Carrying Suitcases

Look on the web and you’ll find many versions of what happened to Ernest Hemingway’s suitcase.  They agree, however, on the essential fact—in 1922 most of his fiction and poetry disappeared.

The longer story is that Hemingway was covering the Lausanne Peace Conference for the Toronto Daily Star. After reading Hemingway’s accounts of the event, the editor Lincoln Steffens asked to see more writing, and Hemingway sent word to his first wife, Hadley, to bring his collected work—including carbons—from Paris to Switzerland.  As the train sat in the station, she left the suitcase behind to get something to drink. When she returned, it had vanished.

Writers have created novels out of Hemingway’s misfortune, and I have nothing new to add to their conjecture.  It must have been hell.  But it’s easy to say so and easy to say, as conventional wisdom does endlessly, that this event made Hemingway.  Forced to start again, he heeded the advice of Gertrude Stein and refashioned his prose in the characteristically spare style now famously imitated and parodied.  Losing the suitcase was a good thing.

Hemingway later wrote Fitzgerald, “We are all bitched from the start, and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it.”

I suppose so.  The literary lesson isn’t lost on me.  I know the moral—we go on loving what we’ve done until something shakes us from complacency and forces us to revise ourselves.

Yet, to me, seeing the theft as fortuitous suggests darker implications.  What about writers whose early work evolves unnoticed into their later work, the ones who make steady and sure progress toward an unanticipated result?  What about writers who lose nothing, who haven’t had the good fortune to experience a tragic catalyst?  Shall we all put our work in suitcases and leave them in train stations all over the country?  What will Homeland Security say?

When I was getting my MFA at Bennington and worked with Susan Cheever, she suggested something like a “suitcase cure”: take what you’ve written and put it in a drawer, then try rewriting it.  She believed what you repeated, what you lost, and what you added might be the best revision possible.

I use her method sometimes and, sure, it works.  But I can’t help wondering: is there any other way?  Elsewhere on the web you’ll find 365 posts I wrote under an alias.  I know how to delete it—Wordpress gives very specific and helpful instructions—should I go now and irreversibly scramble its zeros and ones?

I can’t do it.

Hemingway isn’t the only one to have lost his work.  Dylan Thomas lost Under Milk Wood three times—in pubs, naturally—and John Stuart Mill’s maid accidentally burnt the only copy of Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution.  T. E. Lawrence lost the first version of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom in another train station.  In the Oakland fires of 1991, Maxine Hong Kingston lost a computer disk containing the only draft of a novel.

Many of these writers responded nobly.  Carlyle wrote his brother that he’d been a “schoolboy” seeking the approval of his master only to have his work returned torn, with the message, “No, boy, thou must go and write it better.”  He concluded, “What could I do but sorrowing go and try to obey?”

Having no other choice, these writers did what they had to—but would they have deliberately destroyed the work to achieve same effect?  How confident would they be of success—defining success, in this case, as creating something better than what they’d already done?

When I was complaining about starting over as a blogger, one of my friends said deleting the old blog would be the only way to stop comparing my new self to my old.  Honestly, I meant to delete it months ago.  Yet something has stopped me.  I know nothing is as devastating to art as imitating yourself, and in the end that may have been what killed Hemingway.  However, here’s another case where I pause on the brink of doing what some would say is required of a writer.  I’m thinking “Can’t I  be a real writer without throwing my suitcase off the train?”

Just after the loss of his manuscripts, Hemingway wrote Ezra Pound:

I suppose you heard about the loss of my Juvenelia [sic]? I went up to Paris last week to see what was left, and found …all that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem, which was later scrapped, some correspondence … and some journalistic carbons. You, naturally, would say, ‘Good’ etc. But don’t say it to me. I ain’t yet reached that mood.

The other blog is a giant museum that throws this blog into deep shadow, but I’m not ready for the wrecking ball yet.  Perhaps I can resort to Hemingway’s answer for a while and say I’m waiting for the right moment.

The truth may not be so complicated, however—maybe I’m just worried I’ll never write anything as good.


Filed under Blogging, Essays, Hemingway, Meditations, MFA, Suitcases, Writing

4 responses to “Carrying Suitcases

  1. I’ll bet he didn’t WANT to lose that stuff, though.

    I like Susan Cheever’s take on it — in fact, when I wrote poetry, I remember someone suggesting that, when the poem was finished, I turn the paper over and try to re-write it from memory, the idea being that the deathless bits would be all that survived. I was never sure though. I tend to remember what sucks not what soars.

    Me too–but when I use that method, I usually know it. I say, “Why do I remember all the stuff I don’t care about losing?” and that is eye-opening too. As long as the earlier draft is in the drawer or turned down on the table, you really have nothing at stake and can let your mind wander over what you’ve done. I don’t always come up with something better, but maybe the process could make me more aware of alternatives when I write the next time.

    Thanks for visiting!

  2. MCG

    Losing one’s work would be devastating. At the time, anyway.
    But it might be easier than having your past work as record. Record, that is, of how sincerely crappy you were.
    I hate rereading my own writing. Because it’s god-awful.
    Ever since I read an excerpt from Susan Sontag’s adolescent diaries I’ve been especially ashamed of my own 15-year-old musings. I was not pondering the work of Gide like Susan. Nor was I writing in exceptional mannered prose. I wrote like a 15-year-old. And not an especially gifted one at that.
    So I let the diaries (and essays and short stories) gather dust. Because it’s just too painful to realize that I’m not- nor was I ever- a wunderkind.

    Well, you were certainly one of the most gifted kids I taught. I’ve heard Sontag called a prodigy, and that’s something different.

    And I could put my early work up against yours for crappiness and win hands down. Losing my juvenilia would be no big deal. But don’t lose yours–you can mine that stuff later.

    The way I see it, your earlier work ought to look bad or you’re not making much progress. What troubles me is when it seems better than anything you can currently produce. Maybe that would be the best time to throw it off a train, to reinvent yourself and get an entirely new start. That’s what Hemingway and the others had to do–only they didn’t have to muster the courage to do it. It was done to them. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Pingback: Preview to the Oscars. Sort of. | cha no ma-ri

  4. I once lost an entire screenplay – my first ever – to a computer crash. And I didn’t have a backup. Since it was due for a class review, I typed the entire thing from memory, all 110 pages. This post made me think of that experience. And how these events always, no matter what we say, shape us.

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