Consultation No. 4 – With Papa Hemingway




With some trepidation I knocked at Ernest Hemingway’s door and waited. And waited. Had I waited much longer I would have left, knowing his short fuse with reporters and lesser writers. With research we had found that the rap on Papa was that he was incredibly knowledgeable on a wide number of subjects, that he might regale me with some longwinded thing about fishing. And if he’d been drinking he was Henry VIII incarnate. All of our misgivings proved of no consequence, though; he’d been writing and, of course, not drinking.

He walked on the veranda, a glass of vermouth and crushed ice in his hand, a Panama hat perched back, and actually a bit earthy with his native aroma. He’d been fishing, as it turned out, and cleaning fish with a couple of his favorite crewmen. We shook hands, he smiled, and after a few icebreakers, our brief interview began.Throughout our brief time there, we found him cheerful, engaging, and helpful to this blogger. Until I mentioned passionless writing.


GF – We’re doing a series on modern novelists writing without passion, and –

EH – Passion? Writing without passion? Jesus, man, how is that even possible?

GF – We’re in an era that’s been dubbed postmodern. And in this era, you see, technique rules.

EH – No shit! And is there some school these writers go to to learn this?

GF – Yes. There are hundreds of writing programs out there now, and technique is the main thing they’re taught.

EH – My god. I was being ironical in asking that.

GF – Well, sir, that’s the writing life these days, and –

EH – People buy this claptrap? And don’t say sir to me. I’m not a politician or a banker. Everybody here calls me Papa.

GF – In dwindling numbers, yes. But if we could return to the subject of passion…

EH – Papa. Say it.

GF – All right. Papa. (At this point a young woman appeared, whispered something, and left. He quickly informed me that a journalist from Cuba was waiting and asked if we could cut the talk short.) Can you give me, quickly then, your views on passion in the novel.

EH – Damn right I will! Send these kids to war, and if not war, send them into the seediest parts of any town and make them live there for a year, two years, as long as it takes for them to get it through their highly educated heads that that’s where passion is. On the battlefield! In the ghettos! In fact, how the hell do they have any stories without seeing how man treats his fellow man? Christ, what do you have out there, a bunch of Scott Fitzgeralds?

GF – The last few minutes of his response were profanity-laced, little of which would have contributed to passion in writing. I didn’t tell him I speak a little Spanish, and as I left, he was ranting to the Cuban journalist about the nincompoop that had informed him that writers in his era were putting out passionless writing. And people were buying it!


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Let Us Inspire You


Poets & Writers, January/February, 2014

To my mind P&W struggles to be worthwhile to the writer who has been around the block a few times. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of spending a rainy afternoon reading.

I love charts – especially when they indicate something substantial, and the mag’s “Anatomy of Awards” article indicates that almost half of 2013’s awards went to poets. (I suppose that’s okay to throw them that bone; poetry sells very little.) And fiction writers take most of the other half. So where are these writers located? Mostly in the northeast and west, although the regional split is relatively equal.

But a few highlights:

Benjamin Percy tells us in his essay, “Modulation in the Moment,” that he thinks his pieces through over a number of months before sitting down to write.

As for chatting up an agent, P&W talks in this issue to David Gernert, John Grisham’s agent, after having worked in the publishing field for Doubleday. Gernert, however, struggles along with writers in knowing how to build a platform. He’s old-school, asking readers and writers to support bookstores.

The inspiration meme: P&W offers mini essays by seven writers on how to amp up the passion – your own, writer, and that contained by what you write.

An interesting profile of poets indicates a stable of verse-writers who are mostly in their thirties. How long do they spend in writing, editing, and getting their work ready for book publication? On average, more than two years. How long to find a publisher? About a year.


The bottom line here? It’s still tough to get published, even tougher to get to the make-a-living point. But don’t let that dissuade you. Keep writing. Hang in there.



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Passionate Mirrors

Often, at parties or other gatherings, someone will walk up, introduce him/herself and, as an icebreaker, will say, "I understand you're a writer." My response, as I try to charm through self-deprecation: "Well, there seems to be a debate raging on that subject."

I'm trifling with hyperbole, of course; there's no raging debate. In fact, it often seems that the world – local and international – could care less. Careful, now! I'm not crying into my morning coffee, and I'm not dismayed that the world seems rather preoccupied at the moment. In fact, the world's ambivalent state – where it concerns me and my writing, at least – is a macrocosm of the writer's microcosm.


We writers are often driven to write from some wrong we'd like to see righted, some superficial attitude we'd like to see plunged to greater depths. Fiction writers more than any others, perhaps, quickly realize that our alternate worlds squirm uncomfortably under the weight of advocacy. We're at our best when we depict the world as it is, warts, blemishes, poses, and all.

Not that our writing should be dispassionate; to the contrary, we devise our plots, energize our characters, as if trapped in a spider's web, struggling for understanding's relief. But the world chugs along, evolving ever so slowly, and there isn't much we can do as writers to buttress the human condition, other than hold a mirror up to the world.

But that's an important task in itself. The world – and humanity – make progress ever so slowly, largely because it (we) obfuscates – it tries its damnedest to look the other way. Preaching is best left to preachers, I say. Mirroring nakedly is best left to creative writers, who use the smaller lies in hopes of revealing the larger truth – to ourselves and to our audience.