sitting in a cafe with joe shmoe

17 June 2009

This week I’m reading the Hemingway memoir, A Moveable Feast.  Last week I read John Steinbeck’s memoir, Travels with Charley. 

Hemingway is reflecting on a time early in his career, living amongst artists and writers in Paris, struggling to make ends meet, and having doubts about his calling as a writer.  Steinbeck, near the end of his career, on an extended road trip around America with his dog Charley, had seen enormous success and recognition for his writing. 

So, I’m reading about Parisian cafes and shopkeepers and horse races this morning and it occurs to me, what if Hemingway never got famous after all that?  I’m struck with something akin to grief, thinking that if his fortunes had taken a different turn, would he have written these stories?  I mean, the events happened – what if I never got to read about them? 

For some reason I got to thinking about some balanced rock sculptures I saw in the Humber River a few years ago.  I walked by this spot regularly then; and one day, dozens of the otherworldly things were just there in the water.  I love the dichotomous nature of them: the ancient, permanent rocks balanced tenderly and precariously on top of one another – one swift wind or current and it’s all over.  A few days later, they were gone.  Not kicked over by unappreciative teenagers – there were no little piles to signify such a violent end.  The rocks that remained in the water were scattered as would any in a shallow riverbed.  In creating the mystery of the sculptures’ arrival and disappearance, the artist was telling a story.

So what if, like the rock sculptures, Hemingway’s life came and went and most of us didn’t know it?  His writing/living experiences in Paris could have been anyone’s.  And if the name Ernest Hemingway was as familiar to people as Joe Shmoe, would the story be of less value?

Steinbeck seemed to put effort into making his story less about John Steinbeck Famous Author than a man with questions, desires, doubts, faults and vulnerabilities.  And had this reader never have read one of his stories before this one, she would have fallen in love with him for the first time.

And she’d still want to be transported back to Paris in the 1920s to sit at a café and drink brandy and eat fresh bread dipped in oil with artists and writers.

And she still thinks about the story of those rocks.

So if ten people – or ten million people read a story, would it make any difference?  Would it make any difference in your desire to tell it?  I think those ten people might have something to say about that.


A rock balancing artist making sculptures near my home in Toronto’s Beaches.

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