The sun also sets

Ernest Hemingway & Pals

I saw this picture recently and started wondering, as I always do when I see pictures like this: who has/had it better?

Here’s Earnest Hemingway and friends, sitting in a cafe in Pamplona, Spain, where the bulls run. This was around the time he was writing The Sun Also Rises.

This is every modern fiction writer’s dream, the fantasy of everyone you see pounding away on a MacBook in a coffee shop. Hemingway and his pals hung out in Europe, particularly France and Spain, soaked in the times, lived adventure, and then he wrote about it. Fitzgerald did the same thing. This lifestyle has been greatly romanticized in modern times. If you’ve seen Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, you know what I’m talking about.

And looking at them, I’m struck by how these people changed history, made a mark, an impression on people, and they didn’t have Twitter. They didn’t even have to worry about such a thing. They spent their days writing.

That’s good for us. All those artistic legends and more—Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Josephine Baker, Cole Porter—converged on Paris at the same time. They produced. If Ernest or Scott or Pablo had spent their time posting to Facebook or setting up websites for their work, organizing book parties or deciding on a proprietary font for their names, think of all the time they would not have spent writing. Or thinking about what they wrote about. Or just experiencing life that they then converted to fiction. (As it was, Fitzgerald only had Zelda to blame for his interrupted productivity.)

So much of the fiction I see today seems like it’s based on television. Or movies. Or the Internet world—what the writer knows about people through the narrow sampling of blogs, Google and text messages. Our worlds, despite the massive access to information we have (or maybe because of it), are getting smaller. I recently wrote about an artist I admire tremendously who prefers to shut herself away in solitude. This may be why her work is so profound. Depth isn’t a hallmark of much of today’s fiction. I know some people will automatically say that’s only because we’re only remembering the good stuff, that Gatsby didn’t sell well initially either. All true, but I still think, fifty years from now, despite the fact that there are more writers than ever publishing more works than ever to an oversaturated market, I don’t think we will come away with as many masterpieces.

And I don’t think artists are, in the long run, doing themselves a favor by being their own publicity machines. Maybe Warhol could do it. But everyone is not a Warhol and thank goodness for that, because one was enough, despite what modern prices for his work may be. I think he was brilliant at capturing and marketing the zeitgeist, but penetrating it? Getting beneath it and shedding real light on it? I don’t think so. I can hear the hate mail coming already, though.

Interestingly and coincidentally, as I was writing this I came across an article in the New York Times, The Rise of the New Groupthink. It concludes that despite the vogue of “brainstorming sessions” among businesses, solitary thinking actually produces better results. This finding doesn’t surprise some of us who are unimpressed with trendiness. I have never sat in a brainstorming session that yielded anything noteworthy, and groupthink actually has a dangerous tendency to homogenize thinking—the opposite of what’s intended. I used to work in advertising, and such sessions are de rigueur in that industry. I would sit patiently, silently counting the minutes, and then return to my office and come up with real ideas. My boss probably thought the sessions were doing wonders for me. My boss understood nothing about creativity, as most business and even academic-types don’t.

When I look at this photo of Hemingway and his friends, I understand something my advertising boss and others I have had to deal with over the years do not: creative thinking happens when you’re sitting in a cafe, when you’re walking along a trail, when you’re taking a shower or even something else in the same room (messy if you keep a pen and pad with you, I know). Creativity can’t be booked between ten and eleven-thirty on Tuesday in Conference Room 2-B. The artists who sat along the Left Bank in Paris were spending their time much more efficiently, despite modern day wisdom. They were working, or gathering material for their work. Would Hemingway be making better use of his time having drinks here or removing himself from the world to tweet, or post on FB, or work on his website, announcing a new deal on his last book or trying to create “buzz” for his next? All his posts and video uploads wouldn’t be worth one short story. I wonder how any masterpieces are lost today because of these distractions and obligations.

Don’t get me wrong. Some people can do this sort of social media. And some people hire others to do it for them, which I think is probably the best idea. I am reminded of reading once how the wife of Charles Schulz was annoyed that the cartoonist was not very good with his hands, and more useful around the house. I felt to the contrary she should have insisted he spend every moment he possibly could with Snoopy, Charlie Brown and the rest. Only one man could draw Peanuts. Plumbers are a dime a dozen.

Heningways and Picassos aren’t. I’d feel sorry for those gentlemen today, having to organize events on Facebook and deal with answering tweets and maintaining their social profile on the web, instead of doing what they do best. We think all our gadgets and multitasking make us more efficient, more productive. Sometimes we forget about that hazy thing called quality. Often it’s a singular, solitary endeavor. There was a reason Thoreau escaped to the woods, and Melville was a loner. I look at this picture above and I imagine the thrill of coming across Hemingway at a cafe and sitting down next to him to see what he was doing, what he was thinking. I would be very disappointed to find him fiddling with his Twitter account.

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  1. I also found at seventeen that I couldn’t read A Farewell to Arms, and to this day I’m not sure why I disliked it so much. You may have influenced me to pick it up again!I’m not sure if it’s just because I’m currently writing a thesis on short stories, but I find them a wonderful way of ‘getting into’ a new-to-you author. Sometimes I find the more experimental shorter works more interesting and enjoyable to read that the longer novels that can be, by their very nature, more conservative in form. So maybe short stories would also be the way into Hemingway for me, too.

    February 8, 2012 at 11:18 am

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