Classes are done for the summer. My brain is fried from cranking out damn near forty pages of research over the course of the last week, and I’m in a nervous state of uncertainty of whether I will have a job or at least an unpaid internship by the end of the month. It’s days like this where you need to relax. Nobody ever wrote anything of note when they were anxious and uptight. Your ideas don’t flow like they should. I’m sitting in the courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery. On a muggy day like this I want to do nothing more than sit here and write. The courtyard is a beautiful and calming sanctuary, and a welcome escape from the fast-paced, cut-throat, stuffy landscape of the typical DC workday. The water from the floor fountains babbles like music, and the sunlight breaks through the glass ceiling marvelously. I’ve just wandered the gallery, and am now having an afternoon beer (Flying Dog Dead Rise) while I sit here letting my words bleed.
"There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit at your typewriter and bleed."
These are the words of my greatest literary sage, Ernest Hemingway. Two days ago was his 115th birthday and it made me think about how he still has an effect on young writers like myself. People either think two things when you tell them that you admire Papa Hemingway. You’re either the ultimate badass, an embodiment of manhood, courage, and cool, or they think you’re a misogynistic asshole who drinks too much, finds entertainment in the killing of large animals, and longs to return to a time when men could sit around at lunch sipping martinis, and casually make un-P.C.comments about Jews. I for one came to regard Papa for entirely different reasons.
My love for Hemingway started in Middle School when I was first assigned to read ‘The Old Man and The Sea.’ Around the same time the Milwaukee Museum was featuring a film on the novella as well as a feature on the life of Hemingway. My grandfather was a Hemingway fan himself and took me to see the film. I enjoyed it, but at my young age I didn’t understand certain parts of the story. Throughout High School I was assigned to read a number of Hemingway’s short stories, of course I was doing so much reading back then that I hardly had any down time between school, sports, and spending time with friends. Then during my senior year of college a history professor of mine asked me if I had ever read anything by Hemingway. Aside from the previously mentioned pieces I couldn’t say that I had. He recommended that I read The Sun Also Rises. He told me that the truly powerful nature of the book was how it has been able to cross generations in how people identified with it.
A lot in the world has changed since the 20s, but I was eager to give the book a read. In the Fall of 2010 I was living abroad, interning at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, Austria. I took Dr. Matson’s advice and brought three Hemingway novels along for the ride; A Farewell to Arms, For Whom The Bells Tolls, and The Sun Also Rises. I took the books with me wherever i went, both in the city and on my travels. I was struck. Each book spoke to me in a way that I couldn’t have imagined before. The more time I spent in Vienna the more I started to see connections between my time in the City of Dreams, and Papa’s time drunkenly carousing the streets of Paris with Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Pound, and Stein. I had my extravagant and indulgent band of ex-pats, thinkers and drinkers, writers, philosophers, diplomats, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and everyone else in between. We came from different places and all had different thoughts, but we were all trying to make sense of the times we lived in. Our gang of ex-pats were a wicked good company.
A lot had changed since the 20s, but certain components of human nature have stayed the same. We’re living in times that make us question our place in the world. A lot’s changing, and everything can seem a little fucked up. That didn’t stop any of us from enjoying ourselves, or from doing our best to be tough and resilient in our time. This was what connected one generation to the next.
The trip gave me motivation to be what Hemingway was, a man of his time. I don’t mean this in the sense of trying to copy his lifestyle or thoughts. I mean it in seeking to live with the same conviction and to be strong and courageous even as the world around you seems uncertain and dangerous. This is the case for the characters in Papa’s stories, whether they are male or female, and whether they are at war or just going on a lost weekend trip with friends. To me this is what makes Ernest Hemingway both a man and a writer that is worth my reverence. It is why I regard him as an influence on my writing. Reading and studying what he thought both good and bad gives me an idea of who he was as a man and of who I want to be.I write the characters for my stories in the same light.
Hemingway certainly had his negative aspects, but that’s just what made him human. If men were angels then there’d be no purpose in writing about us. We’d be fucking perfect all the time, and a story like that would be boring as shit. Some people may not live the cleanest of lives, but that doesn’t make them bad. It makes them human. That’s why I write, and that’s why I regard Ernest Hemingway as my greatest influence. He was a man of his time with great courage and conviction. That is what I seek to be both as a writer and a person. Happy Birthday Papa! May the sun always rise in your favor.
It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post. I’ve been too busy balancing my summer classes with finishing working on Gold On The Ceiling to think about much else. After two weeks back in Wisconsin, away from the insane social-climbing, agenda-driven clusterfuck that is DC I found myself far more relaxed, and more sure of my writing.
Last night I randomly decided to scribble down a little short story. It can be nice to get back to your roots. It gives you good ideas. Much of my time at home was spent chilling out on my boat, hitting up Summerfest, beachcombing, fishing, swimming, frolfing, shooting guns, and reading Hemingway short stories. After reading the classic Nick Adams story ‘Summer People’ I decided to write down a little short story (maybe a shamless Hemingway rip-off depending on how you look at it) that came to me spontaneously. I managed to scratch down 2,000 words last night after a couple pints of Sam Adams. This is the first short story I’ve published to this blog. It’s set on a lake in Southeastern Wisconsin in the late summer. Anyway here it is…
The Sandbar and the Divide
The lake was calm. Our kayaks cut through the placid green water at a smooth pace, and ripples from our paddles dispersed behind our boats in rigid little chops of wake. It was quiet time. Nobody else was out on the lake, and the motorboats had been silenced for the evening. My Dad and I were all alone on the water.
“There’s been a lotta bites by the sandbar,” he said to me.
“We should fish there,” I said, “If that’s our best chance to land a big catch.”
We paddled toward the sandbar, which was shaded by a lone willow tree. The water was rather murky, and stringy weeds had grown where there was once a bare bed of sand. I could see little schools of Bluegills swimming idly through the vines of the underwater forest. The Bluegills lazed about, then suddenly dart into deeper waters and then back again.
I hung my left foot over the edge of my kayak, and dipped it into the water. The water felt cool and relieving from the humid summer air. After taking my foot out I leaned my head over the side of the boat and splashed the green water on my face and shirt. I immediately felt alive and refreshed, and turned up the music on the small radio I had stowed in my backpack, and a Bob Dylan song came on. Dad pulled up beside me in his kayak, and handed me a Mason jar full of dirt. He smiled when he heard the Dylan song.
“Told you my music was better,” he laughed.
“It’s good, I’ll give you that,” I said, “I prefer it to the music that most my friends listen to.”
‘Then you’re all ready for college. If you come in liking Bob Dylan, you’ll be one step ahead of your friends.”
“Most of them like him too. Just not as much as me.”
I took out my pole and tried getting a clean grip on the hook. Once I got the metal hook held firmly between my index finger and thumb I reached into the jar. As I fiddled through the damp dirt, I felt the slime of the worms. I grabbed one firmly and cut a segment off it before removing it from the jar. As I baited the worm onto the hook dirt scattered from my fingers and left smudges on my clothes.
Dad had his line fixed, and cast it far out across the sandbar. The line stretched out across the divide between the shallows and the deep water. I was still baiting my hook.
“Enjoy this while you’ve got it,” Dad said, “You won’t get this kinda scene when you go off to school.”
“Chicago ain’t too far away,” I said.
“An hour at most.”
“I’ll still come back to visit.”
“Once you go to college you’ll never wanna leave. That’s what it was like for me.”
“How do you know I’ll stay?”
“At least stay for one year. It’s the best party you’ll ever go to. That’s what my older brother always told me.”
I fixed my reel, and cast my line toward the willow. It landed in the shallow water.
“I like the sound of that. They don’t have fishing though.”
“There is another thing they have at college.”
He reached into the cooler by his feet. He pulled out two bottles of beer, and threw one to my boat, telling me to catch. The bottle splashed into the water next to my boat.
“Figured you’d drink a lotta this when you’re at school,” Dad laughed.
I took the beer, a Leinenkugel’s wheat, from the water. It felt cold in my hand I twisted off the cap and had a little sip. The beer was cold and reviving. I laughed with my dad and kicked back on my kayak dipped my left foot back in the water.
“You might know what my friends and I have been doing,” I said lightly.
“Only now I don’t have to pretend to be mad at you. We all drank beer when we were teenagers. We just have to wait till later to openly admit it.”
“What’s so bad about beer?”
“Nothing. Just so long as it doesn’t interfere with school and sports. You go to college to learn.”
“I was a straight A student and I drank beer.”
“And when you get older, you learn that beer makes some sports more enjoyable.”
“Fishing can be exciting.”
“Only if you have enough beer. It’s gotta be good beer too.”
“Miller Lite is good beer.”
“When you’re your age, yes. Get a little older and you’ll think it’s shit. This beer is far better than the crap you and your friends have been drinking.”
“What’s wrong with Miller Lite?”
”Nothing. It’s just that once you get older you learn more. Your skills develop. Your tastes develop, and you know more about what’s best.”
“This is good beer.”
“I knew you’d say that. Now you’ll never drink Miller again.”
“I don’t know about that. Beer is beer.”
“One day you’ll learn.”
The boat was starting to drift. It moved toward the shore. There was a bite on my line. I pulled back reeling ecstatically. It felt like a big one. The bobber had sunk down. I kept on reeling. As it neared the boat a Bluegill had bitten down on the hook, which was trapped between its mouth and its eye. The bluegill flailed around as I tried to grab it. The sharp fins on its back pricked me, before I was able to get a hold of the fish’s smooth slimy skin. I wiggled the hook carefully trying not to pierce the eyeball. I was nervous of what I could do to the fish. It freaked me out a little bit, and I told Dad where I had hooked the Bluegill.
“Be as careful as you can,” he said, “But you got him pretty good there.”
“Will it be fine?”
“It’s getting cooked when we get back.”
I wiggled the hook carefully till it was out of the fish’s eye. I tried not to harm the fish, though I knew it would die anyway. I fixed up a new worm and cast my line again. The boat was still drifting into shallow water. Dad was fishing along the divide. He had cast out several times and ha caught nothing. I took a sip of beer and had another bite.
I reeled in another Bluegill. This one was about the same size as the last, and near identical in appearance. I yipped wildly and threw it in the boat. As I celebrated the catch my beer tipped over and spilled in the kayak. I tried saving it, but by the time I picked up the bottle nearly all the beer had spilled. I sat back down, pissed that I had spilled the beer, but happy with my catch.
The water in the sandbar was alive with Bluegills. There was an entire school teaming through the weeds. In less than five minutes I had caught three more of them. I didn’t even stop my boat from drifting. In the shallow water I could catch more fish. I didn’t even need to cast out. I could see the schools of Bluegills lazing about indolently through the green water. I dipped my line in front of the fish and hooked one damn near every time. Before I knew it my boat was stocked with over a dozen Bluegills. None of them were as large as my first catch.
Dad still hadn’t caught a thing. His kayak drifted along the divide. You couldn’t see the bottom out there, deeper down the water turned from a muted green to a murky, muddy brown.
“My beer spilled,” I said, “Throw me another one.”
“I think we’re all out. There’s more up at the house.”
“I could go and get some. My boat’s almost full.”
“Wait and we’ll drink one with dinner. Fish goes well with a sweet glass of wheat beer. That’s another thing you’ll learn when you get older.”
“Will it go well with Bluegill?”
“Beer goes with everything, as long as you have the right kind. Beer is good for far more than just a night of screwing around with your friends.”
He cast his line out across the divide. The bobber floated on the surface for almost a minute. Then it went under. There was a bite. Dad’s pole bent dramatically, and he leaned back in his seat, and fought fiercely to reel in his catch. Based on how taught the line became and how deep it dove I could tell that this was a big fish. Dad continued to fight with the fish on the line. The harder the fish tugged, the tougher it was for him to reel the fish in. He summoned all the strength into his arms and chest and tugged assertively. The fish emerged from the depths. He had hooked a Large-mouth Bass, over a foot long, and with green scales that appeared like camouflage in the water. Dad had won the fight with the fish. He cheered heartily as he lifted the fish over the side of his kayak. I looked on in amazement, and then I looked down at my collection of Bluegills.
“We’ve got our main course,” he said.
“What should we do with the Bluegills?” I asked.
“We can pan fry all of them. Not nearly as much meat on them though.”
“Either way they’ll all go well with beer.”
I pulled my kayak up next to my Dad’s. We examined the fish together, and I ran the palm of my hand against its slippery scales.
“You won’t catch nothing like this in the shallows,” Dad said.
“I do have large catch. I have over a dozen.”
“But there is hardly any meat on Bluegills.”
“How would I land a fish like that?”
I pointed to the massive bass, which was gasping for life, about to die.
“The Bluegills stay in shallow water, because they know it is the best place to avoid being eaten by bigger fish. Not like that matters. The bass swim along the divide in deeper waters. At nighttime they move into the shallows to feast upon the Bluegills. That’s why it’s best to fish the divide. You may not get as many bites as you would in the sandbar, and you may seem quite frustrated at times, but when you do get a bite, your catch will be greater than if you never left the shallow water, where you can see everything below the surface.”
I looked down at my catch. The Bluegills seemed tiny in comparison. I didn’t know how much meat I’d beat able to scrape off of them. The bass could feed the entire family. Dad held the bass up and put it in the cooler. After he rested it on the ice, he took one more bottle of Leinenkugel’s wheat from the cooler.
“I forgot. We have one more beer,” he said, “Do you want it?”
“Sure,” I said.
He handed me the beer. I opened it and took a big gulp. It tasted sweet and fresh, and for a moment I felt better. I now knew where the best spot to fish on the lake was. We lazed about for about ten minutes. The sun was glowing blood red in the humid summer sky. I finished the beer, and we started paddling toward the opposite shore.