Write or Die: What Hemingway Taught Me About Life

When life isn’t fair and times get tough, I, more often than not, find my solace in Ernest Hemingway.

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I’ve spent much of my time defending my love for him, in writing workshops and in the back of darkly lit bars. People are always confused, wondering why I picked Hemingway over, well, anyone else.

“But there are other writers,” They say. And that’s true. There are days when I fold myself between the pages of Nabokov, Faulkner, Woolf, Palahniuk, and Plath. When the words of writers like JK Rowling, Margaret Atwood, and Joan Didion move me to tears or inspire me to be better than what I am. But, at the end of the day, it’s always Hemingway.

Arguments against him usually sound the same. Something like:

“But he hated women.”
“He was kind of an ass.”
“Nothing ever happens in his stories.”

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I am not going to say that I don’t agree that Hemingway was, in many ways, extremely problematic. He was violent and drunk and often violently drunk, he loved to fight and he wrote about it with zeal. He was many times ungrateful and mean. If he were in his 20s today, I have no doubt he’d be in a frat.

No good writer comes without an entire list of flaws. He was human, and though he may not have been the best one to ever live, he was always genuine. With his flaws came so much passion, so much fire. He was honest, even when it hurt. And that, my friends, is why I love him.

In a world and a city where honesty comes at a dime a dozen, I cling on to any thread of it that I can find. And the way Hemingway wrote was so unbelievably honest. The way he writes about love, fear, and loss forces his readers to look inside themselves and stare their own emotions in the face, whether they like it or not. He writes about happiness and despair as if they are real, tangible even. I once read an article written about him in the New York Times that said “Hemingway’s work demonstrates that the making of art is a matter of life and death, no less.” Hemingway’s choice to become a writer wasn’t anything less than severe. To him, it was either write or die. There was no in between.

hemingway drinking

I once dated someone in my teenage years who told me that writing was just a “hobby.” That it could never be a career. At that point, I had never even heard of Hemingway. I fought relentlessly against his idea, but he scared me. I was afraid that the one thing that kept me alive was never going to be able to actually sustain me. And because I was young, impressionable, and my heart hung so loosely on my sleeve, I almost believed him.

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Later that year, however, I was assigned to read The Sun Also Rises for my summer reading. I picked up the book at Barnes and Noble, unsure about it, unaware about how drastically it was about to change me. I could go on for pages about how it felt for me to read that book for the first time, but I won’t bore you with the details. Instead, I’ll quote something from the book that has stayed with me since the moment I read it. It was in the scene in the second chapter where Nick and Robert Cohn go to a bar. Robert turns to Nick and says, “’Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you’ve lived nearly half the time you have to live already?’”

Maybe that quote isn’t so profound compared to many of the other things Hemingway has written, but in that moment, it was the most amazing thing I’d ever read. I thought back to the moment my boyfriend told me writing was just a hobby and thought to myself, “To hell with you.” At 15, I realized that life was about living and I wasn’t going to let my life pass by without me living it. Hemingway confirmed for me what I think I have always known: that writing was what was going to forever make me feel alive.

Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn Make a Toast

There have been things that I’ve been through and heartbreaks that I’ve had to endure that have made me feel like I wasn’t going to survive them. There have been things that have hurt so badly and so often. Those were the times that I turned to Hemingway. He wrote about what it was like to be human in a time of despair. He wrote about pain like pain is meant to be written about, and demanded that pain not be hidden under the folds of pride and that it be felt. When I was faced with personal tragedy, he taught me that I was allowed to crumble just as long as I found a way to pick myself up again. When I was heartbroken over love, he taught me that love is not meant to be perfect or tied up pretty with a bow. He’s the man who taught me to intoxicate myself with existence (and whiskey) and to surround myself with the unusual. He taught me that life isn’t always beautiful, love isn’t always fair, and that allowing yourself to heal will only make you stronger in the broken places.

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Today is Hemingway’s 116th birthday, and, because of this day, I encourage anyone who has ever had doubts about him to give him one more chance. See his writing through my eyes, if only for today, and revel in his passion. Admire his honesty. Light a candle in your soul for all that he was and all that he could never be.

If you can’t do that, at least have a drink in his honor. It’s what he would have wanted.

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