Almost exactly ten years ago, I was at a loss. I had finished university without planning to, and despite a ton of enthusiasm and a sort of puppyish optimism I wasn't making a lot of traction in the real world, looking for work or an exciting path to set out on. Living at home and watching my parents' growing concern and entirely rational disappointment as the months passed was an additional weight my morale had to carry.
When I started blogging it was all boast and bombast, a diary about the highlights of a rather dull life, written to an imaginary interested reader, whom it was important to impress. It was full of girlfriend visits, interviews (Naming the companies! Ah, the young Internet), bragging about the writing I was doing, and the prospects for that writing I might have inflated ever so slightly...it was a huge boost to how I felt about myself. A blog post was an achievement, and a feel-good event to think people out there knew about me. It reads pretty flatly in retrospect but it was charged with a lot of hope and excitement at the time.
I read a lot back then. I think I hit most of the young male touchstone authors - Hemingway, Fitzgerald... as inspirations for both writing and life. I knew that the way to succeed at writing was to slog away at it, trying all the time, and to know through all that work that there are no guarantees of success. It's a process of growth for its own sake. I worked pretty hard in that time.
I started believing the tone of Hemingway's work, giving him great trust and a level of authority I don't think I've ever given a writer before. It was partly his success, partly his declaration of taking honor in hard work, partly the way he was so assured in everything he wrote. Even the way in which he describes himself peeling an orange is written as if there was only one proper way to do so and this was it...
Even if I internally mocked anyone who asked to be referred to as 'Papa', I respected this man and his work, and his ever-present certainty and clarity of thought was very stabilizing.
There was a BBC TV travel show, presented by Michael Palin, with the theme of the different locations throughout Hemingway's life. I didn't catch much of the show, but I received the book as a gift one Christmas (I love Michael Palin's travel shows). Inside the cover there was a two-page picture of a stunningly orange sunset, against which a tiny seaplane was silhouetted. The photograph was by the brilliant BBC photographer, Basil Pao. A quote from John Donne, from whose 17th century poetry Hemingway drew the title 'For Whom The Bell Tolls', was written against the Florida sky.
To live in one land is captivitie
Wow, I thought. That's beautiful. Look at that. Such spirit of adventure, such beauty. I believe this. I want to see the world and do great things.
Time has cooled me off on writing and Hemingway, although the lessons of hard work and application to anything you wish to succeed in remain, even if they are hard to live up to, they are a solid, tested and proven, if aspirational. I haven't cooled off on wanting to see the world and do great things.
I find it hard to write these days, because I am so used to being certain of things I write about professionally. Once you have a handle on an engineering issue, there is very little other than clarity of message to concern yourself with. When I read online journalism or opinion pieces, or I have an issue I'm concerned with at any time (and OH BOY ROMNEY), I have emotional and structured mental responses that I could blog about, but don't, because I lack the certainty I now need to do so.
Apparently there are a lot of things I need.
I need to be able to address things fairly. I need to be able to cover all the sides of the argument (and to do that with anything takes a lot of time and word count). I need to be confident that I'm in possession of all the facts (and who is, ever?).
In recent years I've written for fun and for a writing group, from which I've now bowed out. The best part of that was having a funny idea, getting it across well and enjoying a room of laughter. That was almost how I imagined blogging, back in the day, only I could hear it, rather than read responses in comments...it was great. I'm moving on in the world in different directions and I love to write but it isn't what I do.
I was standing in Hemingway's house in Key West, Florida, a few weeks ago now. The house is a nice big building in lush grounds, with big windows to catch breezes blocked by the trees no doubt allowed to grow in to block the view of the house from the street and encourage paying visitors. The house is not as it was...many of the wall hangings are either fan-boy like paintings of Hemingway or his boat, or portrait photos from his life.
I was standing in a dining room on the ground floor with roman-style leather slung studded chairs, looking at a wall. On the wall were five photographs. Ernest Hemingway in late middle age in the center, trademark beard evident. Around him were the photographs of his four wives, all at roughly the ages they were married to him. I thought about all the mentions of his personal life in his writing, and how condescending or outright nasty he was to women and in his portrayals of women.
And I thought, 'what an absolute asshole.'
And I went off to try and pet one of the polydactyl cats in the grounds.
On the way home from Key West we took a short hop flight to Fort Launderdale. It was a small plane leaving at sunset, and looking out from the little porthole window of that plane, I was instantly reminded of that powerful image from the Michael Palin book:
...as well as the line of poetry from the 17th century from the writer who had so inspired Hemingway. When I was uploading the picture to flickr I thought I might call the photograph the same thing - 'To Live In One Land Is Captivitie'.
It was a quiet lunchtime sort of moment and I thought I might look up the poem. It is from Donne's 'Elegie III' and, being from 1633 it took me a little while to get the gist of the poem's theme...
Women, are like the Arts, forc'd unto none,
Open to'all ſearchers, unpriz'd, if unknowne.If I have caught a bird, and let him flie,Another fouler uſing theſe meanes, as I,May catch the ſame bird; and, as theſe things bee,Women are made for men, not him, nor mee.
Hang on, wait...what?
Donne was a priest by the way. It's basically a treatise on how monogamy sort of sucks.Though Danuby into the ſea muſt flow,The ſea receives the Rhene, Volga, and Po.By nature, which gave it, this libertyThou lov'ſt, but Oh! canſt thou love it and mee?
...rather let meeAllow her change, then change as oft as shee,And ſoe not teach, but force my'opinionTo love not any one, nor every one.To live in one land, is captivitie,To runne all countries, a wild roguery;Waters ſtincke ſoone, if in one place they bide,And in the vaſt ſea are more putrifi'd:But when they kiſſe one banke, and leaving thisNever looke backe, but the next banke doe kiſſe,Then are they pureſt; Change'is the nurſeryOf muſicke, joy, life, and eternity.
While I am in awe of the water analogy - stagnant, salt and river - for the free love lifestyle here advocated (rock on, 1633), THIS is what I'm talking about.
I held that powerful image - flight, beauty, travel, wonderlust and wanderlust same - in my heart for years. The fact that some BBC editor may have been wittier in placing that quote in a Hemingway book than I was expecting...I had no idea. It doesn't diminish what I took from that image and quote, but it gives it a different context.
This is why I think certainty is so hard to come by. This is why understanding is so important. This is why I'm stultified into silence on matters like the corkscrew-like approach to truth in politics, insane approaches to environmental change, science and human rights. Despite the fact that it is very clearly not holding anyone else back, I don't know enough to feel happy raising my voice.
This is a pretty long 'sorry I haven't been blogging' but there you go. It wasn't for a simple reason.