Last evening I watched a new movie presented by HBO called Hemingway and Gellhorn. It offered a fascinating but sadly cliched view into the life of two of the 20th century's greatest writers. Both were portrayed as hard drinking, whiskey bottle by the side of their typewriter, bombs blasting in their bedroom, always traveling to exotic locales, wild sex with every sentence individuals. Like their novels, much of this is made up. But then, in some ways Hemingway and Gellhorn lived up to this over romanticized image.
Giving credit where credit is due, the literary couple were more than what was presented on the silver screen (or LCD TV in this case).
In reality they both struggled over their writing, and painstakingly wrote their articles, stories and novels, often wrestling with every word. Hemingway would produce on average no more than 250 new words a day and in the prime of his life, took three straight years off from writing altogether. That's how hard it was for him.
Martha would write alone, sometimes for three or four solid hours a day. Then she would toss it all out and start over the next morning. Like her lover, she possessed a very fine built-in shit detector and in this, she was her own worst critic.
Truth is, they never drank booze while they wrote. They didn't get hammered the night before and wake up fresh and write like the words were simply bleeding out them. This is the stuff of Hollywood. This is romance. This is pure bullshit.
The truth about Hemingway and Gellhorn:
Their writing came first.
It came before love.
It came before war.
It came before partnership.
It came before car payments and mortgages.
It came before children.
It came before health and sickness.
It came before leaky roofs and broken refrigerators.
It came before school PTA meetings and dinner with the neighbors.
It came before birthdays, anniversaries, funerals and graduations.
It came before Christmas.
It came before fun.
It came before happiness and sadness.
It came before God.
This is why fifty years after Hemingway's death and fourteen years after Gellhorn's (both of them by suicide), Hollywood is making movies about the couple. Because they were the best at what they did. And to be the best, you must make tremendous sacrifices.
Being a writer is not about being available to the world. It's about locking yourself away, at a great distance if need be, in order to work. Work alone, with yourself, without interruption. It's selfish and it is painstakingly hard work. In Hemingway's words, it is like "biting the nail."
Do you have what it takes to be a great writer?