Not a word of the war in it

Hemingway writes:

I knew I must write a novel.  But it seemed an impossible thing to do when I had been trying with great difficulty to write paragraphs that would be the distillation of what made a novel.  It was necessary to write longer stories now as you would train for a longer race.  When I had written a novel before, the one that had been lost in the bag stolen at the Gare de Lyon, I still had the lyric facility of boyhood that was as perishable and as deceptive as youth was. I knew it was probably a good thing that it was lost, but I knew too that I must write a novel.  I would put it off though until I could not help doing it.  I was damned if I would write one because it was what I should do if we were to eat regularly. When I had to write it, then it would be the only thing to do and there would be no choice.  In the meantime, I would write a long story about whatever I knew best.


What did I know best that I had not written about and lost? What did I know about truly and care for the most? There was no choice at all. There was only the streets to take you back fastest to where you worked.  I went up Bonaparte to Guynemer, then to the rue d’Assas, up the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs to the Closerie des Lilas.

I sat in a corner with the afternoon light coming in over my shoulder and wrote in the notebook. The waiter brought me a cafe creme and I drank half of it when it cooled and left it on the table while I wrote. When I stopped writing, I did not want to leave the river where I could see trout in the pool, its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log driven piles of the bridge.  The story was about coming back from the war, but there was no mention of the war in it.   (A Moveable Feast, pp 75-76)

No mention of the war in it.  I just love that, so much.   

Write what you know, they tell us.  At one time, I thought, "All I know about is baloney sandwiches with mustard and the suburbs.  Who even cares about that?"   Of course, I knew lots more than that–I knew about life in a military town during a war and about tourists and the way the light breaks in the mountains.  I just had to find out what I knew.

I know about women and their lives.  I know about the west.  I know about good marriages and bad marriages and mothers and daughters and mothers and sons.   I know we’re all desperately flawed and want to be loved anyway.  I know that we’re lonely and want someone, one person–a beloved other, be that friend or lover or dog or God–to see and accept us as we are.   I know we all want to have faith in something, a child or positive thinking or a dream. 

So those are the things I write about.  Not always as gracefully as I’d like, but one does keep trying.   

What do you know about? 

4 thoughts on “Not a word of the war in it

  1. I know music and art and love and wanting to be loved. I know Cuban families and and food and south Florida and what it’s like to feel like a fish out of water, whether it’s in your own family or in a state far away from where you grew up. I know that no matter what you say when you’re young and foolish, that children change everything and you’ll do things you swore you’d never do because of them. Same goes for love– it changes everything and you’ll do things you swore you’d never do because of it.

    And I try to write about all of that, with varying degrees of success. 🙂

  2. Yvonne Erwin

    Isn’t that fabulous, Barb? I noticed that too. Hemingway is one of my favorites – I have a bag full of those, as you know…I also like his determination to write a novel, not because he may be starving but because that’s what he is to do. Period.

    What do I know about? I know about being a square peg in a round hole, about longing and wishing and wanting more, about wanting to be loved and accepted and never quite feeling that it’s so, about having questions that were never answered, about feeling betrayed by those who should have been closest to me…I know about how life can twist on you and so you have to adapt and find a new path, about being stripped down to nothing and building something up from ashes, how to find joy in sunrises and full-blown peony bushes and streams and smiles from children in the grocery store…I know the pain and anger in the clients I’ve dealt with over the years as their marriage ends and they face an unexpected future. I know dealing with elderly parents, a sister who’s unstable, a brother who’s above it all. I know about the great joy and the heartache of having a “special needs” child and all of the years working with him. My oldest son has his own problems but I trust he’ll pull through. I know a few things about human nature. Hmmm…there is a wealth of material here, is this an epiphany? hee hee…Life is never certain but it’s always interesting, wouldn’t you say?

    Oh, by the way, Happy Mother’s Day!

  3. I think it was Eudora Welty who said that any writer who had survived childhood had enough material for the rest of her life. I’d say you have plenty there, Yvonne.

  4. What a wonderful question! I know Los Angeles. I know the kind of bond a single mother and her daughter can have when everything is just right. I know what it is to be caught between generations and cultures but have other people assume you have colorful and comfortable identity as “the other” that you know little about. I know the terror of being the only one to leave a sprawling family clan and the realization that you might never go back. And I know how to make a lot of cheater’s Mexican food with canned goods and a microwave 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *