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Rheta Johnson: Build that wall


Rheta Grimsley Johnson



I've been three times to the Ernest Hemingway house in Key West, Florida, hoping with each visit to find some secret to writing short, declarative sentences that resonate with the reading public and sell millions of books.  


It was dusk when the priest came. Lines like that. 


The beautiful French Colonial-style home is always crowded with tourists, and despite Hemingway's poor marital history, it is the second most popular wedding venue on Key West. The only place more popular is the beach. 


The guides are good at their jobs, but in a necessary hurry. They welcome you, rush you through the living quarters, tell you the movie-star names of a few polydactyl cats and too soon you're done. 


I linger. That is allowed. The secret to powerful and unadorned writing is here, somewhere. 


If a good porch that rings a big and glamorous house is the answer, Hemingway certainly had one. He and his second wife Pauline lived in the largest house on the island, bought for $8,000 at a 1931 tax sale by Pauline's Uncle Gus. A rich patron, maybe that's the solution. 


From the gallery you can see the Key West lighthouse right across the street. Legend has it the lighthouse made it easier for Hemingway to find his home in the dark after long drinking bouts. Every writer needs one. 


I've known a lot of people who marry into wealth, however, who aren't necessarily good writers. Having an exotic house with a swimming pool -- the first one on the island -- would seem more like a distraction than an inspiration. 


Pauline built the $20,000 pool while Ernest was away covering the Spanish Civil War -- and carrying on with another war correspondent, Martha Gellhorn. He wasn't happy when he returned and got the bill. 


The pool took up the space Papa once had used for his boxing ring. Boxing, like fishing and wars, was a Hemingway hobby, and maybe that physical release was part of what made his prose sing. "Don't be sentimental."/"You make me ill." 


Nothing like punching something to feel inspired. And if some biographies are to be believed, Hemingway punched at a lot, including wives. 


When he wrote in Key West, Hemingway used an office above the carriage house, connected by a catwalk to the big house. It helps to have a place apart to concentrate on writing.  


It's said he stood up to write, and each day, before resuming work, read from Page One whatever book he was working on. Maybe there's something to that, the standing up part. I'll have to admit I haven't tried it. 


The drinking might have figured into Hemingway's distinctive style. Every bar on the island boasts some Hemingway connection. In his yard is a urinal from a Sloppy Joe's renovation.  


I was a little drunk. Not drunk in any positive sense but just enough to be careless. 


I was about to give up on figuring out how Hemingway wrote like Hemingway when something the guide had said earlier struck me. It was the wall. 


Around the property was a high brick wall, built in 1937 after Hemingway's popularity drew gawkers, which meant constant interruptions. So the Hemingways built a wall.  


We had a fine life. 


Maybe the secret to writing well, living well, is to build a wall. I know some who think so. 


Rheta Grimsley Johnson's most recent book is "Hank Hung the Moon ... And Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts." Comments are welcomed at [email protected]



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