Hemingway’s Well: Part 1
I started writing this post all fired up… but then I ran out of steam. Here’s how I finished it.
I have a tendency to think that, when I restart a task, I will be just as stuck as I was when I stopped it. And that’s not a helpful expectation to have. If you think you will restart work at the same low point at which you gave up on it, you’re bound to be reluctant to return to things — even if you enjoyed doing them before you got stuck. You’ll also be scared to take a break when you need to, in case you won’t have the willpower to return (so by the time you do bow out you’ll really be fed up with the task).
Ernest Hemingway has a better way to think about these things. In A Moveable Feast, he recalls that he wouldn’t always be able to write a story in one sitting. It was as if he was pulling water from a well that came close to running dry before the end of the story. But he knew that, if he left the story a while, the well would fill again in his absence. Hemingway is talking about creative resources of course but I’ve started to think about this with all sorts of tasks: I try to imagine that, left for a while, whatever kind of well I’m drawing upon will slowly fill again “from the springs that feed it”. I like the optimism of this, and also the suggestion that, when away from the task, one isn’t preparing or ‘refueling’ or ‘gearing up’, but simply letting something natural happen.
I use Hemingway’s idea in the way I set reminders on my phone — that’s not a sentence I expected to write, but there it is! When I get stuck I set a reminder for sometime down the line. And the reminder is as much about forgetting as remembering; because I know I’ll be reminded of the task at some point, I can remove myself fully from it. Then, when the notification comes, I try not to ask how I feel about the task or if I’m out of my rut, rather I start to return to it in hopeful expectation that the springs have been at work. I can’t say Hemingway’s tip is a quick fix — the truth is I didn’t finish A Moveable Feast the first time I started it a few years ago! But I’m about to pick it up again now. I’ll let you know how I find it in part two...