You have to do more than write. You have to live.
It was Hemingway who said, in so many words, that a writer has to experience life to write about it in an honest way. You must live a life. Love, lust, travel, endure poverty and heartache, find joy and experience the the tragedy of death, find and lose friendships—and myriad other experiences to fill a writer’s tool box. Go do things. Cry, laugh, follow your heart. Certainly not all of us are going to live a Hemingway life—war, safaris, plane crashes, world travel, and many loves. But, just as he did, we can take from our own experiences, of which we all have many, to help spark our own writerly muse whether it be fiction, nonfiction, memoir, essays, or poetry. Those experiences do not have to include battling a giant marlin off the coast of Cuba. Art may be born from something as simple as walking the dog.
A couple of years ago, I took to writing most every day after walking my dog, Sam. I sat down within an hour after each walk and recorded my thoughts. Certainly, I had walked my dog before, but in these times I was determined to be more present, to observe and contemplate, to think and consider. It was a good time to take on this project, as I was on sabbatical from my college teaching and I was also growing older. It was time, I believed, to consider where I had been, where I was going, and what might come next—in all aspects of my life—literary, artistic, my life as a husband, father, friend, and citizen of the world.
Just as Hemingway suggested, getting out in the world in a more mindful way, allowed me to find the beauty in something as simple as a hike with the dog, and maybe something worth writing about. No, it was not the experience of the Spanish Civil War, but it was, I would argue, an experience with just as much possibility for story as any other. For Whom the Bell Tolls? No. But each walk was a small part of a life and they triggered the same kind of awakening of the human condition that any other experience might, maybe even more so at times, as every time I stepped out it was a new window another level of emotion.
After documenting more than thirty daily walks, I found that I had discovered far more than I could have imagined—not only discoveries about myself and my dog, but about a life, my neighborhood, my country, those I love. Those walks have now become a book: Walks with Sam: A Man, a Dog, and a Season of Awakening. It will be out in September, 2020 from Roundfire Books/John Hunt Publishing, UK. This is not at all what I had expected—this manuscript— never believing these walks would become anything more than personal journal entries or blog posts. I did not set out to write a book from this experience, but yet, there is it. The idea became bigger than the original blueprint. And this is exactly what Hemingway meant. Do not dismiss a single experience—big or small or in between. Take it in. All of it. Savor it. Consider it. File it away. Rediscover it. Whatever that experience might be has the potential to be the seed of an artistic flower. The key is to water it and let it bloom, even allow it to grow like a weed—no trimming, no pruning. Go do that incredible thing—climb Mt. Kilimanjaro or simply take a walk around the block. It is not the grandeur of the experience that matters, it is the experience itself, the fact that you are living a life, your life, that one and only unique life.
Yes, Hemingway believed strongly in this idea, this way of linking living life with writing. He believed in it, as did so many other great artists, with all his heart. Knowing this, I’ll leave you with the words of one of America’s greatest poets as one more reminder to go live a life worth writing about.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”