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Help from Hemingway and a Paris Café

Les Deux Magots, café de Paris, December 2010. That’s Hemingway in the framed photo.

Hemingway brings to life the pleasures of a warm and friendly café, in his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast.  This past winter I was fortunate enough to visit several of the Paris cafés where Hemingway wrote, and I turn to A Moveable Feast now, seeking relief from troubles that I will call, for lack of a better term, “writer’s block.”  Hemingway’s book offers much sustenance for a writer—his stories of the artists who flocked to 1920’s Paris entertain, and his accounts of the writer’s life instruct and inspire.  As a bonus, the reader comes to know Hemingway back when he had to skimp on food and heat, before he became “Papa,” the literary giant.

Reading is my biggest weapon against writer’s block.  I choose a piece of writing that gives me pleasure, such as A Moveable Feast, and as I read, I’m reminded of the importance of this difficult vocation.  What if instead of facing the empty page or the unsalvageable chapter, the writers I love had decided to abandon their stories?  Often the answer to this question is enough to make me carry on.

But if my blockage is still unmovable, I type a section of writing that I admire.  Typing 300 words can be enough to release a stream of my own words and also allows insight into another writer’s craft, much more so than by simply reading.

If this reading and typing exercise doesn’t open the flow, then a change of scenery may be in order.  Like Hemingway, I’m fond of writing in cafés, sipping café au lait, and people watching can be a creative stimulant as well.  You can bet that the girl with hair “black as a crow’s wing” shows up in one of Hemingway’s later stories.  Enjoy the passage below from the young Hemingway.

From A Moveable Feast, p. 17, Scribner’s 2010 edition

It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait.  The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write.  I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story.  I had already seen the end of fall come through boyhood, youth and young manhood, and in one place you could write about it better than in another.  That was called transplanting yourself, I thought, and it could be as necessary with people as with other sorts of growing things.  But in the story the boys were drinking and this made me thirsty and I ordered rum St. James.  This tasted wonderful on the cold day and I kept on writing, feeling very well and feeling the good Martinique rum warm me all through my body and my spirit.

A girl came in the café and sat by herself at a table near the window.  She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.

I looked at her and she disturbed me and made me very excited.  I wished I could put her in the story, or anywhere, but she had placed herself so she could watch the street and the entry and I knew she was waiting for someone.  So I went on writing.

The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it.  I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink.

I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought.  You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.

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  1. April 9, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    Hmm… The idea of pushing through a block by typing something _good_ (as opposed to typing _something_, a la Peter Elbow’s freewriting, appeals. Note also http://bit.ly/eNZczv

    • April 9, 2011 at 10:27 pm

      Very interesting link. I really don’t see it as stealing, though–more like absorbing.

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