Writer Needs: An Island, a Tower, and a Cat

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Um, bleed, Mr. Hemingway? Those are not words that inspire the creative spirit. Granted, we all aren’t penning Nobel Prize worthy fiction, but there must be something the aspiring writer can take away from the life of this literary icon, aside from the need to give up a pint or two of our life’s blood.

When I think of Hemingway, it takes me to a tropical island which is deeply entwined with my own family’s experience. Instead of bleeding onto the page, let’s take a little jaunt over to Cuba, climb up a tower, and hang out with some cats, why don’t we? Here’s the first inspiration from Hemingway’s tropical lifestyle.

Find yourself an island. Lovingly known as ‘Papa’ to the Cuban people, Hemingway moved to the island in 1940 and stayed there for twenty years. My father and mother both shared the same island home. Dad’s father, born in Guantanamo, moved the family from Central Ermita to Matahambre to Santa Lucia as his work shifted from the sugar mills to the copper mine. Like Hemingway, my parents basked in the exceptional warmth of the Cuban people, the beauty of a Carribean paradise. Doesn’t that sound like the perfect locale for a writer to pen that magnum opus?

But nothing is perfect is it? Suddenly there was Castro and the beautiful things were stripped away until all that was left for my father’s family was the contents of their suitcases as they fled the revolution, my mother’s side having escaped a bit earlier. Hemingway left his island home too, never to return, dying by his own hand in Idaho a year later.

So what if that idyllic writing locale is not to be? Then we must find a more mundane place for our dreams and stories. For my parents, it led them to the golden California sunshine. This noisy suburbia is home for me too, no sand, no surf, just traffic and leaf blowers, but the words get written just the same. No island, no problem. Life is a series of adjustments, after all.

Perhaps we can still get some inspiration from another aspect of Hemingway’s life. Maybe we can pare down our dreams to focus on creating the perfect writing space where the words will flow like honey. We don’t need an island, just a room of our own, as Virginia Woolf said. Second idea coming right up.

Build yourself a tower. Hemingway had one. On his property at Finca de Vigia, an estate outside Havana, the city where my mother was born, his beautiful four story tower boasted amazing views. From there, he could see for miles, alone with his thoughts. Perfection. The ideal roost for a writer. Maybe.

In actuality, Hemingway did not often use the tower for writing, preferring the noise and clatter of the main house. In his early days in Paris, he rented a room above a sawmill to write, so perhaps the tower’s solitude and serenity proved stultifying. Adjustments, remember? And anyway, how many writers can afford such a luxury? We’ve already traded in our island for a backyard. For this writer, there will never be a tower. It’s likely there will never even be a study, thanks to the meagre square footage and the cost of living in California. Scratch the tower. No worries, though. Chapters can be hashed out anywhere, crammed in cubicles, closets if necessary, or small rooms above sawmills, anywhere with a worn keyboard, typewriter, or notepad. Another adjustment. On to inspiration number three.

Get yourself a cat. Papa Hemingway was an enormous fan of the feline. “A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not,” he said. What better companion for a writer who must spend long hours pecking out one hard won word at a time? Hemingway kept cats both at his Key West home, and the Finca, so there must be something to it.

Back to the family lore. In the years before Cuba fell to Castro, my grandmother’s friend, Mrs. Osborne, had a cat that needed to be rehomed. Mrs. Osborne and Grandma decided to ask a favor of Papa Hemingway at his favorite bar, the Floridita. Would Mr. Hemingway take the cat and give it a home at La Finca, with his other feline friends? He did, jotting a note instructing his caretaker to welcome the cat. Mrs. Osborne’s pet probably has many descendants still roaming the property among the more exotic six toed variety that Hemingway favored. And who wouldn’t want a furry companion for this most lonely of occupations?

Ah, but there is that cats vs. dogs dilemma. When a cat won’t do, perhaps the canine companion will serve. Same fuzzy package, same comfortable presence during those long lonely hours in the tower/closet. There will be plenty of emotional honesty in that tail wag. The dog will be a writer’s best champion, the soulful eyes encouraging, the energetic body a reminder that the walk is the thing that clears the brain, unkinks the plot tangles, and restores the imagination. Dog or cat, either or both will serve a writer well. The island, the tower, the cat…what last tip can be gleaned from the life of a legendary writer?

Be generous. For this last inspiration, we return to the Floridita bar in Havana, which was also frequented by my maternal grandparents. It was the birthplace of the daiquiri, in addition to being a popular island hot spot. The bar afforded Hemingway a place to get away from the typewriter, put down his legend status for a while…unless, of course, he was called upon to grant a favor or two…which is how my family came into possession of a signed copy of The Old Man and the Sea. When Grandma wasn’t helping Mrs. Osborne arrange the adoption of her cat, she visited an island bookstore and purchased a copy of the novel. She found Hemingway at his favorite barstool at the Floridita at his accustomed afternoon hour, and asked him to sign the book. He graciously complied. A family heirloom was born, thanks to the generosity of a gracious author.

Generosity is always the right choice, for Hemingways or more humble writers. Can a simple email lift the spirits of a struggling writer? Then it should be sent. Will the gift of a book lift someone up? Then it should be given. Will a word of advice help a fellow writer over a slump? Of course, it should be spoken. And more broadly, can a well crafted fiction book help someone escape their heavy burdens for a few hours? Then it should be written, in a tower, with a cat, on an island, or wherever, not just for the sake of the sale, but for the sake of the soul.

No island, no tower, no cat… no matter. It’s time to get back to writing.