On writing: The romance of the writer from Hemingway to Gladwell

by Steve

The first of my non-sporting posts on the blog, as trailed in my 100th post. Thank you for indulging me dear readers!

Cover of Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast

I recently read the Ernest Hemingway book, A Moveable Feast. One thing that was so striking about it was how Hemingway weaves multiple threads into such a short book (140-odd pages), and with such taut prose. For me, there were three distinct elements.

First, it is a postcard, maybe even a love letter, from 1920s Paris. Written with many years hindsight (it was one of the last books Hemingway wrote and was published posthumously), it details his life as a poor, struggling writer in Paris, with a young family. He had simple needs and pleasures, all that Paris seemed to fulfill.

The bookseller told me I’d want to live in Paris after reading the book, and she wasn’t far off. Here is Paris in all its glory, and a life of fine wine, good books and interesting company will eternally appeal. In Paris, a simple potato salad and a cold beer can bring immeasurable joy, as can a day at the races, or fishing at the canal. In Hemingway’s Paris you can be poor and happy.

The second strand, and I’m being a little flippant here, sees the book operate as a 1920s version of Popbitch or Heat, although obviously considerably better written, and perhaps even a little more scandalous in parts. We get Hemingway’s memories of the celebrities of the time, from Ezra Pound to James Joyce, Gertrude Stein to F Scott Fitzgerald. The passages on Fitzgerald are priceless, so I won’t ruin them for you. But you won’t think about Fitzgerald the same way again.

And the third strand is perhaps the most interesting to me. In chronicling his life as a young writer, Hemingway imparts his advice on the art of writing. For me, A Moveable Feast is the most concise and well thought out guide for writing I’ve encountered. One particular piece of advice that I think will stick with me is to always finish a day’s writing with something left to write for tomorrow.

There is also something in the tone of the book that suggests that he looked back at this simpler time as being good for his writing, and for learning his craft. The latter stages of the book perhaps hold a certain regret that life got more complicated. “We were very poor and very happy,” indeed.

But does this romantic idea of writing still exist? The Moveable Feast life will always have a certain pull. I’d love to wander cafés and bars writing, or arising early to watch the day begin whilst plotting my next story.

I think this romantic idea, at least in terms of freedom to write, and to live an exciting, interesting and diverse life does still exist. It’s not Paris in the 1920s, but the Wall Street Journal’s recent piece on how novelists write conjures up many scenarios where writing seems like a very good life. It may be in the routine, or the lack of it. Or in the research, or the opportunity to experiment. It might even be in the choice of stationery (I’m a sucker for stationery, but that is another post for another time). 

Malcolm Gladwell’s average day may not have the decadence, the adventure, or indeed the drinking of Hemingway’s Paris, but it still seems like a lovely life to lead, sitting in cafés, searching the libraries and enjoying a great city. A romantic life can be found in the small gestures as much as in the grand acts.

For me, the draw is as much in being a writer, and living that life, as in the writing itself. There is the freedom of having the time to write, and the freedom that sort of life affords. Much better than nine-to-five.

So, in books such as A Moveable Feast, and when reading articles like those linked above, the fascination for me lies as much in what surrounds the writing, as the writing itself. And just think: how wonderful would it be to have the time to develop and indulge a particular set of rituals for writing?

But ultimately, the romance for me in being a writer is in being able to earn money doing something you love, and to do so in any way you choose. Hemingway was a lucky man during his time in Paris, and so are those authors in the Wall Street Journal piece.

And so, wherever a writer may be, they hopefully can find that joy in their lives. And perhaps us amateurs can find that too, even without the security and freedom that a pay cheque ensures. I guess if we didn’t, we wouldn’t write at all.

We’ll always have Hemingway’s Paris, but that is not the only route to happiness and fulfillment.