A selection from Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” – this ought to be mandatory reading for all writers, artists, and humans.
You kept from thinking and it was all marvelous. You were equipped with good insides so that you did not go to pieces that way, the way most of them had, and you made an attitude that you cared nothing for the work you used to do, now that you could no longer do it. But, in yourself, you said that you would write about these people; about the very rich; that you were really not of them but a spy in their country; that you would leave it and write of it and for once it would be written by some one who knew what he was writing of. But he would never do it, because each day of not writing, of comfort, of being that which he despised, dulled his ability and softened his will to work so that, finally, he did no work at all. The people he knew now were all much more comfortable when he did not work. Africa was where he had been happiest in the good time of his life, so he had come here to start again. They had made this safari with the minimum of comfort. There was no hardship; but there was no luxury and he had thought that he could get back into training that way. That in some way he could work the fat off his soul in the way a fighter went into the mountains to work and train in order to burn it off of his body.
Really, it comes down to that last sentence and dreams of recreating the training sequence in Rocky IV – mountainsides vs. laboratories. Mountains are the dreams of the earth, you know.
I don’t think of myself quite so grandly as does Harry in this story. I am too young, too silly, and far too poor a writer to say such things. But the substance of it hits home, and it struck me at precisely the right moment.
In grad school, now complete and already fading (it was less emotionally resonant than, say, actor training), more often than not I focused on minutiae: gathering, organizing, and then scripting out information as precisely as possible. Punctuation carried blinding weight, as did an extra second of video or the decibel level of a recorded interview. This is the nature of all craftsmanship, I suppose, exhaustive attention to detail. Along the way, I lost sight of the forest for the trees. Incidentally, I wish that metaphor was less used and less accurate. But it’s on point. I could also say that I lost sight of the story for the words, or of the planet for the people.
Under the pressure of deadlines, skills tests and revisions, I lost grasp of the beauty in storytelling and truth-seeking. Cerebrally, I never forgot why I went to journalism school. But at my core, the details became the purpose. And damned if that wasn’t a tremendous stumble.
Two weeks before graduation my long-form teacher asked that we read a few short stories, to examine the writing techniques and, he said, because we would likely carry their substance forever. One of these was Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” The night I read it I wept for hours.
The virtuosity of the writing struck me, certainly, especially the manipulation of the medium to play with time and location so elegantly. That and the thematic elements reminded me of Prufrock. It’s just stunning and evocative and precise. And you can tell that Hemingway knew it.
Something in it struck a deep chord, reminded me of acting and the arts and belief in transcendence. And for over a year that something had lain dormant. I cannot thank my professor enough.
The point of all this: I never want to go through the motions, dulled and distracted by the details of technique. Yes, they offer a gateway into the truest of truths. I am a believe in Goethe’s microcosm and in the Buddhist meditation on the subtlest of sensations as a window into the fundamental qualities of existence. But I also never want to lose myself to tunnel vision and lose any broad curiosity. This is the spirit with which I begin this blog.
Read the story. Track it down and dive in deep. A second reading of Kilimanjaro didn’t move me so dramatically, but it is a devastating piece of writing.
Separately, sifting through pictures of Kilimanjaro reveals that its summit has changed in the past two decades – no subtle shift, this. Some 25 percent of the mountain’s glacier in 2000 has since melted. Some statistics state that in the past century 85 percent of that stunning white has receded. Makes me wonder what mountain Hemingway saw and loved, and if a brown, iceless summit will hold the same majesty for future generations.
So now it was all over, he thought. So now he would never have a chance to finish it. So this was the way it ended, in a bickering over a drink. Since the gangrene started in his right leg he had no pain and with the pain the horror had gone and all he felt now was a great tiredness and anger that this was the end of it. For this, that now was coming, he had very little curiosity. For years it had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself. It was strange how easy being tired enough made it.
Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting. Well he would never know, now.