An abandoned travelogue, a short story, a new appreciation for Hemingway?
When I was in college I came up with the idea for a book that I would call “Emasculating Hemingway”, in which I would travel the world and seek out the places and experiences Ernest Hemingway wrote about throughout all of his short stories and novels. Tying it all together would be the struggle for the average man, like myself, who had never been particularly big or strong or athletic, who had never felt “manly” to learn it firsthand from the epitome of manliness.
It was brilliant, I thought. I’d get to see the world, to read everything Hemingway had ever written, I’d write a book myself—one that tied together life, literature, travel and finding one’s purpose, one’s place. Brilliant.
But it never got much past what I thought was an eye-catching title and a few bullet points. Years later, working at Barnes & Noble, I joined a book group with some other booksellers. We read On the Road. I wasn’t impressed. I found it tiresome. It’s not my type of book. Sometime later I read the Sun Also Rises, and perhaps it was having read Jack Kerouac so soon before, but I hated it. I felt the same way about it as I had On the Road. It was the same story, thirty years before. Only there was no story. Nothing happened. There was no point. And I know, that is the point, but I just didn’t like it. I’m allowed to. Just because it’s a classic, doesn’t make it good, and it certainly doesn’t mean it will appeal to everyone. Hemingway is brilliant and I will always emulate his writing style (imitate poorly) and I will read a handful of his short stories a few times a year (Hills Like White Elephants, the End of Something among others), but I just did not like that book.
Then just the other night, a line popped into my head and having my computer nearby I wrote it down and then kept going with wherever the hell it was going to take me. I wrote a couple paragraphs, got stuck, and it being late, I fell asleep while trying to figure out where this story was going next. The next morning, I woke up and had no idea what I’d written about, but remember that I had been very excited at the time.
“The bulls were running, or so they had been told.”
Maybe not a particularly good opening line, but this is a work in progress. That’s the fourth or fifth take on that idea, and I’m sure it will change another dozen times as I work through what this story is really about.
The important thing is that I wrote it and with it came the café, and the others sitting around the table, the drinking, the girl… and it brought back the idea of feeling emasculated by the persona of manliness that Hemingway left us. I’m pretty certain at this point in my life that I will never write that travel book, but that doesn’t mean these characters aren’t writing their own version of it. They are at this café because they believe they should be, but they have no idea why or for what.
Ultimately, that was the idea behind Emasculating Hemingway, that we have to be the giant of man who drinks Scotch and smokes cigars, who builds things and goes fishing, who plays football on Thanksgiving while the women cook, because we’re men and that’s what we do!—but we don’t know why we have to be that kind of man, and we don’t know how to be, and more importantly, more terrifyingly important, is that it crushes us because we never will be that man. We’re emasculated and cut down by an idea that no one really lives up to.
That’s who these characters are, and perhaps who each one of us allows ourselves to become: men who cannot live up to an impossible ideal, and instead put on a show to pretend we have. This story is about how the false journey we set ourselves on in trying to live up to a dead man’s fictional standard—trying to live up to any man’s standards rather than our own—prevents us from living our lives honestly and leaves us missing out on the moments we deserve to experience for ourselves.
Maybe I’m writing that book after all, now as a short work of fiction instead. We’ll see. I’ll let you know how it turns out…