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…
This was an accidental story. Well, I supposed they all are when it comes down to it. A stray thought unconnected to the events around you, an overheard snippet of someone’s conversation, a glimpse of graffiti passed in the car—
Or, while in a towel ironing my shirt, the sudden image of a distraught man sitting along at the bar.
“It stung. He pretended not to notice, but knew anyone could see his grimace/cringe. He didn’t want it.”
I had to grab the first piece of paper I could find; an envelope, and get that one short paragraph that followed down in writing, into the real world, and out of my head before the memory of the words was twisted out of its original shape and lost. That’s the danger here—it’s the dance with the devil every writer attempts, to repeat the piece of perfection (or so we believe it to be) again and again in our mind because we believe we’ll remember it forever and be able to write down later. We won’t. We never do.
So, standing in a damp towel, the iron forgotten about in the other room, I wrote against the ticking clock of my flawed short-term memory. And I found myself at the start of a story I’d never intended to tell, one I didn’t think there’d be a reason to tell; of what drives a man to take his own life, of what events come together to crush someone who was always relied on, always envied as being the strong one, the successful one, the one who got all right? What does it take for him to realize that man doesn’t exist? Not in fictional stories or the real world.
But not everyone realizes that. Some believe he does exist. Some believe they are that man. Only the idea of that man has ever existed, and it’s when he realizes that, that he finds himself more alone then he had ever imagined possible, ordering a drink he doesn’t want, to forget the events and the people that brought him there, trying to find some comfort at the end of his world.