How Artists Lose Their Way
“However you make your living is where your talent lies.
—Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro gives us a powerful look at an artist who lost his way, and realized it too late.
In it, we see Harry, a writer, and his wife, Helen, stranded on a safari trip in Africa. Harry’s leg is infected with gangrene and they are desperately waiting for a plane.
As he lay dying, he thinks about all of the stories he intended to write but never did.
With vultures circling him overhead, Harry realizes that he will never “write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well.”
He reflects on these stories in his mind as he dies, and they are incredible! These stories are about war, love, and mountains.
He tells them (to us, the reader, through his internal dialogue) in such a great way that the reader almost wonders why he never wrote them down, even in this way that he is thinking about them.
Harry wanted to wait until he could do it perfectly. He married Helen, a very rich lady, and she give him a life of comfort.
Harry didn’t need to write another word in his life because Helen was providing for them both. This caused him to become idle and keep pushing his art to tomorrow.
As with everything, tomorrow never came. Harry didn’t realize this until he was dying on the plains of Africa.
He died having never told these stories to anyone except those of us reading Hemingway’s words.
When an Artist Dies
The Snows of Kilimanjaro is one of the saddest, scariest stories I have ever read. My worst fear is that I will die having regrets like Harry, and that I won’t realize I have these regrets until it’s too late.
This fear has driven me to action. It has lit a fire under me to do the things that I have always put off until tomorrow. This book is a prime example of it.
Ever since I was young, I wanted to be a published author. Not necessarily a professional writer, but I wanted to write a book that would live long past my expiration date.
I would participate in National Novel Writing Month, a national event in November where participants try to write a 10,000 word novel. I never made it nearly that far.
“I’ll write a book when I’m done with the 7th grade,” I would tell myself. The it was the 8th grade. Then 9th.
I let myself put off writing to tomorrow, and I became comfortable with it. Why worry about a book when I have so much homework to do? When I have magic shows to perform? This became my mindset.
It wasn’t until I asked myself what I feared the most that things began to change. I realized that it wasn’t death that I feared, but the realization that there won’t be a tomorrow.
Once I’m dying, there will be a point where I no longer have time to write the books that I so desperately wanted to when I was a teen. All I’ll be able to do is lay there and dream of the stories I will never be able to tell.
This is why The Snows of Kilimanjaro hit home with me, and why I think everyone who wants to create art but never seems to find the time should read it, or at least think about what it teaches.
Just as Harry had no idea that he would contract gangrene on this safari, so too do we never know when we will start dying.
There’s another interesting aspect to Harry’s character in the story: He gets bored very quickly. He is board of his wife, he is board of sobriety, and he is board of dying.
This is another sign that he has let his inner artist slowly die. The inner artist would never be board of anything and would find art and joy in everything!
Take an honest look at yourself and ask if you’ve become board with anything lately that used to be exciting.
Has living a comfortable, predictable life lead you down the same path as Harry? There was a time when I felt myself going down this path, and I course-corrected as fast as I could.
I became a much happier, more creative person after that.
Living in the present and not relying on tomorrow is a great way to revive this type of feeling.
Harry kept putting off his writing until tomorrow, so he wasn’t really happy today; I did the same thing as a teenager, and now I am much happier knowing that I am working on this blog.
Is there anything that you have been putting off that you wish you would do today?