ADVICE FROM THE ARCHIVES
AN AFTERNOON WITH HEMINGWAY
by Edward Stafford
Havana was still free that summer—and hot, as it will always be. They still served you frozen daiquiris during the wait for customs at the airport. Castro was a remote shadow in the eastern mountains, and Ernest Hemingway was still alive and working.
Naturally I was interested in talking about Hemingway and his work. He was not.
My wife needled him. "Is it true," she asked, "that you take a pitcher of martinis up into the tower every morning when you go up to write?"
"Jeezus Christ!" Papa was incredulous. "Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes—and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he’s had his first one. Besides," he added, "who in hell would mix more than one martini at a time, anyway?"
"What about hours," I asked. "How long can you actually be productive on a daily basis? How do you know when to stop?"
"That’s something you have to learn about yourself. The important thing is to work every day. I work from about seven until about noon. Then I go fishing or swimming, or whatever I want. The best way is always to stop when you are going good. If you do that you’ll never be stuck. And don’t think or worry about it until you start to write again the next day. That way your subconscious will be working on it all the time, but if you worry about it, your brain will get tired before you start again. But work every day. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail."
This was the kind of thing I had come to Havana to hear.
"When you write," he said, "your object is to convey every sensation, sight, feeling, emotion, to the reader when you walk into a room and you get a certain feeling or emotion, remember back until you see exactly what it was that gave you the emotion. Remember what the noises and smells were and what was said. Then write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling you had.
"And watch people, observe, try to put yourself in somebody else’s head. If two men argue, don’t just think who is right and who is wrong. Think what both their sides are. As a man, you know who is right and who is wrong; you have to judge. As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand."
When it came time to leave, it was still hot and humid, with no breeze. The sweat glistened on all our faces and emphasized the old bullet groove on the left side of Papa’s forehead.
We exchanged cards and notes … but I did not see Papa again. Yet, like many others, whatever I write, if it is well and truly written, will be partly his.