My Hemingway Complex

SaraStameyPetroglyphPhotoA writerly brag: a psychological diagnosis was created just for me! Wait, before you call the men in the white coats, let me tell you my story. Somewhere in the depths of my medical records, I am identified as suffering a “Hemingway Complex.” And I must admit, I am rather proud of it.

The short version: An active outdoor enthusiast my entire life, in my thirties I was sidelined on crutches for over a year as a result of medical malpractice (minor detail, they operated on the wrong leg). In what I imagine was a fishing expedition hoping to wish away my documented nerve damage from the bungled procedure, the lawyers for surgeon and hospital demanded I visit their designated psychiatrist. After some discussion about my loss of sports activities and work teaching scuba in the Caribbean, experiences that contributed to my adventure novel-writing, the psychiatrist pondered for a time and announced that I had what appeared to be a new syndrome: The Hemingway Complex. Then he rushed off, presumably to announce his exciting contribution to the medical community.

Eventually they did pay for my corrective surgery and physical therapy, and I resumed my outdoor adventures and travels, flying my colorful Hemingway banner. The thing is, that psychiatrist maybe had it right: My novels do take their inspiration from some of the exotic places where I’ve lived or travelled, and many of the action scenes draw on personal experiences and muscle memory. Even as a child, I had an irresistible urge for daredevil adventure and exploring new places (I gave my poor mother many gray hairs), and I still feel my pores opening to suck in every molecule of new impressions when I travel and try something new like zip-lining or cenote-diving.

So what is the Hemingway Complex?

According to the psychiatrist, it’s a hunger for adrenaline-fueled action, foreign environments, and the strong emotions they trigger, all of which would be harnessed into stories. Ernest Hemingway himself certainly fit the profile: He famously threw himself into dangerous situations, such as driving an ambulance in the World War I Italian front, where he was seriously wounded; working in combat zones as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War; surviving serious accidents on safari in Africa; accompanying the Normandy Landing of World War II as a journalist. He was also an outdoor sports enthusiast, especially hunting and fishing. All of these experiences generated his stories and novels that earned him a Nobel Prize and an enduring place in classic American literature.

HemingwayWWIIHemingway’s bravery in leading some soldiers (breaking the rules) during WWII also earned him the Bronze Star, and according to Wikipedia: “He was recognized for his valor, having been ‘under fire in combat areas in order to obtain an accurate picture of conditions,’ with the commendation that ‘through his talent of expression, Mr. Hemingway enabled readers to obtain a vivid picture of the difficulties and triumphs of the front-line soldier and his organization in combat.’”

The critical part of this “complex” is that Hemingway was able to funnel his intense experiences into stories that allowed readers to participate in a world beyond their personal horizons.

Again from Wikipedia: “Hemingway used autobiographical details as framing devices about life in general—not only about his life. For example, Jack Benson postulates that Hemingway used his experiences and drew them out with ‘what if’scenarios: ‘What if I were wounded in such a way that I could not sleep at night? What if I were wounded and made crazy, what would happen if I were sent back to the front?’ Writing in ‘The Art of the Short Story,’ Hemingway explains: ‘A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless.’”

Ernest_and_Mary_Hemingway_on_safari,_1953-54I’m curious to hear from other writers or readers about authors who inform their work and lives. I’m guessing that most have affinities with certain authors, and Hemingway has definitely inspired me. In reviewing his life and works just now, I have to admit there are also some interesting parallels in our lives, including similar injuries and illnesses during travel or longer sojourns in foreign countries. Thankfully I have avoided his personal experience of war (though my longterm former partner was a wounded veteran of the Vietnam War, which definitely infused my creation of the character Vic in my novel “Islands,” set in the Caribbean that Hemingway also loved).

Even my early science fiction novels grew from seeds of personal experience: competing as a gymnast, teaching scuba and living in a treehouse tent in the Caribbean, operating a nuclear reactor near the vast, rolling wheat fields of Eastern Washington, backpacking and petroglyph treks in my native Pacific Northwest. All of those impressions morphed into new settings, but the essential, visceral images helped bring the characters and themes to life.

Now my question to myself is this: Do I need those intense, personal “Hemingwayesque” experiences in order to write my stories? Or could I write from a clean slate of pure imagination? Can anyone do that, and is there such a thing?

Hemingway_Memorial_Sun_ValleyI look forward to hearing from you with your answers. Anyone have a “complex” of your own?

Hemingway Memorial above Trail Creek in Sun Valley, inscribed: “Best of all he loved the fall, the leaves yellow on cottonwoods, leaves floating on trout streams, and above the hills the high blue windless skies.”


Sara’s newest from Book View Cafe was just released in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction.




My Hemingway Complex — 13 Comments

  1. I don’t know if it rises to the level of your Hemingway Complex, but I did eventually figure out that I needed serious physical activity as a counter balance to writing and other intellectual activity. In my case, it was martial arts. I don’t do well if I neglect either one. Some of that need for physical activity likely is an urge for the adrenaline (hence martial arts rather than yoga), and some of it is just a need to understand the world physically as well as intellectually.

    I do find it hilarious that the psychiatrist decided your pleasure in adventures was a “syndrome,” instead of what strikes me as perfectly normal behavior. Hell, even a lot of Hemingway’s actions strike me as reasonable things to do.

    • Yes, “understanding the world physically as well as intellectually,” exactly! And if I don’t balance the writing/sitting with vigorous activity, I just don’t function well. What I’m wondering, now that I’m in my sixties, is how my writing is going to evolve along with my somewhat more limited physical abilities (not quite the daredevil I used to be, with my collection of old injuries).
      Hemingway suffered terribly in his later years with chronic pain, and he also inherited a genetic disorder that led to mental deterioration and suicide in his father and siblings, as well as himself. Such a sad ending for a brilliant, courageous soul. So I guess he was wise in his youth to “seize the day.”

  2. I suspect that writers need experience, but that can include in depth reading about experience. Our memories are as fascinating and different as our imaginations.

  3. I crave adventure too–I want to live certain things, not read about them (though I’ve had way fewer adventures than you have). And I love writing–but I was saying to Sherwood how somehow the things I experience directly never make it directly into anything I write. It’s almost like once I make them a personal experience, they’re off limits. I mean, obviously all sorts of elements do make it in, but I haven’t found myself able to utilize my lived experience the way writers are advised to and expected to. What *has* happened sometimes is the reverse thing: I research something intensively, write about it, and then go experience it, or something similar.

    • That’s interesting about your process — and, yes, the research is so vital and leads to all sorts of new experiences, both literal and vicarious. What a rich world we inhabit, and so many ways to sample it.

  4. Ah, yes, the Vic character in Islands felt very real, and it turns out he was! Writing has always been a journey for me, and I especially love the physical acts in the journey. Yes, I think I have Hemingway Complex, and even if I don’t REALLY, it’s an absolutely wonderful syndrome for a writer to claim to have! Is that then an “affectation?”

    • Thanks, Cynthia — Good to hear from a fellow complex “sufferer.” I agree, I enjoy my “syndrome” and don’t mind talking about it. Since we writers are putting it all out there for public consumption, I guess “affectation” might apply not only to our writerly personae but to our creations and the expectation that readers will enjoy them. Too convoluted for me to worry about — I just want to keep experiencing and writing, and I hope you do, too!

  5. Being able to draw upon experience is wonderful. It provides some of the detail that leads to verismilitude. But I have known quite a number of people who could “do,” but could not convey what their experiences were like. I have seen this most clearly in cases such as karate instructors, who often are very good practitioners, but do not know how to articulate what they know so that anyone else would have the chance to learn what they know. Doing karate well is simply too instinctual and non-analytical to them; they didn’t have to “figure it out.” In the case of writers, I certainly see plenty who are able to provide a world and characters that feel real, even when they don’t, or can’t, or haven’t, done the things they are writing about. Did George R.R. Martin ever visit Westeros? Did Vernor Vinge ever live in the year 8652 A.D.? I sometimes end up feeling that direct experience can impede the ability to write about something. One’s perspective is too close in, making one unable to have the view-from-outside that is needed to craft a novel that the typical reader will appreciate. The book about the Vietnam War that I found to be the most complete and profound and inspiring was not written by a soldier. It was Dispatches by Michael Herr. A journalist.

    • Yes, I completely agree. That’s why I was musing about the whole issue– to what extent do our experiences contribute to our writing? I may be more on the immersive/experiential end of the spectrum than some, but certainly invent or extrapolate most of the content and characters of my stories. What I’m wondering about is if/when I run out of inspiration from my adventures or interesting places I’ve been, will I be as passionate about stories invented from whole cloth?

    • I’ve seen the same thing Dave has in martial arts. The best teachers are often those that have to struggle to figure things out. And that might explain why some stories we want to tell that are near and dear to our hearts (and our experience) sometimes take decades to come to fruition.