The initial image many of us conjure of Ernest Hemingway is that of a writer writing. That’s the first image I see too.
But the image I most often conjure is of a man’s man. Living, by which I mean adventuring, continually seeking adversity and attacking it where it lives.
Of course, that’s larger than life, but so was he. Wasn’t he? To feel truly alive, we all need an antagonist. Don’t we? I do.
My favorite quote from Hemingway is “[M]an is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
I can relate. And because I know myself better than I know anyone else, I’ll use myself as an example.
Without going into the grisly details, my own childhood was marked with insecurity brought on by severe repression. As just one example, the night of my senior prom, I was at my job, washing dishes and bussing tables at a local truck stop.
Of course, my classmates came in with their dates after the prom. Of course they did. And all I earned or learned from that job was humility. My paychecks went into the family kitty.
To my lasting disadvantage, I learned during those early years to be overly empathetic. I learned nothing about being a man. When I left home, I didn’t know so much as how to change a flat tire.
Instead, in order to survive, I learned through negative reinforcement to be what psychologists call a “people pleaser.”
My early life also taught me to expect nothing, that there was and would be no gratuitous anything. I learned to earn every accolade and every reward I would ever receive. When I graduated high school at 17, I had three scholarships for college. I didn’t accept them. In my view, I hadn’t earned them.
(Hence my disdain for the current trend of awarding “participation” trophies and the notion that there are no losers or winners, only participants.)
But I did graduate, thereby earning the right to shake myself free from the repression. In that pursuit, I chose the most difficult, most self-testing route I could then imagine: Marine Corps basic training.
Graduating from the MC Recruit Depot was the first and biggest accomplishment of my life. It taught me I didn’t need anything or anyone else to grow into who I was. And it imbued me with a heightened sense of urgency and a thirst for adventure.
During my 21 years in the USMC (which I jokingly refer to as a “21-year civilian-appreciation course”), I never stood so much as an hour of mess duty (working in the mess hall, where food was prepared and served). Instead, I always volunteered for guard duty.
Standing or roving a guard post alone overnight might not be a greater challenge, but it definitely provided higher levels of adrenaline and ample opportunity for exercising the imagination, good and bad.
Subsequently, both in and out of the Marine Corps, I always sought and took on assignments that would provide me with some excitement, that feeling of heightened adrenaline. I was a cop for awhile. I labored in the oilfields of New Mexico. I was a landscaper, a truck driver, and on and on.
Over the years, I started and stopped smoking cigarettes several times, always in search of an antagonist, something to strive against.
While I was smoking, the self-destructive act of smoking itself was the antagonist. When I stopped smoking, the cravings were the antagonist. When the cravings dropped away, I started smoking again.
While on recruiter duty in Utah, I once faced down four young toughs who had “pretend raped” a 14 year old girl in our apartment complex. They actually called the police to report that I had threatened them.
It was true. I had. I told them blatantly I’d be watching them, no matter where they were, no matter what time of day or night it was. And if one of them stepped out of line, I would visit harm on him in numerous ways.
When the deputy sheriff showed up to talk with me about it, I told him the whole story, then admitted it. He laughed and said to be sure when I “visited harm” on them I didn’t do so with any sort of weapon that wasn’t part of my body. Then he shook my hand. For me, that was another reward.
One of my more memorable experiences happened during a camping trip. My friend and I spent a weekend perched on the edge of a 500-foot drop to the Gila River.
One afternoon and early evening of that trip, we survived a severe rain/hail/wind and lightning storm that jostled, rocked and lifted the truck my friend and I were sitting in — again, about 40 feet from that 500-foot drop. More than once, we thought we were going over. And each time we laughed. Because seriously, what a way to go!
I didn’t convey all of that to fill you in on my life, but to explain my version of what makes up a guy like me and others like me. And writers like me.
During my (so far) 66 years on this planet, all of this — all of it and a great deal more — has been nothing more than a way to seek adventure. A way to seek just enough adversity to feel truly alive. (And the key word is “feel.”)
And then write about it.
Today, I can’t do much more than write, so I engage in personal challenges. But I almost feel as if I[m cheating. How much adrenaline is involved in sitting alone in a dark room making stuff up?
So occasionally I engage in a little self-sabotage. I wrote a bit about that in a topic over on my Daily Journal earlier.
I desire adversity. I crave the adrenaline rush. Something — anything — beyond the simple, annoying act of existence. Simply breathing, in and out, in and out. And I think it makes me a better writer.
How about you?
‘Til next time, write!
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