On Writing: Hemingway

Updated: Aug 28, 2018


"The minute I stop writing for a month or two months and am on a trip I feel absolutely animally happy. But when you are writing and get something the way you want it be you get a great happiness too -- but it is very different; although one is as important as the other to you yourself when you have a feeling of how short your life is."

- to Ivan Kashkin, 1936, originally printed in "Selected Letters," p. 431.



When I want blunt honesty, I turn to Hemingway. His letters -- updates, insights, advice to other writers -- are direct and, like his fiction, work brilliantly on multiple levels.


I write in spurts. I can work for months at a time, intensely focused on a single manuscript, like a painter forever blending and changing and adding. And at other times, I don't write at all. "Life" happens, and though I have a few chunks of time to write, I can't get my mind around it. I think about stories and characters all the time, but during these dry spells, I don't produce new material. It's frustrating, and I constantly try to change my ways. It's a battle.


Maybe it shouldn't be, though.


I'm nowhere near as prolific as I'd like to be, and I'd like to increase my production and practice. Of course, not everyone has the drive or ability to churn out a novel every year. But I try not to compare myself to other writers; I am who I am and do what I do. Still, when I don't write, I'm pretty miserable. I feel guilty, not to anyone else, but to myself.


That said, Hemingway has a point: you need balance. You need a life. You need to live it, whether you're working or playing. Life is short.


Here's the moral compass question I ask myself when facing a decision: "When I'm on my deathbed, how will I think back on this?" So, applying this question to the issue of 'life' getting in the way of writing time and the pressure I place on myself to get more stuff done, I come up with this answer: "I'll regret it if I spend my precious time worrying, and I'll regret it, too, if I spend my precious time scrolling Facebook instead of writing."


How's that for a non-committal answer?


Although I can do a much better job using my time wisely to write more (and more regularly), life is more than writing. Life is family and exercise and experiences and love. It's travel and walking the dog and falling asleep in front of the TV every once in a while. For that matter, I can do a much better job simply enjoying the moment at hand and ignoring the nagging voice in my head that says, "Dude, you should be writing instead."


It's balance. And in order for a balance to be reached and maintained, there has to be a lot of searching and making mistakes. Think of a tightrope walker at a moment of perfect balance. That snapshot looks effortless.


But the moments before and after are full of back-and-forth -- they are full of danger and intense concentration. Every muscle in the body (brain included) must be in perfect sync. Even when the walker is 'in the zone,' they're experiencing push and pull, yin and yang, euphoria and doubt.


Is it realistic to expect a person to be in that zone of balance all the time? Of course not. Finding a balance between work and play is a never-ending search no matter if your work is writing or building cars or maintaining data systems. It's the human condition, overhauled for a modern world that hyper-focuses on the go, go, go.


So, life is short, as Hemingway reminds us. If your balance feels off-kilter, go ahead and tweak it. Switch around your daily schedule so you have more time to write or, conversely, more time doing something else. You can also look ahead to the coming weeks or months for quieter periods where you know you'll have more or less time for either work or play, always remembering that they are equally important. Just keep in mind that the search for balance is, like all pursuits, more about the journey than the destination.