Hey, we’re all creative, right? But what differentiates my papier-mâché Halloween masks or your colourfully crocheted undergarments from the Nobel Prize-winning artworks of somebody like, say, Ernest Hemingway? Well, maybe Ernest was just a little stranger than you or me. New studies show that both creativity and eccentricity may be the result of genetic variations that increase the brain’s ability to filter out useless distractions and just get on with it. Well, Papa certainly got on with it – but just how peculiar was he?
Get Up, Stand Up
In his lifetime, Hemingway published seven novels, six short story collections, and two non-fiction works. Many of these are considered classics of American literature and all were written the same way. Hemingway had a study, sure – a specially-made square tower, if you don’t mind – but he did most of his writing in his bedroom. Half of that room was given over to his desk, but even that’s not where he worked, oh, no: Hemingway’s trusty typewriter actually sat on top of yet another bookcase – what he called his ‘work desk’.
And lest you think he pulled up a chair to pound the keys, think again: Hemingway preferred to work standing up, spending hours and hours at a time on his feet, moving only to shift his weight from one leg to the other. He’d wear down seven pencils in a good day’s work. And who says writing isn’t manual labour?
To appreciate just how much Hemingway loved fishing you just have to read his last major work of fiction, The Old Man and the Sea. One of his most famous novels, it centers upon Santiago, an aging fisherman who struggles with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. It won him the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was cited by the Nobel Committee as contributing to the awarding of him the Nobel Prize in Literature a year later.
Yet Hemingway himself was something of a cavalier angler and nobody better mess with his catch. During a fishing trip in the Bahamas in 1935, he – rather unconventionally – opened fire on a shoal of sharks with a Thompson submachine-gun to stop them scavenging the humungous tuna he was trying to land. Unfortunately, the explosion of blood simply caused them to attack his catch with even greater fury. His other techniques were more successful. In 1938, he established a world record by catching seven marlin in one day. He was also the first person to ever boat a giant tuna in an undamaged state.
Anyone who has read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls will know where his political sympathies lay. Published in 1940, it tells the story of Robert Jordan, a young American in the International Brigades attached to a republican guerrilla unit during the Spanish Civil War. Much was written from Hemingway’s own experiences in Spain, and when the war ended with Republican defeat sympathies only hardened. Afterwards, he said “Politically, I was always on the side of the Republic from the day it was declared and for a long time before.”
It was his passion, which In 1942, let him to set up a real-life intelligence network, nicknamed the Crook Factory, to keep an eye on pro-Franco and pro-Hitler agents in Cuba. He also took it upon himself to patrol the Caribbean for German U-boats. The Hemingway Collection contains many entries in the day log of his boat Pilar and his typewritten reports to local military commanders indicating how carefully he recorded his sightings and passed them on to American intelligence officials. The FBI disbanded his network after less than a year, but still – how’s that for fieldwork?
A Hunting Hercules
Hemingway’s about as famous for his hunting exploits as he is for his fishing (or his books) – but did you know that, in 1940, just after finishing For Whom The Bell Tolls, Papa went out with his third wife and two of his kids and killed four hundred jackrabbits in a single day? And, at just the tender age of three, he not only killed a porcupine, but also ate it at the behest of his father. Now that’s commitment.
Get It From Your Parents
Speaking of parents – if it’s genetic variation that’s knocking out these eccentric geniuses, their elders surely ought to be examined, too. Hemingway’s mama had her own quirks: determined to get young Ernest playing a musical instrument, she once kept him out of school for an entire year to learn the cello. Did it work? Not a chance. Hemingway says, ‘That cello—I played it worse than anyone on earth’.
Good thing he ploughed on with the prose, eh?
Joel Willans is the founder of Ink Tank and author of the short story collection, SPELLBOUND: Stories of Women’s Magic over Men. His prize-winning fiction has been broadcast on BBC radio and published in dozens of magazines and anthologies worldwide. You can find him on Twitter and Ello.