This is a process that we might call “getting to zero,” when an artist — or anyone, really — digs through all the sap that gets encrusted around a career or relationship and retouches the intrinsic impulse that got him or her into it in the first place. Hemingway’s career got overlayered by money, persona and fame, but sometimes even at this late stage he was able to reconnect with the young man’s directness that produced his early best work.” David Brooks
My wonderful sister Stephanie often sends me inspiring stories: She once sent me a New York Times feature by David Brooks called “Getting to Zero.” It’s an intriguing look at how Hemingway, plagued by health and emotional problems in the last phase of his career, still managed to create exciting and beloved novels, including For Whom the Bell Tolls (my personal favorite) and Old Man and the Sea. After years of ruinous success, how did Hemingway rediscover his writing groove?
As Brooks sees it, three things enabled Ernest to reconnect with his artistic creativity:
“The daily disciplines of the job” — Hemingway had always prided himself on being a disciplined writer. Wherever he was and whatever else he was doing, he usually put in solid hours writing in the morning and kept track of his output. As Brooks put it, “Sometimes it seems to have been the structure of concrete behavior — the professional routines — that served as a lifeline when all else was crumbling.”
“Moments of self-forgetting” — Despite all his problems late in the writing game, Hemingway still managed to get out of his own way and let the work he needed to do emerge. He was able to transcend his daily difficulties and as Brooks observed,”just try to serve the work — focusing on each concrete task and doing it the way it’s supposed to be done.” While “in the zone,” Hemingway was able to tap into his hidden reserves of creative energy and strike golden veins of prose.
Reclaiming his authenticity — In spite of all his self-indulgence late in life and all the distractions he consoled himself with to escape his own betrayal of his gifts, Hemingway could still push through his problems and self-pity. He still had the inner resources to listen for and summon up what Brooks calls “good, true notes.”
“Hemingway was a man who embraced every self-indulgence that can afflict a successful person. But at moments he shed all that he had earned and received, and rediscovered the hard-working, clear-seeing and unadorned man he used to be.”
Daily discipline, moments of self-forgetting, and tapping into our true voice: these are essentials of the writing life — and they’re all within our grasp. Write on!