I have this photo over my writing desk. It is Ernest Hemingway with his son, Greg. Both came to hard difficult ends. Though that’s not why I keep it on the wall. That is more complex.
Of course, the simple answer is that I am a big fan of Hemingway, an aficionado, if you like. I’ve read all his novels and short stories, even his few poems and plays. I’ve also consumed a half-dozen biographies – all of which provide a different perspective on his life. I’ve used examples from Hemingway when I’m teaching as well. You can learn a lot about writing by seeing what he did and didn’t do.
The more complex answer is that, knowing all that, I can still learn things by looking at that picture. Some days it is nothing more than a man sharing time with his son. Neither of them knows what lies over the horizon. For the moment, they are at peace. Perhaps they’ve been hunting – but if so they were unsuccessful; there is no evidence of game on the bridge where they sit. Perhaps the lake has been empty all day as it is at this moment. Perhaps none of that matters because game is not what they’ve been hunting for.
The boy in any case is unshod, not ready for a hike through the brush, not ready for anything. His father is always ready – but maybe not ready for this moment. He doesn’t touch his son, even though the boy is sleeping bedside him. Rather he looks away, trying to see, perhaps, what he is meant to do. Is he thinking about his own father, a man by all accounts distant from his children, content to leave them in the hands of their mother while he goes about his business as a doctor? Is he thinking about the way his father died and about how he threw the gun into the water?
But for now it doesn’t matter. Father and son are together and even though they are not speaking – perhaps have barely spoken all day other than rough instructions or admonitions – they are teaching each other about their respective roles. They are teaching each other about manhood – ironic given the secrets of the older man and the fate of the younger.
I keep the photo above my desk for all these reasons; as a reminder of what words can do even when they are unspoken; as a lesson about men and their sons; as way of kick-starting my own writing when the words seem distant and unexpressed.
I keep it there because I like it. I like the simple lines and shades of grey. I like the expressions in the faces and the bodies, the ease they have in the present. Because clearly they do not know the future, none of us do. They only have the weight of memory and the present pleasure. And I am reminded that this is enough.
And that’s ten minutes.