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The International Writers Magazine
: Hacktreks on Travel Writing

Becoming the Character Or, Who Was Hemingway?
Antonio Graceffo

It took me three days to pedal my bicycle up to Maesai, the last wild west outpost of Thailand. I was there with the loose intention of picking up some good stories from the bandits smuggling gems, drugs, weapons, and people from Myanmar. I also needed to follow up on a story I had just written, which I was afraid could get me expelled from Thailand.

The American activist, Daniel McMartin, who I had written about had already been seized, and was awaiting deportation. Daniel had been an excellent character to do a story on. His work with the hill tribes had been noble, to say the least. But the man himself had gone stark raving mad. Between the pressures and privations of living in the jungle, and his constant attempts to maintain his image, of a bush man, with a cowboy hat and a crazy truck with political stickers on it, he had become such an embarrassment to the Thai government, that they had thrown him in jail.
My visa was up in a few days. Going across the border to get it renewed seemed simple. The border gates looked so inviting. But I also knew that if they were going to get me, it would be when I crossed immigration. I decided not to try it until I found out if anyone had been looking for me. Sometimes being a writer is dangerous. And, sometimes it is tough.

When I emerged from an expedition in the Taklamakan Desert, I wanted nothing more than to take five showers and sleep for a week. But instead, I had to wade through a Uyghur speaking town, in East Turkistan, find the only, incredibly slow, internet connection, and to the back-drop of Ricky Martin cover tunes, from Turkmenistan, type and file my story. Maybe I could have rested first. But on a previous story in China, my notebooks and film had almost been confiscated before I had a chance to file. And i almost didn't get paid. Another issue was that I always had to look like I was having a good time, no matter how I felt. Although I was suffering, injured, or ill, I had to smile on film, and make the trip look like a jolly good time. People have asked if it was absolutely necessary for my photos to appear in my stories. And I felt it was. Readers had to associate my face with my words, that's how you built a following. Still, I worried that maybe my ego played a roll in my stories. In every magazine layout, there is always one photo of me sitting on a mountain top, writing in my notebook, or interviewing a tribal headman in the jungle. When people ask about this photo, I always say it is for copyright protection. If I ever needed to prove in a court of law that I wrote the story, I could just produce this photo. and say. "See, your Honor, here is a picture of me writing the story."

There are times when the job was great, and got to do and see things other people could only dream about. On my way to Maesai, I had stopped off to do some hunting with one of the hill tribes, with their primitive rifles. Whoever had an experience like that? The explosion of a muzzleloader is deafening. The overwhelming cloud of smoke reminded me of my boyhood in Tennessee, when I used to hunt with a black powder pistol in the woods behind my house, and dream of someday having REAL adventures, far, far away. I didn't know then, that my REAL adventures would always be on the clock, or that I would never be able to stray far from the internet cafes, where I had to file my stories, in order to get paid.

My butt was sore, and my legs were cramping. The internet in Maesai was down. The police may or may not have been waiting for me. I needed somewhere to sit and think. I needed time. And I needed to get another story, or I couldn't pay my rent this month. The hotel where I lived only cost 2,00 Baht a month. But there were days that I didn't have twenty Baht in my pocket. It was a depressing way to live. I needed a beer.

Uncle Abe's was where all the expats went in Maesai. Abe, a Thai, is a legend in the North. He had lived in the US, under dubious circumstances, and had returned to Thailand with good English, and a wad of cash, which he quickly used to open Abe's. He had good food and good liquor. He would receive mail for you. He could get you a girl. He'd arrange visas and tickets for other countries. For a price, it was said you could get anything at Abe's. What I needed was information, and a place to rest up. Abe's only had one fast rule; no one was permitted to eat alone. When I arrived, Abe paired me with a retired American, named Rick, who seemed a bit skeptical, speaking to me in quiet, polite spurts. Eventually we found an interest that we shared, books. Rick opened up, talking about literature. Even more, we found an author who we both loved, Ernest Hemingway. "What do you think of A Farewell to Arms?" Asked Rick. "Brilliant, one of his best." I answered. "And what do you think of Across the River and into the Trees?" "Terrible." Rick nodded, as if I had a passed a test. "You see? He was great in his early years. But later, he went down hill."

It is almost an indisputable fact that Hemingway was the master of the short story. Hemingway produced about seventy stories. But it is the long works, the novels for which an author is remembered. And, in truth, I think it could be said that the bard of American literature only produced four monumental novels: Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises, and The Old Man and the Sea. Whereby, The Old Man and the Sea is not a novel, in the strictest sense of the word. "Maybe it was the drinking, maybe it was the fame." Said Rick. I was not the first to wonder why Hemingway had gone down the tubes. But I may have been the first who feared that his own writing career would go the same way. What if I woke one morning and found that I just couldn't write anymore? Hemingway was an incredible author, and exceptionally well read. I have to believe that he knew that what he was producing dribble, compared to greatest works. "I liked his earlier stuff better." Said Rick, wistfully. Rick drank very expensive Tennessee whisky. I had given up drinking, not by choice, but by economic necessity. I heard the thick, heavenly liquid flow down his throat and I envied him. Still, I couldn't get Hemingway out of my head. Maybe it wasn't writer's block I feared. Maybe it was suicide. Hemingway with a shotgun in his mouth. It just seemed too easy to imagine. "I really liked up in Michigan. Now that was some writing." Said Rick. "And that Nick Adams, that was a boy I'd be proud to have as a son."

The Nick Adams stories was a collection of outdoor short fiction, which followed the adventures of a young man, Nick Adams, as he hunted and fished in the great American forest. Physical action was always present in these stories. But beneath the macho exterior lay a literary depth that few authors have ever achieved. Nick is a man's man, who can live off the land. In hunting and fishing, he is more a part of the Earth and the natural world than a correspondent for the Toronto Star, sitting at a typewriter at two in the morning, drunk, as Hemingway was in later years. Nick Adams was everything good, that Hemingway had ever had inside of himself. He was plugged into nature, and the virility of the planet flowed through his veins. Most critics would agree that all of Hemingway's main characters were men Hemingway wished to be, tough, fearless men, standing up for principals, dying for honor, seducing women, and centering their lives around sport and combat. But the unique thing about Nick Adams is that he really was Hemingway as a young man. In a way, Nick Adams was everything Hemingway was. And every step that took him away from Nick Adams took him away from his ideals. The truer stories seem to be best. Although "A Farewell to Arms" is strongly novelized, the account is very close to Hemingway's real experiences in World War I.

"That later stuff is for the birds...cruising around Key West looking for German U Boats! Crazy." Said Rick, between generous gulps of whisky. Yeah, crazy because it never happened? Or, viewed another way, crazy BECAUSE it did happen? Hemingway had actually petitioned the US Congress to give him a special deputisation to patrol the waters off Key West, in search of German U Boats. He purchased grenades and a Thompson machine gun from prohibition era gangsters, and he and his cronies went out on patrol. Most nights they just got drunk, and used the grenades for fishing. They killed a sword fish with the Thompson, shredding it to canned tuna with hundreds of .45 caliber rounds. So, the story was true. But the real story is pathetic, a grown man at play. He was like a child with bigger, more expensive toys. The US government eventually revoked Hemingway's deputisation, and confiscated most of his weapons.

In his book, "Hemingway All the Way" Nelson Algren points out that the image we have of Hemingway, the man with the sword fish, the man on safari, come from Life Magazine photo layouts. Further, the articles aren't written BY Hemingway, they are written ABOUT him. By the 1950's he had become a household name, most likely the most famous man in American letters. And yet, he hadn't produced a successful work in years. He had become Santiago, the old man who had not caught a fish in eighty-four days. Perhaps the reason why Nick Adams is brilliant and some of the later stuff isn't is because there is a basic rule to writing. If the author bases a character on himself, the writing will be authentic, and enduring. If the author bases himself on the character, the writing will be amateurish. Unlike Kerouac, Mark Twain, Charley Kaufman, or Hunter S. Thompson who were also characters they themselves created in literature, the Hemingway character was not a writer. And he wasn't a portly man in his fifties or sixties, impressing the women of Key West, with his lies about his heroics in the Second World War, patrolling the waters off Key West, looking for German U Boats. He was Nick Adams, a woodsman in his twenties who lived, "Up in Michigan."
The world wasn't ready for an old Hemingway, and neither was Hemingway.

Rick asked me about my own writing. There are times I am embarrassed to say that I am a writer, because of how little money I make. Jack London starved, literally, for years. But when success came, it came almost over- night. And Jack London became the richest writer of all times. Hemingway never went through the starving artist period, not really. He always spent beyond his means. But in those early days, before he had a beard and a sword fish, he just asked his family to send him money to finance his drinking binges and bullfights in Europe.
"I go on adventures in the jungles, mostly in South East Asia, then I write about them." I explained.
"Sounds interesting. Is it a good life?"
"It is. But the money is bad. Or at least now it is."
"But other than the money do you love what you are doing?" Asked Rick, thoughtfully. Rick had loved his job as an engineer for oil companies. He had seen the world, made incredible money, and retired in his late forties. Now, he loved his life in Maesai. He spoke Thai well, had a beautiful, young Thai wife, and no financial troubles. In fact, his only worry was that it was hard to get English language literature in Maesai. So, it was important to him that others should enjoy their lives, and that they should produce good English language literature.
"I do enjoy my life." I answered quickly. Knowing that there were people standing on assembly lines or chained to a desk, it would have been ungrateful for me to answer otherwise. But, the truth is, it is a hard way to live. I had no home, no TV, no comforts and no money. I spent my time among strangers, often among strange races and tribes who didn't necessarily love me, and without a doubt, didn't understand me. Each time I climbed a mountain or paddled a stream, I knew that someone, somewhere had done something bigger and better. I was only partially honest with Rick. But I opened up more than I normally would. If I didn't open up to strangers, who would l open up to? "The hardest balance for me is separating myself from the adventure, or separating myself from the story. Once I have the story, I should just file it, and move on to the next one, rather than continuing with a trip, which takes me away from the keyboard. It is hard to do. Hemingway, when he was at the peak of his fame, appearing in Life magazine, hunting in Africa, and catching sword fish in Key West, had pretty much stopped writing. The Old Man and the Sea was the only significant work he produced after 1941."

Rick nodded. I had the feeling Rick knew more about me than I was willing to admit. One of the things Rick knew about me was that I desperately needed a drink. In a reverse of the Kenny Rogers song, "The Gambler," he handed me his bottle, and I drank down his last swallow. Passed on a cigarette, and listen for his advice. "Don't let your bike get in the way of your writing." He said, with the gravity of the sun. "And I don't mean just the bike. I mean the canoe, the kayak..whatever it is. The bike is good. Take it with you sometimes. But don't become the bike. You are a writer, not a biker. If you remember that, I believe things will happen for you soon." As if this wasn't shocking enough, Rick brought up a a name that I hadn't mentioned. "I gave that advice to Daniel McMartin. He was supposed to be an activist, helping the hill tribes. But he got so caught up in his image, in his cowboy hat and his truck with the slogans on the outside...He lost sight of what it was he was doing here. Now, he is gone. And you are here." Rick paused, stared me hard in the eyes, and repeated. "Don't let the bike get in the way."
© Antonio Graceffo May 18th 2004
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