Starting anything is hard. Losing everything and starting over is even harder.
In December 1922, a young Ernest Hemingway was in Switzerland as a newspaper correspondent for the Lausanne Peace Conference. On the way he met journalist and editor of The American Magazine Lincoln Steffens, who was impressed with Hemingway’s writing and asked to see more.
Hemingway messaged his wife Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, better known as Hadley, at their home in Paris to bring samples of his work to Switzerland. Hadley packed everything that Hemingway had written from the last three years, including copies and first drafts, into a suitcase and went to join him.
While waiting for the train at Gare de Lyon station in Paris, Hadley left the suitcase unattended on the train to buy refreshments for the trip. When she came back, it was gone.
Hemingway was devastated. In a letter to his good friend and poet Ezra Pound, he wrote:
“I suppose you heard about the loss of my Juvenalia? I went up to Paris last week to see what was left and found that Hadley had made the job complete by including all carbons, duplicates, etc. All that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem which was later scrapped, some correspondence between John McClure and me, and some journalistic carbons. You, naturally, would say, ‘Good’ etc. But don't say it to me. I ain't yet reached that mood.I worked 3 years on the damn stuff. Some like that Paris 1922 I fancied.”
Despite his loss, Hemingway recovered and in four short years he went from being an unknown author to one of the most important writers of his generation.
During this time he produced some of the most important works of 20th century fiction, including the landmark short story collection In Our Time (1925) and the novels The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), arguably the finest novel to emerge from World War I.
Losing everything can be devastating, but being resilient and starting over can lead to dramatic growth. Here are some crucial steps used by Hemingway to overcoming major setbacks and thriving.
“The first draft of anything is shit”
In typical Hemingway fashion with the loss of his suitcase and all of his writings, he drank…a lot.
He also boxed, swam in the Seine river which he remarked “cold as hell. Found when drunk I was an excellent high diver”, gambled extensively, and most epic of all was an amateur bullfighting, which he regarded as “the best damn stuff in the world”.
Drinking may have been one way he coped with starting over, but it didn't stop his writing. In a letter he wrote, “Been souzed every night … I always work well under the influence of gastric remorse.”
Your first draft and early works almost always aren't the best. Hemingway’s writing truly found it’s voice AFTER the loss of his early material.
Accepting the setback is an important first step to starting over. Hemingway was determined to become an accepted author and accepted the loss of his early writing and moved on.
Get Back to Work
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
After accepting your loss, it is imperative to get back to work.
Hemingway embarked on a literary fury for the next four years after the loss of his suitcase. Despite, or because of, the amount of drinking and adventures around Europe, he was able to produce volumes of short stories and complete two of the finest novels of the era.
In addition to his own writing Hemingway edited popular magazines and was willing to work on behalf of other writers, pushing Ford Madox Ford into publishing excerpts from Stein’s “Making of Americans” in The Transatlantic Review.
In typical Hemingway fashion he grumbled all the while, but still worked tirelessly on his writing and that of his colleagues.
Starting over requires a lot of work. Build upon the work that was lost and use a strong work ethic to produce more and higher quality material than before.
Grow With Support
“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places.”
After the loss of his suitcase Hemingway refined his prose to be “tight and hard as goat shit”, but he didn't do it alone.
Hemingway was vastly influenced by his friends and experiences in Paris also known as the “Lost Generation” artists.
He owed his macho prose style to the great lesbian modernist Gertrude Stein. F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, was one of his mentors and drinking partners.
His writing matured and grew into Nobel Prize winning material. In a letter to Stein he wrote:
“I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across — not just to depict life — or criticize it — but to actually make it alive.”
Use your loss as an opportunity to grow. Build upon the past and further refine your work from the experience with the help of others and a greater understanding of your goal.
Starting Over Isn't Easy
What I enjoy most about Hemingway’s loss of his early writings is the amount of self doubt and struggle he overcame to becoming a great writer.
Despite his bravado Hemingway had doubts about his art and abilities. While bullfighting in Spain he wrote a letter saying, “ … we haven't got any money anymore I am going to have to quit writing and I never will have a book published”
Yet, it was on the train home to Paris that he first penned the beginning of The Sun Also Rises which is widely regarded as his finest work.
Starting again from nothing isn't easy. The most important part is to continue working and grow stronger. As Hemingway would write in the Old Man and the Sea, “But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated”.