Tuesday, 30 April 2013

For Triumph He Toiled

As submitted to coursera.org for English Composition I:

Photograph source: Mike's writing workshop and newsletter

The black and white photograph captures Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway, one of the most renowned author and journalist of this era, in a moment of intense concentration – the camera looking straight at the legend, recording a snapshot of him for posterity.

We find the writer seated facing the viewer, leaning towards a wooden table. One can feel the right hand moving - the pen leaving its mark on a notepad on the table. Peeping out from beneath the pad, are sheets of paper, the free portions curling back at it. The folded left hand is supporting the bent torso, with the elbow resting on the table. The dark-banded watch on the left wrist finds itself over a small pile of a book and notepads, while its fingers are feeling the pad on which the partner hand is busy scribbling. The left elbow is poking its nib at another small book-over-notebook stack - the paperback cover for this book however, sans any weight above, has found it easy to separate from the pages at the not-joined end.

The silver moustache-beard and the grey receding hairline hint at the timeframe of the photograph to be somewhere in the last decade of the life of this great personality (he died few days before his 62nd birthday[1]). The famed outdoorsman that he was[2], the writer appears to be inside a tent, could be in the African savannahs (he was in Kenya, Rwanda and Belgian Congo during 1952 to 1954[3][4]). The wooden table looks typically African, wood being mercifully plentiful in most parts of the continent even to this day. Cartons on the ground at the back noticeable from under the table could be essentials accompanying the owner on his safari. The weather is clearly on the warmer side as evident from the cotton/linen-like wear, rolled up sleeves and the open top button in his shirt. Natural light in the photograph suggests day time – the author usually wrote from early morning hours till about noon[5].

There is no mistaking the point in time to be a casual moment – Hemingway is at work. The eyes behind the thin-rimmed glasses, oblivious to the photographer, converging down at what is likely to be a manuscript of his creation. The lips set together in an expression echoing the mind’s absorption. The left-tilted face an illustration in purpose and single-mindedness. The tension apparent in the upturned heel that refuses to rest on the ground. Books and notepads ready at hand on the table awaiting their call to service, some more reference material on a shelf beyond the table just about butting their heads inside the photograph frame. The absence of a typewriter can be explained by the fact that he favoured the machine for writing dialogue only.[7] And not to be missed is a glass behind the left elbow, half filled with coffee or alcohol - he was known to have his time with alcohol[3], probably even during writing. Though he stood while writing as a norm[6]; he may have made an exception in this case being outdoors; or he could be taking notes from his travel encounters.

So does the photograph reveal anything about why the man achieved what he achieved? Is he inhabiting the sweet spot as Coyle would say – where he is trying to go beyond his abilities? Is he in deep practice - where he is intentionally seeking struggles in search of greatness?[8]

The answer is an unequivocal yes after a peek into his life. His was a tale of constant yearning and endeavour for excellence. An interview with New York Times gives an insight into his feelings when he was striving to overcome his failure from a mediocre To Have and Have Not by an inspired effort in For Whom the Bell Tolls[9] - the latter novel did indeed successfully re-establish his literary reputation[10]. Deep practice it is: his work the end product of polishing by an obsessive reviser[11]; with thirty nine rewrites to the last page of Farewell to Arms[12] and more than two hundred rewrites to portions of The Old Man and the Sea[13]. His journalism years nothing but training for his incarnation as a short story writer and novelist.[14] His journey a quest for brilliance as he sought one unfamiliar terrain after the other[15]living the life and writing what he lived. The location coordinates of the photograph is possibly a testimony to the challenges that he pursued. But above all the image is that of an engrossed man toiling for triumph, a slave of a self-induced habit of writing discipline[5].

But is it merely as he says “It's none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”[16] The concise, vivid dialogue; the rich imagery of places and things; the subtlety of emotion; the distinctive prose of direct, personal writing, still recognizable by its economy and controlled understatement[17][18] - can it simply be acquired? Or did the man have what others have not?

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway Top right table
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway Section: Early Life
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway Section: Cuba and the Nobel Prize
  4. http://www.ernesthemingwaycollection.com/About-Hemingway/Ernest-Hemingway-in-Africa.aspx
  5. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4825/the-art-of-fiction-no-21-ernest-hemingway Paragraph immediately preceding the interview
  6. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4825/the-art-of-fiction-no-21-ernest-hemingway Fifth paragraph
  7. http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/74635-i-write-description-in-longhand-because-that-s-hardest-for-me
  8. Daniel Coyle (2009). The Talent Code (Chapter 1: ‘The Sweet Spot’)
  9. http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/07/04/specials/hemingway-work.html
  10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway Section: Spanish Civil War and World War II
  11. http://www.neabigread.org/books/farewelltoarms/teachers/hemingway_handout03.pdf Third paragraph
  12. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4825/the-art-of-fiction-no-21-ernest-hemingway Answer to question regarding the same
  13. http://www.cliffsnotes.com/study_guide/literature/hemingway-short-stories/critical-essay/hemingways-writing-style.html Second last paragraph
  14. http://www.neabigread.org/books/farewelltoarms/teachers/hemingway_handout03.pdf First paragraph
  15. http://www.uncp.edu/home/canada/work/allam/1914-/lit/heming.htm Chronology
  16. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway
  17. http://www.neabigread.org/books/farewelltoarms/teachers/hemingway_handout03.pdf Second and last paragraphs
  18. http://ezinearticles.com/?The-Writing-Style-of-Hemingway&id=70613 Fourth and last paragraphs

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