Leadership Strategy

Ken Burns’ ‘Hemingway’ Is A Guide To Success For Creative People


PBS has begun showing Ken Burns’ masterful production Hemingway, a loving retrospective of the influential American author’s work in six hours over the span of three nights. Much of the story and writing excerpts will be familiar to Hemingway fans, but the scope of the project is broad enough to seek out new Hemingway devotees while still providing nuanced detail for those more familiar with the author’s life and legend.

As a fan of the author for many years, I always appreciate a thoroughly researched tribute to Ernest Hemingway’s work. Burns and team have added gorgeous visuals to his writing excerpts, taking the viewer to Northern Michigan, Paris, the Alps, bullfighting rings in Spain, Key West, and myriad other locales frequented by the peripatetic young journalist.

Hemingway’s early life story provides not only a kaleidoscope of events in America and western Europe in the late teens and early 1920s, but also offers a checklist of key tasks that a young creative entrepreneur can achieve to rise in their career and be able to do what they love for a living. We think of Hemingway’s life as a guide for rugged individualism. But the “Lost Generation” author can also show the way for creative artists to succeed in their chosen profession.

Be true to your style. Hemingway didn’t set out to single-handedly change the definition of great literature. He simply did what he knew. Burns’ documentary deftly shows that Hemingway’s short, to-the-point writing came almost verbatim from the style guide of his first journalism job in Kansas City, which cautioned against wordiness, demanding that reporters get right to the point. Hemingway’s background as a reporter (he began when he was 17) would be the driving force in his writing style, a style that eschewed the flowery language of past great authors.

Get letters of introduction. Hemingway must have been very charming because he seemed to gather acolytes with ease. Early in his career in Chicago, he befriended writer Sherwood Anderson, who introduced Hemingway to his first publisher and provided letters of introduction to writers and artists in Paris, encouraging Hemingway to relocate there. Later, unhappy with his first publisher, Hemingway somehow enticed F. Scott Fitzgerald to introduce him to his own editor, Maxwell Perkins at publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons, who became Hemingway’s lifelong advocate. Long before Facebook and LinkedIn, Hemingway knew how to connect with people who mattered.

Relocate to improve your prospects. Hemingway relocated numerous times to improve his prospects: to Kansas City, Chicago, Toronto, Paris, and, finally, back to the U.S. Each relocation brought him new contacts, financial opportunities, and exposure to like-minded artists. His transfers strained his marriage and led to accusations of neglecting his family, but he knew the importance of being in the right place at the right time, meeting the right people, and creating opportunity. 

Know your competition. Artists are often considered flighty and out of touch, but more than anything, Hemingway was a competitor. He devoured the work of modern authors and made a point of befriending Gertrude Stein in Paris, a writer herself who ran a salon in her apartment in Paris that attracted the likes of Picasso, James Joyce, and other great artists of the time. Hemingway both admired and was dismissive of each of them. He truly believed his work was better and set out to prove it. But first, he learned everything he could about their work so that he could emulate what he liked and improve on what he didn’t.

Live cheaply. In his memoir, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway lauds the early days in Paris when his stomach growled from a lack of food and he and wife Hadley scrimped for everything they had. Burns shows that much of Hemingway’s reminiscence of poverty simply wasn’t true. He had an income from reporting and his wife had an inheritance that they lived on. But it was true that with a wife and a small child, Hemingway had chosen a difficult profession in which to become rich. He spent money where it mattered to his career—traveling and meeting people—and scrimped where it didn’t—their apartment, transportation, and daily meals.

Show your work to influential people. Many wannabe creators either don’t show their work or display it to the wrong people. Hemingway was shrewd in whom he selected to read his new stories. He shared work in progress with Gertrude Stein, a mensch of the Paris expatriate world, helped Ford Madox Ford edit The Transatlantic Review, and, of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald. He limited seeking opinions to those who had the power and connections to help him. This made them seem special and gave them tremendous pride of ownership in the success of his burgeoning career.

Ernest Hemingway is synonymous with the idea of a famous writer. It’s hard to imagine him starting out as a young reporter with big dreams and a small pocketbook, getting rejected by every magazine and newspaper. But, like all career successes, his path to the pinnacle was a step-by-step process, a process that can still serve a creative entrepreneur well today.

Read more about Hemingway:

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