What I learned from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and why it scared me.

I remember the very first time I came face to face with how much creativity would be needed if I was going to be a writer. I was in a high school English class and we had finished reading The Old Man and the Sea. In one passage the fisherman comes back to his hut and collapses on his bunk, arms thrown out and feet crossed in an attitude of the crucifixion. We were talking about that passage in class and finally my brain started working and I realized my teacher, Mrs. Gohlke, was saying Hemingway did that on purpose. I even asked her that same question. I raised my hand and asked, “Did Heminway write that on purpose?”I remember the day I learned there was more to writing than telling a story....

Yes. Yes, he did.

I was flabbergasted. I had thought it was a happy literary coincidence.  But on purpose? He did that on purpose? I sat there at my desk, stunned. That meant Hemingway thought about his story while he was writing it. That meant he was doing something more than telling a story about a man who lost a big fish. He was using the story to elevate and reveal something deeper about the character and about fiction itself.

And here I was, seventeen years old, dreaming my stupid dreams to be a writer. I knew then there was a lot of work ahead and it intimidated me. Before this point I thought all I had to do was tell a good story. Oh, I don’t mean to say I believed then (or now) that every story must have a message. I don’t mean that at all. But for the first time I came face to face with what a writer must do if he wants to be successful. Here was something about writing I hadn’t considered. This made it concrete for me, I guess you could say.

I thought about that incident the whole day. I went around in sort of a daze. Much more than usual. Hemingway had done that on purpose. Writing was harder than I imagined. Maybe I didn’t have the skills to do this. I was scared. I wanted to be a writer. Now I faced what being a writer was about. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough. Maybe I would never be good enough.

Finally I got hold of myself a little bit. If I was going to be a writer, I was going to work harder and read more. I was going to have to be voracious. I didn’t know if I would be able to elevate my fiction using those tools or think of things like that. He was Hemingway…I was just a dumb kid in South Texas who dreamed of being a writer.

I have never forgotten that lesson. I think back on it often. On that day I realized writing was harder than I possibly imagined. I still feel that way. I believe the best writers are always learning, always adapting, always seeking.

Speaking for myself, I try to keep that in mind. I never want to think I can throw something out there and consider it good enough. I will never settle for good enough. Not when it comes to my writing.

I learned that lesson long ago in high school. I have never forgotten it and it has stood me in good stead.

2 Replies to “What I learned from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and why it scared me.”

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