Recent soul-searching revealed to me that I have strange role models. One is a hardy, bare-bones war journalist and novelist who wrote as if he were being up-charged for any use of creative adjectives. Another is a fictional Manhattan lifestyle columnist who somehow paid for her luxury fashion and restaurant habit with a freelancer’s salary (I repeat…fictional). One survived two plane crashes in two days. The other barely survived a weekend in a woodland cabin with her boyfriend.
I quickly want to point out how “The Old Man and the Sea” and “Sex and the City” sound twice as entertaining when the titles are switched around – think of a short novel about a Times Square department store Santa Claus and an R-rated remake of The Little Mermaid. But aside from how they title their work, it’s safe to say Ernest Hemingway and Carrie Bradshaw couldn’t possibly find more opposite ends of the writer spectrum to posit themselves on.
I have a pile of New Yorkers sitting on my coffee table that accrued in my mailbox during the summer spent away from Missoula. The pile has caused me great stress since I returned. Finally, I decided to filter through the bakers’ dozen of issues and find one article to read in each, and then I could carry on with my life (much like the New Yorker continues to do with my subscription every week). The decided “piece de resistance” in the June 8/15 issue was a short story from Hemingway, titled “Pursuit as Happiness.” The accompanying collage art shows two sailors on a rudimentary wood boat hovering unknowingly over a marlin that dwarfs the other fish surrounding it.
In true Hemingway fish-lit fashion, the short story leads with a paragraph of four sentences that are as dry as the story’s topic is wet. “That year we had planned to fish for marlin off the Cuban coast for a month. The month started the tenth of April and by the tenth of May we had twenty-five marlin and the charter was over.” God help me. I settled a little further into my futon couch and sipped my coffee, attempting to awaken my attention span for what was clearly going to be a laborious fifteen minutes.
But was this really how I was going to spend my Sunday morning? I’m unemployed, quickly running out of money, leaving for a road trip in ten days, investing time and capital into a website project that I reap zero financial reward from, and my laundry needs folding. And on an unstructured Sunday morning, I’m going to lounge pantsless on my couch with a stack of magazines, a too-big mug of jitters and a short story about a fishing charter that was already over?
…well, yeah. That’s exactly what I was going to do. That’s what Carrie Bradshaw would have done, too.
I stuck out the second paragraph to learn that Hemingway was considering extending the charter out another month, but was dealing with financial problems comfortingly similar to my own. His counterpart Mr. Josie made the point that the prior month’s charter revenue would cover the bill. Then, Mr. Josie really snagged Hemingway (and me) hook line and sinker with just nine words.
“If we get bad weather, you can write something.”
Hemingway couldn’t come up with a counterargument. Neither could I.
“If we get bad weather, you can write something.” I pictured Carrie looking out her apartment window at a stormy day in late March, worrying about ruining her new silk blouse on her walk to get coffee. She would crave a raincoat from Ralph Lauren’s spring line, but wouldn’t be able to afford one unless she sat down at her early 2000s computer and tapped out a column about a dramatic personal problem that every other man, woman and subway rat could somehow relate to. And the episode would end with her ducking out of the Ralph Lauren flagship store into a biblical downpour, warm and dry in the waterproof byproduct of her freelance writing career.
Hemingway fished for another two months. The story goes on to detail how he rose at dawn, wrote until 8 AM, pulled in 500-pound fish all day, slept, and rose again for weeks. One day, the “big one” came. The marlin to end all marlin. Hemingway and Mr. Josie’s cash cow. Carrie’s above-the-fold headline about new trends in women’s rain slickers.
Hemingway fought the fish for hours, and eventually lost it because of a simple tragic mistake made by another fisherman. I was somehow latched onto this story like an apprehensive but desperate gambler getting a tarot card reading on a boardwalk…like whether or not Hemingway landed this marlin fully determined whether or not I was going to be successful too. I felt it in my gut when Carlos cut the wrong line, letting the fortune swim back to the depths.
Bad weather, indeed.
Ernest Hemingway and Carrie Bradshaw wrote to live so they could, in turn, live to write. Maybe they had alternate sources of income as well…maybe Carrie sold black market Prada, maybe Hemingway sold his own organs, who knows. But when bad weather was on the horizon, writing was the raincoat. It wasn’t going to avert the storm, but it was going to make the storm manageable at worst and comfortable at best. And when the storm passed, they had new stories to tell, new material to sell to the reading world, thanks to the raincoats that kept them dry.
Some might just call it “living paycheck to paycheck.” But if Bradshaw and Hemingway were worried about tightening their belts to make it through, they certainly didn’t show it in the way they budgeted their time. Carrie continued to shop, eat, and party with the fiscal irresponsibility of a first-time credit cardholder. Hemingway traveled, wrote, fished, went to war, wrote, then traveled and fished some more. I couldn’t help but think “wow…my mother would kill me.”
The story ends with Hemingway hooking another record-sized marlin just a few days after losing the last one, the type of luck and reliability that us normal anglers and writers can only dream or lie about. I flipped back to the first page to reassess the quality of the collage art. I was frustrated that the ending of the story felt so entirely inaccessible for me, like the gambler paid the fortune teller only to discover the fortune teller spoke a different language entirely. But the title under the collage stood out. “Pursuit As Happiness.”
If you’re Hemingway, pursuits make you happy. And if you’re Carrie Bradshaw, purses and suits make you happy, but pursuits make you happier. And if I want to be both, I guess I better go find my raincoat.