Friday, October 9, 2009

Hemingway knew what he was talking about

It's not quite as exciting as elimination night on Dancing With the Stars, but another contest announced its winners recently: the Nobel Prize. On Thursday, a German writer named Herta Muller won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The New York Times wrote that Muller's work explores "exile and the grim quotidian realities of life under the dictator Nicolae Ceasescu," and that will certainly have the masses running to their local bookstore. Quotidian realities? Move over, Dan Brown.

A few weeks ago I watched a documentary on Ernest Hemingway, who won the same prize in 1954. He won the award, in large part, because of his book The Old Man and the Sea, which many people remember from their high school days, when their English teacher almost certainly assigned it over the grumbles of bored students, who were probably still recovering from Romeo and Juliet or Great Expectations.

At the end of the film, Hemingway's recorded voice came on, delivering the speech he gave in accepting the prestigious award. He actually didn't give the speech at the event. Illness prevented him from attending, so U.S. Ambassador John C. Cabot read Hemingway's words. Later, though, Hemingway did record what he wrote. It's brief, just over two minutes long. But in it he delivers some of the best explanations of the writing life that I've ever heard. And it makes sense that one of the best to ever write is also one of the best at vocalizing the challenges and triumphs that writers experience, even if he does conclude it by saying "A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it."

Here's the speech, delivered by the man himself:

And here's the complete text of his speech, which is as tightly composed as most of his sentences.

As a nonfiction writer, I can't identify completely with some of his statements, as I do think fiction writers have the more difficult challenge and I'm sure most of his words were directed at them. And any fiction writers out there should print out a copy of his speech sometime and place it above their computer. When the blank screen stares back at them, it could provide some inspiration.

"Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer's loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day. ...He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then, sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed. ...How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way that has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him."

The Old Man and the Sea was Hemingway's final published work in his life. He committed suicide in 1961. For a long time I didn't know much about Hemingway, or his work. I was one of those students who initially grumbled about reading him in school, though I did enjoy the book. Over the years I've read most of his books, liked a lot of them, disliked a few. And I read a lot about his later life, when he fought mental illness, a battle he ultimately lost.

I know a lot about Hemingway's life, and probably too much about his death. I know a lot about his work. But I hadn't read my favorite words of his until I read those lines above.

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