“What does a man care about?,” Hemingway asked Hotcher. “Staying healthy. Working good. Eating and drinking with his friends. Enjoying himself in bed. I haven’t any of them. You understand, goddamn it? None of them.”
Hotcher visited Hemingway visited him in June 1961. The novelist had been succumbing to what seemed to be paranoia and had been talking about suicide (and had attempted it once or twice) and had been undergoing shock treatments. Hotchner asked him, “Papa, why do you want to kill yourself?”
“What do you think happens to a man going on 62 when he realizes that he can never write the books and stories he promised himself?,” Hemingway replied. “Or do any of the other things he promised himself in the good days?”
“How can you say that?,” Hotchner replied. “You have written a beautiful book about Paris, as beautiful as anyone can hope to write.” He meant A Movable Feast.
“The best of that I wrote before. And now I can’t finish it.”
Hotcher told him to relax or even retire.
“Retire?” Hemingway said. “Unlike your baseball player and your prizefighter and your matador, how does a writer retire? No one accepts that his legs are shot or the whiplash gone from his reflexes. Everywhere he goes, he hears the same damn question: what are you working on?”
The truth? If you’re a writer who’s 62 or 52 or 32 or 42 and you feel you’re really and truly past it? Unable to write well or feel or give pleasure or just live in a way that feels honest and robust and complete? I don’t know. It’s a tough one to answer. I do know if you’ve written well before you can write well again. I’m better at it now than I was five years ago, and certainly ten or twenty years before that. How could Hemingway have unlearned what he knew so well, and did so well in his prime? Maybe it was the booze. It often is. Alcohol and other substances certainly did in Hunter S. Thompson, who went out the same way.
The wondrous and eternal thing about writing is that you never stop getting closer to the best you can do. The process never ends. The light is always just up ahead.