Just got back from a spectacular four-day vacation to Key West, which involved much eating, bicycling, application of SPF-45, and, well, other things that can’t be mentioned on a family blog. One thing that can be mentioned, however, was my visit to the Hemingway House, where I discovered that the secret to becoming an enduring icon of American letters is having cats. Lots and lots of cats. Preferably six-toed cats.
Cats were as much of the tour as the guides wearing Panama hats. There were something like 58 of them wandering around the grounds, or maybe it was 82. A lot.
Since I was also reading and signing “Fear and Yoga” at Voltaire Books later that day, I also tried to drum up business for my reading by handing out bookmarks. Fat lot of good that did. The only people who showed up were Ros Brackenbury, my friend from VCCA, and a cute couple from An Island Oasis, the B&B we stayed at.
Not to be ungrateful. The cute couple, Mary-Beth and Garth, asked fabulous questions and were truly interested in the life of an author. That was a refreshing change from Montclair, where novelists are a dime a dozen.
I kept hoping that I might glean something on the Hemingway tour about the man’s life as a writer — something that would be worth mentioning in my talks. There wasn’t much besides cats and wives (he had a lot of those too). But I wound up buying “Ernest Hemingway on Writing” in the bookstore, and found a valuable nugget at the end.
You must be prepared to work always without applause. When you are excited about something is when the first draft is done. But no one can see it until you have gone over it again and again until you have communicated the emotion, the sights and the sounds to the reader, and by the time you have completed this the words, sometimes, will not make sense to you and you read them, so many times have you re-read them. By the time the book comes out you will have started something else and it is all behind you and you do not want to hear about it. But you do, you read it in covers and you see all the places that now you can do nothing about. All the critics who could not make their reputations by discovering you are hoping to make them by predicting hopefully your approaching impotence, failure and general drying up of natural juices. Not a one will wish you luck… You are just as well off without these reviews. Finally, in some other place, some other time, when you can’t work and feel like hell you will pick up the book and look in it and start to read and go on and in a little while say to your wife, “Why this stuff is bloody marvelous.”
And she will say, “Darling, I always told you it was.” Or maybe she doesn’t hear you and says, “What did you say?” and you do not repeat the remark.
But if the book is good, is about something that you know, and is truly written and reading it over you see that this is so you can let the boys yip and the noise will have that pleasant sound coyotes make on a very cold night when they are out in the snow and you are in your own cabin that you have built or paid for with your work.
I related to it all, the way it’s hard to summon interest for the book that’s out now, because you’re working on the next. The way all you see when you read it are the mistakes that can’t be changed. And how, eventually, you might be able to see what was good in it. Or as Warren said, it’s a great passage for showing both the frailty and the ego of a writer.