Fame, Spotlight, Writing

Hemingway’s Long Game

He thought about alone in Constantinople that time, having quarrelled in Paris before he had gone out. He had whored the whole time and then, when it was over, and he had failed to kill his loneliness, but only made it worse, he had written her, the first one, the one who left him, a letter telling her how he had never been able to kill it…

—Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro

What would it take to write that story?

The main character is an American writer who lives in Paris with his lover. They drink heavily and travel on sporting trips in exotic places. An interesting character.

Except the author, too, is an American writer who lives in Paris with his lover, drinking heavily and going sporting.

And he writes about his, er, the character’s trip to go whoring after a fight with her, and writing to the ex he still loves, before coming home and saying nothing of it.

Saying nothing, but writing it, and didn’t his lover ever read it?

And did it break her heart to know?


There are always times when the truth can hurt. More than once, when I’ve mentioned someone on this blog—and thought I was only reporting, matter-of-fact, what was said or done—they told me they didn’t like how they were “portrayed.”

Does a future girlfriend want to read about my past love? Did my mom want to read that I contemplate my death?

There is a collision of worlds that happens here, and in any responsible blog.

When it hurts it’s the author’s fault.

The Long Game

I play for the long game. I’d rather write something great than keep everyone happy.

In all his writing, Hemingway chose to be canny and blunt. He lays out the people around him exactly as he sees them: their faults as well as their virtues, but mostly their faults. His stories are thinly masked extractions from his own life. The characters represent the individuals or types he knew, and his opinions are clear.

It led to a rough life for Hemingway. The drinking, the war, and everything else helped too—but his series of shattered relationships certainly weren’t made easier by publishing exactly what he thought of them.


Those relationships are done now. The people who were hurt, all dead. Hemingway lived his personal tragedy and his time in the starring role is done.

Long after those feelings are buried, his books remain and his name stays great. He had such a sharp eye for human psychology, and said things so clearly and honestly, that it speaks to us. His stories shake you to the core because you know the people in them. You know them, and you find yourself, too.

He speaks with an honesty most writers are afraid of.

How should a blogger talk about their friends, family, and the people they meet? What do you think? Is writing something truthful and powerful worth it, if it hurts people’s feelings?

How much of your potential do you censor for others?


34 thoughts on “Hemingway’s Long Game

  1. I guess one could only make that decision based upon the convictions of their own conscience and heart.

    Names such as Hemingway, Poe, and Joyce are names that are well known even to this day because of what they wrote and how they wrote it. Their words still vibrate with meaning for many that read those words to this day. I imagine they will for many years to come.

    As for myself? I enjoy writing but I do not keep a physical journal (or digital for that matter). While I enjoy truth and honesty and value it in others, I cannot say that I could put everything I thought and felt in my blog or even a book. In most of my friend, social, or professional groups I am known as a quiet person. Unless I have something of value to say, I often do not speak. I of coarse have my times of exception. Yet there are things I reserve only for myself, or don’t say because of what reaction it would cause in the people who hear it. Not that I am afraid to have people here what I think and have them disagree with me or even to find that I am wrong. Those things I do not have issues with.

    My immediate thought in reading post is that the difference is in the goals of myself and those who would write such truths. The difference being is that one of the focuses in my life is the people around me. When I am old I want to be able to look around me and still see those people who I value coming around. To have gatherings and celebrations. Birthdays for grand kids and much more. What I value is to live life to my fullest and look back upon it, the people around me and find fulfillment.

    To someone like Hemingway and many other author’s, their goal in life was to write something amazing. I’m not saying this as fact, but rather as I see it. To write, to put things down on paper and to have others read it, exclaim about it, share it with everyone they meet.

    This of coarse is not a judgement upon anyone’s life goals. I am very much an avid reader and love the writings of many a writer. Nor is it the only possible reason why Hemingway wrote the way he did. It is just what comes to mind.

    The other part to the comparison between your blog and to the writings of Hemingway is the difference between then and now. Hemingway’s writings would have taken months, years to reach readers. For family, friends, ex-lovers, who lived in other states or countries it would have taken, months if not years before his writings made their way to their knowledge. Let alone if it ever did.

    In the here and now what is written is readily available to readers the world over. Now, not later. Tied to our other social media venues, they see it and are more apt to read it than to pick up a hundred page book and read through it.

    So when putting pen to paper, Hemingway probably had little thought to who would be reading what he wrote. He would have been thinking about what he was writing and how to write it. Whereas in today’s world, we type it into a keyboard and hit enter.

    So to finish off a long, long comment. . . keep on writing what your are writing. I enjoy reading it myself and it is definitely “food for thought” for me.

    • Astute observations here. There is a time delay, which certainly does make a difference.

      I like what Sarah says below about maybe using his abilities for more positivity. Interesting points… Though maybe that’s why Hemingway is as renowned as he is, because he gave us raw human emotion…

      Which brings us full circle to dress piece. Be raw. Be real.

      • I agree with that as well. What Sarah points out is probably one of the strongest connections that two people could make with each other.

        We all want to connect in some way with someone and when one person takes the step forward to lay their deepest feelings, thoughts, and secrets out for the rest of the world to see, those that have thought and felt the same feel a deep emotional or intellectual connection with the writer.

      • Yeah. I always think raw, honest writing speaks more clearly than carefully tactful writing. We aren’t carefully tactful in our inner thoughts so it doesn’t hit us the same way when a writer is.

        That said, I do believe that saying the truth can be illuminating rather than painful, if it makes us question ourselves.

    • To someone like Hemingway and many other author’s, their goal in life was to write something amazing.

      This is really astute. I don’t know Hemingway personally, but I feel strongly this was one of his goals. Moreover like a true master he knew when he accomplished it and that he could do it again.

      I definitely feel a strong motivation to make amazing writing. To me it’s the height of my art: writing that speaks to the soul.

      You raise a really good point about the difference in publishing time today. I think it also affects quality and audience size. Even though I am a strong proponent of digital publishing, it’s cause a devaluation of writing. Luckily that’s what we have google, social media, and friends’ recommendations for.

      Which is why I always ask people to share my work – making good writing isn’t good enough anymore. It has to be shared and tweeted and linked to or it will never be seen.

  2. I’ve been discussing Hemingway a little with a friend lately – about how his book The Old Man and the Sea touched the hearts of boys who otherwise did not enjoy reading, and woke them truly to the world of books. That is a wonderful gift for the world. Then again, is something really a gift when it is created from hurt? Does that negative energy linger? Or can we, the reader, transform it into a healing goodness by seeing the beauty born of harm? I don’t know, but I personally tend to avoid art and literature created by people who mindfully hurt others.

    I think when you write your inner truth, as Hemingway did, it will speak to others, even if they have a different perspective, because everyone responds to the essence of Truth. But it seems to me that you have a choice about how you share your truth – whether you are brutally free with a raw honesty, or whether you find a way to let that honesty illuminate. For example, I might want to write about a friend’s flaws, but I can get my essential message across just as well by writing my opinion of the subject in general, leaving my friend out of it. Or I can write about the qualities I admire – eg, kindness instead of my hypothetical friend’s selfishness, or charity instead of his consumerism.

    Hemingway might have had a happier life if he had used his sharp eye for human psychology to help people, to promote kindess & caring, and to show a better way forward. For me, literature (and blogging) isn’t just about what lovely or powerful words you use, but your intention. Be the change you want to see in the world.

    • A lot of art is born from hurt. We usually focus on the pain in the artist’s own life and we romanticize it. But there is also the pain the artist caused others. We all end up hurting over the course of our lives, and that can bring with it guilt, shame or recalcitrance. But because it is something we all face at some point, the art built out of it can speak to the soul.

      At the same time though Hemingway was a man full of hope. He was the archetypal modernist. He may not have had a happy love life but he experienced firsthand the excitement and possibilities of science and technology. He was able to travel all over Europe, Africa and the Americas comfortably and safely. He made a living by sending articles back to publishers faraway: the first blogger.

      I find Hemingway had a lot of faith in the beauty and general rightness of the world, even while feeling deeply the pain humans inflict on one another.

  3. Personally, I have been on both sides of the situation! Whenever I have written about people I know, I have done so in a fictionalized manner, but they do recognize themselves in the text and even though it leads to hurt feelings, I always defend what I have written by reminding the friend two most important things: a) I did not use their name, and b) I protected their identity by changing how they look and seem, only using the raw essence, or “poetry” of what they feel like to me, to describe them. Most think this is flattering, others resent that I made them a character in the first place.

    Fictionalizing a real life story, like Hemingway did, seems to be a form of therapy for many bi-polar writers. Hemingway, like myself, suffered from the same mental illness, so I have a lot in common with him especially when it comes to unstable romantic relationships. Virginia Woolf is another who used writing as a way to deal with her racing thoughts and moods, her visions often brought on my migraines so severe she would have to stay bedridden for days. Some of Woolf’s characters were based on people she knew, but were so much unlike them, it was entertaining.

    The only completely dreadful time I had with using a story out of my life as a means of therapy to get over the trauma of it was when my subject revealed herself to others that it was she I was talking about. What she failed to realize is that I exaggerated her as I vented my anger. I never said who she was, she just assumed I was talking about her. She basically “outed” herself and took what I wrote out of context. It started an online battle between us and got stupid… fast.

    I have been written about, also drawn as characters in graphic novels by friends (very idealized, of course), but nothing I can legally brag about, they’re just in-jokes between artists and writers. It’s what happens when you have friends in the publishing business! The only times I have felt uncomfortable is when I feel mocked OR when I am not given a personality, then I wish I could step in, tap a microphone, get up on a soapbox and address the audience to give my side of the story.

    No matter. I love to read a good story. I love being in a good story (even if it’s not a comedy). And, most of all, I love writing a good story! Still… I try to be at my most careful about whom I write. I make sure now to give my subject a “head’s up” or ask permission before I take it to press.

    • Valentina, thanks for your comment. I’ve never heard that Hemingway was bi-polar, and don’t see it in any of the stuff I’ve read about him. Where did you learn that?

      • Oh, I thought it was common knowledge. Let me give you links to some information on that…

        It’s given in his biography on his IMDb page:

        “Hemingway suffered from bipolar disorder, then known as manic depression, and was treated with electroshock therapy at the Menninger Clinic. The therapy, he claimed, had destroyed his memory, which was essential to a writer, and he told his friend A.E. Hotchner that his memory loss was one of the reasons he no longer wanted to live. The condition was hereditary: Hemingway’s father Clarence likely suffered from it, as did at least one of his sisters, Ursula, and his only brother, Leicester, as did one of his sons, Gregory, and his granddaughter Margaux. In addition to Ernest, Hemingway’s father Clarence, his siblings Ursula and Leicester, and his granddaughter Margaux all committed suicide. His son Gregory died in police custody after being picked up in a stupor shortly after a sex change operation.”

        Here is an interesting article from the NY Times where a friend of Hemingway’s recalls the days before Ernest’s death:

        Here’s another research paper examining the effects Hemingway’s bi-polar disorder played a hand in the way his life declined (back in the day there weren’t a lot of adequate treatments for the disorder, so his coping mechanism was drinking):

        There is much more information out there. Lots of articles and books have been written about Hemingway’s disorder and the sad way it has also destroyed members of his family as well. It makes you really feel for the guy even more.

        • That’s great information Val. Thank you for showing it.

          I’m surprised the Wikipedia article doesn’t mention that at all. It attributes his mental health issues to hyperension and mentioned a “depressive state” but never bipolar disorder. It also implies his family’s suicides were connected to their hemochromatosis, which seems hard to believe.

          Since you have sources to cite, you may want to consider adding some edits to the Hemingway article on Wikipedia.

          • I didn’t think about that! I’ve never added edits to Wikipedia before. I really am surprised at what is missing at Wikipedia, too. There are more than a few sources and info that needs to be added, but…

            There are so many other things I want to do.

            I’m under doctor’s orders at the moment to not get too worked up over things. Taking it easy. I am looking forward to hearing about your next adventure and am excited about your upcoming reunion with your sister!!!! Who-hoo!

    • Do you think there is a difference between writing that makes us face our own truth, and writing that just pisses people off? Or does it depend entirely on the mindset of the person reading it?

  4. nickiofcourse says:

    Perhaps people have their own ideas about themselves, or know themselves better than anyone else does, so to hear another person’s narrow idea of who they are out loud somewhere hurts? It would not benefit anyone to call another person their mirror and look there to find out who they are.

    It probably falls under “thou shall not judge” or however it goes. ;) Perhaps we aren’t intending to judge, but our perceptions are really just judgements or ideas that we have about a person/place or thing, right? No one sees the same color blue of the sky, and some people thought Hitler had a brilliant idea. To top it all off, 2 people can share an experience and come away with completely different ideas of how that shared experience was. It’s the magic of this so called “reality” we’re currently hanging out in.

    Your opinion or thoughts about a person don’t make them true. Ideas and thoughts and opinions change (thankfully). They are just what you are seeing in that moment. (By “you” I mean all of us, at any time.)

    • I totally agree. I think that what makes an author’s words ring so true to people is when they say exactly what the reader was thinking or has experienced. Which might just mean writer and reader are united in making the same judgment.

  5. Beth says:

    OK, I’m taking you up on your general invitation to be honest and frank in our comments.

    I find it interesting that you end by implying that you have to sacrifice your greatness in order to be careful of the feelings of others. That seems pretty extreme to me. There will never be one easy answer to a question like this, it all depends on the circumstances. I think a lot of it is about how you are or are not maintaining a relationship. Have to talked to the person in advance of writing about them, or about the thing that might be hard for them to read? Have you heard their thoughts and at least taken them into consideration? I seem to recall a story in which you were interviewed and there was the discussion of some editing, and you were not pleased about that; how different is that than someone being upset about being portrayed in a way that doesn’t match how they see reality? Don’t forget, writing the “truth” of how YOU saw something doesn’t necessarily make it THE TRUTH of what happened. We all have our filters; the author can accidentally skew a description of the situation just as easily as the reader can take something too personally or want to avoid looking at their own flaws.

    Seems to me that it comes down to a question of values. Is your value system “I will always write exactly what I think in the moment that I think it, and that is most important?” Or is it “I value my relationships and believe that causing harm is something that should be avoided whenever possible?” If you believe #1, prepare for a lot of broken relationships. If you embrace #2, it doesn’t mean you never write what you want to; you just have to be more creative and maybe more patient, more sensitive to wording and timing. Is the purpose of your life always to write the thing on your heart, or to be a person who does not cause harm?

    And more importantly, what value system would fit best with the heroic life?

    • I agree it depends a lot on the circumstances. There isn’t just one answer for every situation. But there is a very specific situation that comes up for a lot of artists and writers.

      It’s when you finish something, and you know in your heart and soul that it’s good. It’s good good, it will speak to people. But you also know it will offend or hurt someone.

      And at that point, if you don’t press publish or if you make changes, you are giving up your greatness, in my opinion.

      So I don’t view it in the black and white terms that you offer. It isn’t a choice between diarrhea of the mouth vs. being a decent person, which is what you seem to suggest (“always write exactly what I think in the moment that I think it”?). It’s really a balancing act between at least two very important, equally pure ideals: art and compassion.

      • Maybe. I recently finished something which made me happy & which I thought was good. I also felt it had an important message which I felt quite strongly about.

        But as I contemplated its publication, I realised it could cause harm in real life. So I chose a higher greatness – that of letting my intellectual creation go for the sake of real people. A book seemed so unimportant, a reflection of my ego, compared with the happiness & surety of other people. (On the other hand, I have written articles which offend “some people out there” and I don’t care about that. It’s different.)

        So I agree that it’s a balancing act, but I disagree with where you draw the line. I think it has to be an individual line for each artist. I guess I think we create art every day with our choices and small moves, and I want the private but perfect greatness of doing what I know is compassionate & good.

        Really, really interesting discussion; thank you for beginning it.

        • I agree, this is a good discussion. I have to say that Beth put it best “Don’t forget, writing the “truth” of how YOU saw something doesn’t necessarily make it THE TRUTH of what happened.” It is the same with memory. Two people can experience, at the same point and time, an event, but come up with two different perspectives. Which person will write the truth?

          I used to teach journal writing and autobiography — writing from memory is not always a precise way to document experience, and yet it is an important way to see from different perspectives. To use a real life example, if Drew does not mind, Drew and I, plus another friend, went on a 7 week study tour of a group of islands… Each one of us kept a handwritten journal. Each week we would share a few things we wrote down. It was a joy to read each other’s thoughts because the three of us were so independent, it was like, if each one of us were filming a documentary, we’d have three different movies, and all of them were true according to our own personal experiences.

          There have been times, however, when I am writing from memory and have been corrected by a friend when I remember something they don’t, or I forgot something they remember. Does that make my account false?

          And how much artistic license are you allowed to utilize that is fair?

          What I did when I last wrote about Drew at my blog was I sent him the draft first in email. I am so glad I took that route because there was only one small edit I needed to make and Drew’s editing skills I can always depend on. He’s got a great eye for technical writing! Anyway… my thoughts are winding down. Thank you all for such food for thought!

  6. nickiofcourse says:

    I thought of this post today while I was reading Anthony De Mello’s “Awareness”. He was a Jesuit priest, have you heard of him? He’s a riot to read because it’s exactly as he then spoke. In fact, I think this was taken from a conference. It’s great. I was looking for a book when this one FELL OFF THE SHELF for no “good” reason. ;)
    I was in the detachment section, followed by the words,words, words section. He speaks, of course, about our attachment to other people’s opinion’s of us, and the importance we put on other people and the way that we “need” them and their opinions to judge ourselves, to know how we are doing. How we aren’t free until we have no attachments to people. How attached we are to words, and the meaning we give to them.
    I happen to be married with children, and while I firmly hold to the idea these are not my children, they are Life’s children, who have come through me and my job is to help them to independence (physically and emotionally), I am attached. However as far as the people out “there”- people one removed from my immediate family, I have found something really interesting. When I am being unattached, observing my own life as well as what’s going on around me from a distance, my need to discuss the people or what I have perceived to have happened disappears completely. When I am being aware, I have no stake in the outcome of anything, because nothing affects me one way or another. I can be happy in the middle of turmoil. I don’t need to speak of others because it does not serve me to do so. I am a little nervous, actually, of what might happen if I were to stay in that state full time. What would happen?
    Anyway, I thought of you when I pieced this all together in my head, how the need to speak of others at all just disappears when we practice non attachment. Of course, if one is a writer, or has a blog and it’s important to them that many people read it and engage in it, well, how do you do that and not be attached? Is that possible? Am I attached because I stop by to read it and am sometimes engaged enough to respond?
    Also, perhaps if you have the need to write about others, you can say something to acknowledge the fact that you are an imperfect filter delivering the information of the others. That the things you say are colored by your perceptions and may not accurately reflect the Self you are discussing. Or something. :D

    • Nicki, these are some incredible observations and questions.

      I haven’t heard of De Mello. But to answer your question – how does a writer or blogger keep creating if they are detached – I’ll use him and Thich Nhat Hanh as an example.

      We could be cynical and say that just because these two writers – a Jesuit and a Buddhist – write about the joy of being unattached, doesn’t mean they are unattached themselves. However I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say that both of them really do put their ideas into practice in their own lives, and they really do manage to be very unattached.

      Yet, they both write texts with observations on human nature. Those texts help, instruct and inspire millions. One of them even inspired you.

      As a priest of the Heroic God, I too value unattachment. Relinquishing ego is central to my spiritual practice. But even more so I value action.

      Unattachment leads to contentment, inner peace and self-sufficiency. But none of those things have to lead to inaction.

  7. nickiofcourse says:

    So if you (we) remain unattached having no personal feelings about the people that are written about,even though we may be portraying them as less than the beautiful spirit they believe themselves to be and then it’s brought to your attention that they did not like it, does it matter? Or if there was true unattachment, would there be a need to speak of others in any way at all unless we were championing them and telling the world of the qualities that shine?

    • If you’re writing a nonfiction work like De Mallo, there would be no need to name anyone’s faults. In a spiritual work it’s more common to use the author’s own faults or examples from myth/legend to illustrate things.

      However sometimes you can communicate more with fiction than with a sermon. Stories speak to people. And stories need either a villain or some source of conflict… does that have to be based on actual people and events? No, but but it has to be believable.

  8. I struggle with this myself. Last year I wrote two posts that damaged relationships. The most disappointing thing was that I really didn’t see the trouble coming. My empathy wasn’t what it should have been.

    I like your point about Hemingway, but I still hold back about writing personal things about other people. I share all my own secrets, but if someone confides in me, or opens up to me in a way they don’t often do, I feel obliged to respect that and keep it private. Sometimes I will write about lessons I’ve learned from real people, but I’ll usually change some details so it’s not obvious who those people are.

    • That’s very similar to my own policy. If someone tells me something in confidence I’m an iron wall. Nothing’s getting out.

      But there’s a whole area in between. Often times I’ll learn or observe things from the people around me, things that were never meant to be secret, but which nonetheless they may not expect to see recorded and published.

  9. No one has a right not to be offended and the acceptance of it being okay to be offended helps strengthen people. Just looking at the censoring of books and criminally charging those for carrying the “wrong” kind of book – because they offend someone has stifled society and learning. Write what you want and speak your mind, you will be the better for it.


  10. I just want to thank everyone for an amazing discussion with lots of surprising & insightful points. Hearing all of your takes on this topic has helped expand my mind… especially because this is a topic I have to take seriously and make regular decisions about as a writer. Thank you.

  11. Pingback: Purpose: Fame and Inspiration « Rogue Priest

  12. Pingback: The things I don’t write about…

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