in “On the Blue Water: A Gulf Stream Letter” published in Esquire magazine in April 1936.
He wrote more than 800 pages of The Sea Book and rewrote them more than a hundred times, but the book still didn’t seem finished. Finally, he decided to publish just the epilogue on its own which he called The Old Man and the Sea.
The novella begins, “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” It tells the story of Santiago who catches the biggest fish of his life, only to have it eaten by sharks before he can get back to shore.
The Old Man and the Sea was written while Hemingway was living in Cayo Blanco, Cuba, and Santiago is an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Cuba.
I have always thought that this old man’s struggles had to be connected to Hemingway’s own struggles as a writer and with the deep depression at the end of his life. Without getting all literary symbols about it, I think the marlin is his writing career as he tries to bring in one more “big book” and goes a long time without doing so. The little book he does publish is good but, like the remains of the marlin that makes it back to Cuba, it is just a part of a much larger work.
The novella is not my favorite Hemingway writing, but it is a good first read for someone who has not read him and wonders why he is considered such an important American writer.
In 1950, Ernest Hemingway had been working on a long novel tentatively titled The Sea Book. The writing was difficult and he felt his abilities were diminished. He only published a section of the manuscript during his life as The Old Man and the Sea(1952). Despite the fact that the book was well-reviewed and won the Pulitzer Prize, he was disappointed with himself for only being able to finish that short novella.
In 1953, while in Africa, a plane he was in collided with a flock of birds and crash-landed on the shore of the Nile River. Hemingway sprained his shoulder but boarded another plane which also crashed, this time fracturing his skull and cracking two discs in his spine, and causing internal bleeding.
The crashed plane wasn’t immediately located and Hemingway was reported dead by the press. He later said that he strangely enjoyed reading the obituaries in a Tom Sawyer-ish way and he saved newspaper clippings in scrapbooks.
The injuries never fully healed and he increased his alcohol consumption as a way to self-medicate. He wrote a lot but published none of it.
A trunk of old manuscripts and notebooks from his days in Paris gave him the rough materials to write his memoir A Movable Feastwhich was published posthumously in 1964. It is often considered his best book of non-fiction. Still, he was disappointed in it when he finished the manuscript because he was not writing fiction and the book was the result of reworking old material. He was a harsher critic of his writing than some who did for their livelihood.
He battled insomnia, pain, depression, and failing eyesight in his last decade. He was losing his hair and was very vain about that and about getting old in general.
He became very paranoid and was convinced that he was under FBI surveillance. His wife thought he was losing his mind. Ironically, it was revealed much later that he actually was under FBI surveillance.
He entered the Mayo Clinic and was given electroshock therapy which did not help and probably made things worse. The treatment affected his memory and made writing even more difficult. He believed that he was only alive in order to write and that if he could not write, there was no point in living. He talked frequently about suicide.
Back in 1928, Ernest had received a cable telling him that his father had committed suicide by shooting himself. He was devastated, particularly because he had earlier sent a letter to his father telling him not to worry about his financial difficulties. That letter arrived minutes after the suicide. He commented at the time that “I’ll probably go the same way.”[*]
Ernest Hemingway’s behavior during his last decade was similar to his father’s final years and it has been suggested that his father may have had the genetic disease hemochromatosis, in which the inability to metabolize iron culminates in mental and physical deterioration. Medical records made available in 1991 confirm that Ernest’s own hemochromatosis had been diagnosed in early 1961.[*] His sister Ursula and his brother Leicester also committed suicide.
On July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway got up early, loaded his favorite shotgun, and shot himself.
A friend who does a lot of writing told me that he downloaded a “Hemingway Editor” app that is supposed to help you make your writing bold and clear as if Ernest Hemingway was editing your writing.
It is not unlike other editing and proofing apps. I use Grammarly and online it installs into the Chrome browser and reminds me about things as I type. Many of my mistakes are typos as I am a terrible hunt-and-peck typist. There is a free version and a premium version.
The Hemingway Editor app highlights wordy sentences, adverbs, passive voice, fancy vocabulary, and other things as you type. Ernest was not a fan of those four things. The app lets you publish blog posts directly to Medium and WordPress. You can also import and export text from Word documents. (It is a paid app.)
Hemingway is well known for his objective and terse prose style. You probably had some writing class in high school or college that used Hemingway as an example of a clean writing style. Even Hemingway’s dialogue is very simple. My Grammarly app actually gives me reports and praises me for my extensive vocabulary. Of course, when I write on this blog and in other places, I am often using scientific or technical words. When I am writing poetry, I think I tend to be more Hemingway-ish in my writing. I like using new words but I don’t want readers to need a dictionary to understand the poem.
The Old Man and the Sea is a good example of Hemingway’s writing style. The language is simple and natural on the surface, but it is also very deliberate and there is more going on under that surface. His concise, straightforward, and realistic, style is a departure from other writers of his time.
Sometimes his style is referred to as the “iceberg theory.” This simple style of writing has minimal detail on the surface, with deeper meaning hiding below.
In poetry, I might compare it to the poetry of Billy Collins. Before he became the U.S. Poet Laureate, some people criticized his poems as being too easy to read, and too often amusing. I think his poems are very accessible but there is more to them and they benefit from multiple readings.
My friend let me use his app and I put in an old post I wrote here about Hemingway. It seemed like a meta thing to do. It had suggestions and I took the advice and revised that post from 2013 and reposted it today.
Here is one paragraph that the app thought was wordy. You can see the revised version in my repost.
He entered the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and was given electroshock therapy which did not help and probably made things worse as it affected his memory and made writing even more difficult. He believed that he was only alive in order to write and that if he could not write, there was no point in living. He talked frequently about suicide.
No app will make you write like Hemingway, but it’s a good thing to have some artificial intelligence looking over your shoulder as you type.
Writer’s block is a load of nonsense—I’ve always been a bit suspicious of it. It’s more likely to be a symptom of depression or maybe they’ve just got nothing interesting to say. ~ Alexander McCall Smith
I don’t think that is true for all writers. The block is real for many writers. Generally, it is not an issue for me. In fact, a friend asked me this past week what I do when I hit writer’s block. She is a poet but goes through long periods of not writing at all. I write all the time. I write too much. I write too much online which I shouldn’t consider less noble, but I do when compared to working on poems or articles to send out to journals and publishers.
I think one cure for writer’s block is writing. Even in my earliest teaching days, I would tell my students who were blocked when writing in class journals to just write. Write about being blocked. Write a line from something we were reading in class and go from there.
Back in the 19th century, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described an “indefinite indescribable terror” at not being able to produce work he thought worthy of his talent. That is another kind of block and I’ll admit to hitting that form at times. Coleridge also claimed that French writers created this idea that all writers have to suffer to write. I know I saw this idea quoted somewhere but I could find the source today: You don’t have to suffer for your art. Making it through high school is quite enough suffering. Having taught middle school for a number of years, I’d say you’re ready to be an artist before high school for some people.
Looking at my drafts for this site, I saw that I had bookmarked an article by Jennifer Lachs about writer’s block, so I decided to look at it again read it and write today about not being able to write. She quotes playwright Paul Rudnick who says:
“Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write.”
Do you have to write? Unless you’re on deadline, no one has to write. That friend who asked me about writer’s block is someone who works best under some pressure. She likes writing workshops that require you to produce and read your poems to the group.
A dictionary definition of writer’s block might be “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.” Is it psychological?
In the book Fire Up Your Writing Brain, author Susan Reynolds turns to neuroscience to turn on the brain’s creativity for writers in particular.
Reynolds actually claims that it is a psychological condition is a myth. (Others disagree) She feels the brain can be used to generate that creative spark and defeat the procrastination that we call a block. Her approach includes some self-study about the type of writer you are and then developing writing models.
Reynold and I are believers in neuroplasticity. She says you can hardwire your brain for endurance and increased productivity.
Of course, the block can also be a full creative block that goes wider than just writing. It is important to recognize why you get blocked. Is it fear of failure or rejection? Are you such a perfectionist that you can’t get started? Certainly, many of us are our own toughest critics.
Despite my friend’s preference for deadline pressure, if you really have to write because it is your work or you have a deadline to meet, that pressure can also block people.
This brings me to solutions. They are as numerous as causes. You will find online and in books strategies and block breakers. Here’s a very partial list.
Do some exercise. Take a walk. Do something aerobic.
Do something completely different from the task at hand for a bit. That sounds like procrastination, but switching tasks just for a short time might reset your brain. Get up from the desk and make a cup of tea. Try drawing something. Einstein famously would pick up his violin and play some Mozart when he hit a creative wall.
Combine solutions. Take the dog and yourself for a walk. It combines exercise and a change of scenery which might even newly inspire you.
Cook something, rake some leaves, sew, knit, sculpt, do some woodworking, paint a wall or a still life, chop some firewood.
I found it interesting that some research shows that doing something with your hands when you are blocked in your brain is effective.
Free-writing can be a block breaker. Writing without rules, about whatever pops into your head can let the imagination free. It may not produce a finished product but that is not the point.
I’m not good at getting rid of distractions, but that is highly recommended. You may not be diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder but when you’re writing on a screen having email, social media, and notifications there with you is definitely distracting. Now that 24-hour news, TV and movies are on your phone all that can take you away from your writing. Notifications play on our fear of missing out (FOMO) on something important.
The most Romantic (capital R) and the almost mythical solution is to “get away” from it all. I’ve had that fantasy inside me since I was a teenager reading Walden. I’ve written about that cabin out in the woods for a writing place, but I recognize that I might still just be sitting there unable to write and happily distracted by rabbits and a nearby river or pond. I wrote that you should not need a cabin in the woods to write, which should be obvious, but the dream persists.
I am a big user of notebooks and more recently notes on my phone. I have a lot of one-line poetry ideas (there are 133 there now) and I always have a few blog posts in draft mode that I started and have left to simmer.
Maybe it is a time-of-day, circadian rhythms that is an issue for you. Are you more productive at certain times? I write best in the morning and at night. Afternoons – not so great. But if I am banging up against that block in the morning, I might do other things and come back to writing after lunch.
Binge writing is not recommended. Smaller sessions are better. John Updike, who was very productive, treated his writing like a regular job. he went to an office and didn’t let himself out for lunch until he had produced a certain amount of writing. It might be a poem, a few pages in the novel or even answering mail.
Poet William Stafford was famous for writing a poem every morning when he woke and before breakfast. How did he do it? He admitted that he lowered his standards. He didn’t expect every morning poem to be great – or even be a poem. It was a case of progress, not perfection. Perfectionism is a block builder. I followed that philosophy when I did my poem-a-day project 365 times in 2014.
Confesssion: I went back to the draft of this post because I was at a loss for what to write for today. I don’t have a deadline, but I do try to posts at least two times every weekend. When I have a “lost weekend” it bothers me. Then, I write about the lost weekend. Write. Just write.
At the end of the year, I look at the analytics on my blogs and websites and it makes me wonder about who is behind those numbers and graphs. That’s you, dear reader.
Some writers have a reader in mind when they write. I don’t. I least I don’t have a picture of some blended reader. I know a few of you from the offline world but the vast majority are virtual. Some of you aren’t even “readers.” The analytics often list “visitors” who drop by (probably based on a search for something) take a look and leave, never to be seen again. It’s like people who go into a store, walk around and don’t pick anything up or buy anything. Just looking.
A few years ago, a friend said that I should publish on Medium. He mentioned that they even have a program where you can get paid for getting people to read your words. I got an account but have never gone for the payment route. Not that I’m opposed to being paid, but it seemed like more work and I wasn’t seeing lots of readers there and that was my original reason to create an account. I was curious to see if I would get more readers there than on one of the blogs. I did the same thing by posting things on LinkedIn.
Medium’s own advice includes things like: Do not chase algorithms. Do not read articles on how to “make it” on Medium. Do not create headlines that scare the living daylights out of people so they click on them, searching for some elusive answer to life’s unanswerable questions.
That post also appeared on this blog with the less clickbaity title of simply “The Answer is 137.” Here it has over 2000 views, but WordPress doesn’t provide a “reads” stat.
Why more viewers here? I think it is you, dear reader. This site has almost 2000 followers who opted to get an email when a new post appears. Thank you for following! On Medium, I have less than a hundred followers. True, I don’t post there very often but it’s a big pond for little fish like me.
Medium says that email subscriptions help ensure that your most devoted readers never miss a post and their “Subscribe” button is a little envelope next to the “Follow” button.
Medium may discourage clickbait-styled titles, but they gave an example in one of their newsletters of a “creator” (their label for writers) of Kyrie Gray, a humorist who runs the publication Jane Austen’s Wastebasket. She has titles such as , “Zeus Finally Fired Due to Sex Scandals” and “MasterClass Now Offers Courses Taught by Famous Dead Writers.”
I’m currently taking a painting class that is online. We watch the instructor. We try it on our own, and she likes us to hold up our work to our camera for the class to see. I am not confident at all about my paintings and I am not sharing.
Today she added a brief exercise where she asked us to paint something without any pre-drawing. She said she felt some of us were too concerned with the lines and “getting things right.” She wanted us to feel free. “Just ad-lib,” she said.
I thought about it later and about that term “ad-lib.” On one of my other blogs, I wrote a quick etymology of that term. It is a shortening of the Latin ad libitum, which means “in accordance with one’s wishes,” though today we associate it more with going off-script.
In my brief time on a stage or in front of a camera acting, I thought I was a good improviser and felt no fear about ad-libbing. I think I was willing to do it because I was not very good at learning lines. That works in film where you tend to shoot short bits and can often rehearse lines before a take and have another chance if you fail. Ad-libbing Shakespeare on a stage is quite frowned upon. When I taught, much of what I told students was improvised and ad-libbed, though it was based on a script (lesson plan and notes).
But when I write – anything from a blog post to a poem – I always revise and polish. I’m okay free writing to get a draft down on the page, but I never really go with that as a final version.
And that seems to be my artistic style. I like to do a pre-drawing or work from a photograph. I always draw lines as a roadmap that guides a painting. They might remain or they might get covered over by layers of paint but I rely on them. Even as a kid doing drawings, I liked mechanical kinds of drawings – buildings, cars, objects – and have never been very good at people or animals. I actually took classes in mechanical drawing (that’s what my high school called drafting) and loved the precision, the lines, the perspectives, shading, triangles, French curves, and my T-square. I haven’t shaken it off – at least when it comes to painting.
I have always thought that teachers, lawyers, salespeople, and the clergy should be required to take classes in improvisation. Actually, it’s a good thing for everyone to study a bit. Life is very often an improvisation and being able to ad-lib is a great skill that doesn’t often show up on job ads or resumes – but it should.