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Asked to envision Ernest Hemingway, many people picture the great American author knocking back Daiquiris at the El Floridita Bar in Havana, marlin fishing off Key West, or perhaps stalking the Serengeti for a trophy lion. It’s difficult to imagine him, well, “working.”
The truth is, Hemingway worked very hard. And he was undeniably consistent. The regulars at Sloppy Joes remembered the Mojitos and the laughs and the sunsets, but they didn’t see him get up every morning and hit the typewriter (yes the manual kind where you had to punch the keys with your fingers) and pound out a 1000 words a day. “I start in at seven in the morning,” Hemingway said of his routine. “And I always quit when I’m going good, so that I’ll be able to pick right up again the next day.” The key is he did that nearly every day, week after week, for 30 years.
Is this easy to do? No way. It’s easier to sleep in the next morning, maybe try some ‘hair of the dog,’ or put it off another day. That’s what most people would do. But most people don’t produce 7 novels, 60 short stories and nab a Nobel Prize and a Pulitzer before retiring to the Happy Hunting Grounds in the sky.
This disciplined schedule allowed Hemingway the afternoons and evenings to indulge in his favorite pursuits such as fishing (or wooing a new wife). But even then, Hemingway was always working. Once, while out on his boat, Pilar, Hemingway spied a weathered, elderly man in a small boat dwarfed by the enormity of the Gulfstream. This image became the idea for the famed novella, “The Old Man and the Sea.”
At the bar Hemingway also worked; taking in the conversations, the tales, and the mannerisms of the colorful characters he encountered and working them into his stories bright and early the next morning. And it was the thought and effort he put into these stories that got them read and made him a success.
Maybe Hemingway drank too much, or fished too much, or walked down the aisle a few too many times, but he never let his vices or personal pursuits compromise his work. He pulled off this trick by having a daily game plan and sticking to it.
Oh, and he also liked to type standing up, before the stand-up desk was a thing.
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Last post, we told you how you’re living out a Private Eye Novel. Now we’re going to tell you what to do about it.
Different gumshoes take different approaches. Agatha Christie’s gentlemanly Hercule Poirot uses a Sherlock Holmes-style of methodical deduction to solve the case; and Mickey Spillaine’s hardboiled Mike Hammer has no qualms about getting in someone’s face and throwing a few elbows.
You might be inclined to try a little combination. As Raymond Chandler wrote, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” You’ve got troubles, so let’s get crackin.’
1. Define the problem. You know what it is. In any good book it’s front and center and smacks you in the face. In crime fiction it’s a dead starlet in a pool, a missing Picasso, and a revolver with the hero’s prints on it. For you it might be legal trouble, the pressure to get a new job, a crushing debt, or a potential health issue.
2. Gather the clues. Set aside some time to consider the case. Need a job? What’s the best city for your industry? Got debt? What expenses are draining you? Got a persistent pain? Research the possible causes for your ailment. That means pounding some pavement along with some computer keys.
3. Set a deadline. Putting it off is no longer an option. If you don’t set a deadline then someone else will—the bank will foreclose on your home, the lawyers will get involved in a personal dispute, or that health problem will turn into something worse.
4. Identify the antagonist. Who’s holding you back? Not that you have to be paranoid, but there are toxic people who like you to stay just where you are, wallowing in your troubles. As they say, misery loves company. They’ll tell you there isn’t much hope, and they’ll point to the economy, the health care system, or the government to make their case, but tell ’em you ain’t buyin.’ Do your best to avoid negative people, negative news, legal entanglements, and doctors with answers that don’t seem to click. Did Bogart let anyone get in his face? Neither should you.
5. Find your allies. Every town is tough. But there is someone out there willing to cut you a break. Even Batman, a detective at his core, has Commissioner Gordon on his side. Talk to people who have experienced the same trouble as you and see how they handled it. Other laid off middle aged managers have found new jobs. People with the same bum ticker as you have regained their health. Innocent defendants out there have beaten the rap. And remember the best way to get help in life: it’s all about quid pro quo—help somebody get what they want, and they’ll help you get what you want.
6. Motivate yourself. From Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade to Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, part of the appeal of the private eye archetype is that we love their lone wolf, get-it-done attitude. We like to watch the odds stacked against a protagonist and see him come back with a vengeance and win in the end. You’ve gotta cop that attitude and put it to work for you. No one can motivate you to to solve your problems except yourself.
7. Fix the ending. In every good story the hero is tested by fire and comes out changed in some way. It’s happened to you before, and you can make it happen again. But don’t count on a happy ending lasting for long. When trouble’s the game, there’s usually gonna be a sequel.
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Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. Mystery fans read their exploits for the thrills, puzzles, and escapism that only a well-written page-turner can provide. But when it comes down to it, we’re all the protagonists in our own mystery stories. Consider this:
1. You’re a loner. Sure, you have buddies, business contacts, and maybe some followers on Twitter, but living your life is really all up to you. You have to get to work each day, figure out your own dinner, and pay your bills. At the end of the day it’s sink or swim, pal.
2. You’ve got a problem. You’ve got something you gotta fix. And when you fix it, you get another problem. It’s why there are sequels. No matter what your line of work, somebody’s trouble is your business.
3. You need money. Some of us need more than others but lurking in the back of everyone’s head is a financial worry. You need to find a way to afford something, pay something off, or save for something. It’s why you hang out your shingle. And when you have plenty of dough you get a new problem—making sure it ain’t lost or swiped.
4. You’ve got a nemesis. It could be a co-worker, boss, or competitor. Maybe it’s an in-law, landlord, or a ruthless ex-somebody. Without naming names, there’s an antagonist in your life you need to contend with and they might want to see you out of business—sometimes in more ways than one.
5. You’ve got a vice. Giggle juice, a honey on the side, the blackjack table. You’ve got flaws, just like every other Dame and Jasper in town. Maybe they’re manageable, maybe not. Abraham Lincoln famously said he didn’t trust a person who had no vices. But whatever it is, it’s trouble if it’s hanging over you and threatens to bring down the whole racket.
6. Somebody vexes you. You’ve got someone in your life you don’t quite understand, and who doesn’t understand you. Your interactions might not have the crackling dialogue of a Bogart-Bacall flick, but the relationship challenges are the same. You both want something.
7. You don’t know what’s coming. It’s called suspense. You can make plans, work the angles, and try and guess what’s around the next corner. But facts are facts, and just like a dime novel protagonist you just don’t know how your story is going to end.
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They’ve lived out their lives as fate decreed, yet the dead still harbor lessons the living may need.
In the Twilight Zone episode, “Night Call,” a woman named Elva Keene receives repeated mysterious phone calls in the middle of the night. Frightened, she implores the phone company to do something about it.
They trace the calls and upon investigating discover a broken telephone line in a cemetery after a storm. As it happens, the tombstone upon which the wire has fallen is that of…well, perhaps you should see the episode for yourself. Suffice to say someone is trying to talk to Elva from the grave.
Now that’s creepy, but you don’t need a supernatural event or a séance to receive messages from the other side.
Be glad you’re alive. We may lay wreaths and flowers there on holidays, but most of us tend to avoid cemeteries, perhaps not wanting to be reminded of our mortality. But instead of serving as a warning to one’s impending demise, let the denizens of your local necropolis serve as a positive call to action. For when it comes to those interred it’s game over, but for you—if you’re reading this—life is a game you’re still playing. The question remains how will you cast your dice? What will you do with this precious gift you still have?
Remember “The Dash.” While grave markers exist in limitless shapes, sizes, and designs, they all mention the defining dates of a person’s life. For example, consider the tombstone of one Ezekial P. Jones, 1798-1862. The dates tell us when Jones was born and died, but between them is the dash—the dash represents everything he did in life. Everything. The good and the bad, every triumph and every failure, every joy and sorrow is all there in the cryptic dash. And just think, you are living out your own dash right now.
Present, but not voting. As a kid I enjoyed reading Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and recall being struck in particular by the bizarre story of Jeremy Bentham, a 19th-century British reformist and philanthopist. In accordance with his will, Bentham’s body was preserved with a wax head and displayed in a glass cabinet at University College London.
In a freaky ritual—at select college council meetings—Bentham’s remains were brought to the board room and at roll call it was recorded that Bentham was, “Present but not voting.” Are you present and engaged in life, or do you differ little from Bentham’s dapper corpse by sitting on the sidelines?
A grave equalizer. “The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” Charles de Gaulle, French general and statesman, is quoted as saying. That means all those inflated-ego blowhards who annoy you in life will be replaced when their time is up, so don’t let them get to you. The same though, can be said of your own—if applicable—self-aggrandized importance. “Don’t take yourself so seriously,” says Bob Basso, author of This Job Should Be Fun. “After all the size of your funeral will depend on the weather.”
Your challenge. Ernest Hemingway laid down the gauntlet when he advised others to “do something original, or beat dead men at their own game.” It’s advice you might take when embarking on your own business venture. Who is in the grave that you admire? Their cards are on the table. Can you come up with a better hand?
Count your blessings. A stroll through an old cemetery reveals a variety of strange causes of death. Look at all the things they died of that you probably won’t succumb to. Typhoid fever, whooping cough, smallbox, and even “consumption.” There are those trampled by a horse, struck by a streetcar, or lost at sea. You are lucky indeed to be alive at a time where life expectancy is better than ever. The odds improve every year that you might keep the Grim Reaper at bay and make it to your 100th birthday…or beyond.
What would the dead say? Recently I was reminded of a classmate who died shortly after high school graduation. We all know of people like that, particularly those taken early. While there seems no rhyme nor reason to it, think of them when you are faced with challenges in life. What would they think of your predicament? How grateful would they be just to live out your day today? How can you live your life in their honor…a life to the fullest? As Benjamin Franklin said, “Get up sluggard, there’s time enough to sleep in the grave.”
Consider this telling epitaph…
Remember me as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, you soon will be.
Prepare for death, and think of me.
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Sure it’s a classic work of literature, but “The Old Man and the Sea” really shines as a handy guide to success.
In school many of us read—or were supposed to read—Hemingway’s novella, The Old Man and the Sea. The story is a classic and it earned Hemingway a Pulitzer in 1953 and a Nobel Prize in 1954.
There are plenty of places to go to discuss the book’s literary merits and debate the symbolism and allegory. Hemingway himself said, “No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in… I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.”
Well here are some meanings they might not talk about in AP English. Allow me to do you a favor and take my trusty fillet knife to this 100 page novella and carve out some real-world useful tips you can put to use no matter what you’re fishing for.
Make your own break. In the opening line of the book we are told the old man Santiago has “gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” Santiago has become a pariah in his little Cuban fishing village. Fishermen are a superstitious lot, and the parents of the old man’s trusty mate, Manolin, forbid the boy from fishing with him. The notion of bad luck is alive and well around us today. An MBA will “knock on wood” discussing a business venture. A pro ballplayer (and legions of fans from all walks of life) will blame poor performance on a slump or a curse. Ruminating on the debilitating effects of “bad luck” Santiago says, “To hell with luck. I’ll bring the luck with me.” So should you.
You can get old and still put up a fight. “Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.” Although the protagonist, Santiago, is fictional the character is based on real people, from Hemingway’s angling buddy Gregorio Fuentes, to the mysterious fisherman and a boy they once observed in a tiny boat far out in the Gulf Stream. Santiago is an “old man” driven by sheer will to survive. He’s an heroic archetype, who keeps on pressing forward despite having lost everything. Through him we learn age doesn’t matter, it’s the will that counts.
Too often we start using the “I’m too old for this,” mantra decades before it applies. Somehow we go from being too young to do things to being too old to do them, and the things never get done. Are you using age as an excuse?
Always have a hero. Santiago is motivated by thoughts of his hero, Joe DiMaggio. Santiago isn’t a famous baseball player, but fishing far out in the Gulf Stream with a handline for marlin that can reach over 1,500 lbs is major league. He reminds himself that to succeed he must adopt the same traits that are true of all of those bringing their “A” game. “But I must have the confidence and I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel.” Who inspires you? If they watched you today what would they think of your efforts?
You have to do it alone. Once Santiago has hooked the fish they begin a long, agonizing struggle and both of their lives are on the line. Santiago knows that is it his his own battle and to win it is up to him. “My choice was to go there and find him beyond all people in the world. Now we are joined together and have been since noon. And no one to help either of us.” Whatever you have to do, banish the thoughts of blame, and what-ifs and focus on doing what only you can do to get it done.
Don’t quit. Most of the time spent fishing involves trying different bait and lures, and experimenting with different depths and locations. Fishing is synonymous with patience. A good angler thinks in terms of options rather than obstacles. “But a man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” Persistence gets the fish.
Re-think the definition of work. Hemingway’s vivid prose really puts the reader in the midst of the action. You can feel the hot sun on Santiago’s brow, sense the unforgiving ocean beneath the boat, and experience the line biting painfully into aged hands as the heavy fish runs deep. It’s a stark reminder of the nature of hard work. There are people around the world who do more before 9 AM than some of us do all day. Hemingway knows you’ve got more inside, so reach down and pull it out. Today is the only sure thing you’ve got. So own it and wring it for what it’s worth.
Define winning. At the end of the book the old man’s giant fish is devoured by sharks and he returns to his village, exhausted and battered, dreams of a big payout at the fish market shattered. But the villagers come out to marvel at the unprecedented size of the skeletal remains lashed to his tiny skiff. “I think the great DiMaggio would be proud of me today,” Santiago muses before he collapses into sleep.
The old fisherman has earned the villagers lasting respect; next time he won’t fish alone. And his job is not yet finished—there are other fish out there, waiting.
As Hemingway said, “Any man’s life, told truly, is a novel.” So what’s the next chapter in yours?