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The Quest For Papa's Perfect Sentence

When I was 15 and thought myself a smart young man of letters, I read The Sun Also Rises. I knew then I would read everything that Ernest Hemingway wrote because you could not be serious and avoid him.

It was 1961. The summer when he died.

But then I decided I could avoid him.

No, I decided I had to put him aside. It was bittersweet, though likely the first adult decision of my life.

Those times and decisions came back to me this week during the six-hour PBS biographical special Hemingway.

If watching those 360 minutes does not illuminate both the hope and terrible fear of imitating Hemingway, nothing will.

He was a temptation, both for his talent and his persona. He was great. He was terrible. Any young American male could be lured to believing he could be Hemingway. I felt the tug of his gravity and raging passions.

For an autumn and winter after I read Sun, all my classroom paragraphs were unintended copies of Hemingway. When I realized what I had been doing unconsciously, I shuddered.

It was embarrassing, and even more embarrassing because no one recognized it except for me.

Though the imitation was not deliberate, I took no solace. I knew it to be real. I could write better sentences as a fake Hemingway than I could write as the real me. That revelation was fearsome.

What if that was all I was or could be? A fake stealing someone else's heart.

But even thinking of being a plausible fake Hemingway was the silliness of being 15. It did not take long for me to see that silliness. And laugh at it. It was only arrogance.

Hemingway was a true, devilish temptation then and remained one for many years. What he did with words and ideas seemed so effortless and direct that anyone with intelligence might follow him. He was real.

Mimics want what others have, and covet that for themselves.

It is theft. There is no achievement in mimicry, which is the worst form of imitation. There is no good in flattery.

I was too easily drawn to be one of those mimics. I feared that I would let his rhythm and expressions take hold of me. They would be too powerful for me to resist. And then I would never be myself. Or even recognize what being myself was.

There is no joy in a thin, fake reflection in the mirror. That scared me more than being a failure.

So I put Hemingway aside for many years.

Only now in the past decade or so do I feel comfortable enough immersing myself in his words.

I came to see that I could not be Hemingway. His passion and pain. His confrontation with fear. His terrible failures and even more consuming ego. But he was addictive for me. Or at least the idea of Hemingway's grandness.

Was leaving "Papa" a wise decision? I think so.

But I am now myself, and do not believe I will try to write Hemingway's perfect sentence. At least I am not trying to seek his perfection. Only my own.

The quest for that perfection was a Hemingway touchstone. As he had once written: "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say."

Someday I might write that sentence. I will recognize those words when they happen. It will be a fine day. That's a transaction we all must make with ourselves if we are serious as writers. Or aspiring to be serious. Maybe I am serious only about being serious.

One day, if I become good enough, I might write the perfect sentence. And then more of them. It is a true ambition. It is a satisfaction that seems worthy of my hopes as a writer.

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David Rutter is the former publisher/editor of the Lake County News-Sun, and more importantly, the former author of the Beachwood's late, great "The Week In WTF" column. His most recent piece for us was Thank Trump For Your Stimulus Check. You can also check him out at his Theeditor50's blog. He welcomes your comments.



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Posted on April 8, 2021


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BOOKS - The Quest For Papa's Perfect Sentence.

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