In April, while in Havana, New York Times columnist David Brooks visited Ernest Hemingway’s house. Brooks filed a column that focused on Hemingway’s later years, which he characterized as a sad and prolonged decline.
And yet despite his flaws Hemingway still managed to produce some of the same magic prose that made him a world-famous novelist.
When you see how he did it, three things leap out. The first is the most mundane — the daily disciplines of the job. In the house, there is a small bed where he laid out his notes and a narrow shelf where he stood, stared at a blank wall and churned out his daily word count. Sometimes it seems to have been the structure of concrete behavior — the professional routines — that served as a lifeline when all else was crumbling.
Second, there seem to have been moments of self-forgetting. Dorothy Sayers has an essay in which she notes it’s fashionable to say you do your work to serve the community. But if you do any line of work for the community, she argues, you’ll end up falsifying your work, because you’ll be angling it for applause. You’ll feel people owe you something for your work. But if you just try to serve the work — focusing on each concrete task and doing it the way it’s supposed to be done — then you’ll end up, obliquely, serving the community more. Sometimes the only way to be good at a job is to lose the self-consciousness embedded in the question, “How’m I doing?”
Finally, there was the act of cutting out. When Hemingway was successful, he cut out his mannerisms and self-pity.