Writers Like Boats on Fire

Paul Murray, who wrote the glorious Skippy Dies and the to-be-read An Evening of Long Goodbyes, relates this story:

My friend David lives in Sandymount, and his father was out with David’s grandfather when he was just a boy, and they came across a man lying across the ground in the morning. And the grandfather says to the father, “There is Ireland’s greatest living writer.” And it was Flann O’Brien lying there.

– Paul Murray

My own father related to me, as we were walking around the downtown area of my local city a few years ago, that internationally-acclaimed Nobel Prize laureate of a novelist Naguib Mahfouz would, on bad days, sit around local cafes with an endless supply of tea, ready for a fight. I inferred that on good days he got one. I see it. You have a squinty-eyed, thin-lipped tree of a man with a thumb-wide nose at a waist-high table stacked with dirty tea cups, scowling at yellow paper flecked with faded tea imprints. He’s dressed in a white thawb and clutching a chewed-up pen he’s borrowed off the waiter, unlikely to be returned. The solution to the book’s problems seem like they should be obvious, but the obvious isn’t obvious yet. Naguib leans forward. He is so intent he doesn’t realize it. The idea begins to take form. His mind reaches out to it, almost grasping it, when sudden laughter grates against his concentration.

Naguib is not the subject, catalyst, or cause of this laughter, but it irritates him. The thought slips, perhaps forever. No further thought that can occur to him will be as powerful. Frustration swells; he shakes with anger.

He makes his way to the laughing man.  Twig arm launches back in an arc; his fist curls into a punch-shaped clump. It launches with all the ferocity of a squirrel, but it lands. This is the best punch he will get in a fight that will last for fifteen seconds. It creates a splash in the neighborhood; the local gossip will nibble on the sea-weed the waves bring for weeks. But it gets the job done. The book is finished, because a bruised writer is a writer insusceptible to distractions. When it drops, with the silent fall but sudden impact of a bomb on an ocean, Naguib Mahfouz rides its waves into history.


“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Ernest Hemingway lived to have something to write about, sharpened his pencil like a harpooner sharpens his aim or refilled his ink ribbon with the tenacity he filled his wine glass, then bled words to paper. He aimed high, but he took his time firing. He couldn’t miss.

He had a soft voice, but a mustache to dissipate expectation of it and, when that didn’t suffice, a beard. He fought and brawled, sometimes with artists and sometimes with men who only bled blood. He drove an ambulance in the First World War; when the Spanish Civil War erupted, he went as a reporter. He caught fish that tried to catch him back and fought bulls. He hunted and perhaps haunted lions in Africa. He survived two plane crashes, then, because why not, won the Nobel Prize. All the while, he drank like a Victorian prostitute. He fished in Key West and went in his boat to Cuba. His life’s story was perhaps a better one than those he told, though no-one was better set to tell it. Half of it is unbelievable; the other half is false.

His resolution did not shake when his hands did.

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

– Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

He boxed. He used his fishing boat to hunt for Nazi U-boats in the Caribbean. Masculinity the way his god intended it was an obsessive pursuit. He couldn’t miss.

But there were bad days.

Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.

– Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Even among the better ones:

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.

– Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

When he died, he died on his own terms: drinking, miserable, improvising apocrypha, cork-stopping life with a well-placed shotgun blast in the mouth. He couldn’t miss.


F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda drank, and when it didn’t achieve what they wanted they drank again. He was a Romantic, and she was his golden girl. So they drank. It must have helped keep the illusion alive.

Though a soldier (never deployed), he said he became a writer after his sisters died; he unfurled his sails, sailing into legend, when he met Zelda. This Side of Paradise he wrote to make enough money to marry her. It sold enough to allow them to get used to an opulent lifestyle; the follow-ups sold little enough to make that opulent lifestyle a whirlpool for them to drown in.

I loved Scott very much but he was extremely difficult with that situation he got himself into and Zelda constantly making him drink because she was jealous of his working well…He had a very steep trajectory and was almost like a guided missile with no one guiding him.

– Ernest Hemingway

They were trouble for each other. Men fell for her, plunging themselves like divers into a beautiful ocean. She seldom returned their interest, but Scott reacted like she did. They fought and they drank, they loved and they drank, forgot and drank, reconciled and drank, and they drank and drank some more.

They knew Hemingway; Zelda hated the man, a feeling he reciprocated. She accused Scott of having an affair with him; Scott responded by sleeping with a prostitute, wanting to prove his masculinity. At a party, she threw herself down marble stairs to get his attention. It was almost like they were made for each other. But you couldn’t burn the illusions he’d stored-up.

Zelda and I sometimes indulge in terrible four-day rows that always start with a drinking party but we’re still enormously in love and about the only truly happily married couple I know.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald

When he tried to write, she grew isolated and bored. She would interrupt, but she’d have been happier not bothering. So she tried to develop her own artistic ambitions, to escape being a passenger on his boat, first in ballet and – when Scott sank that – in writing. It didn’t work. She grew more bored and more insane; he grew more sullen and disillusioned.

One summer Zelda became infatuated with a young French pilot named Jozan; six weeks later, she asked Scott for a divorce. He trapped her in a house, so she could stop. She did. But they’d broken something too well for repair.

I feel old too, this summer…the whole burden of this novel—the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald

And slowly they drifted apart, boats sped by different currents. She spent her time in mental hospitals, he with a new lover. He died of a heart-attack; she died in a hospital fire. He died thinking he was a failure, forgotten, writing self-mockery; she died happier than she’d been with him.

His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.

– Ernest Hemingway

He kept contact with Zelda until the day he died. I like to think it was because he wanted to, in the end, stupidly rekindle that fire, to see the world in its vibrant colours as he’d seen it all those foolish years ago when she’d been a golden girl and his mind could romp like the mind of God. He would not know that she would not attend his funeral or their daughter’s wedding, and I like to think he would not have minded, because no matter about today’s failures: Tomorrow he would run faster, stretch his arms further, and one fine morning —


Some writers are people you want to fall in love with.

Carson McCullers wrote about broken, isolated folk down south, misfits who are aces of perfectly-symmetrical broken hearts, trying to fit into full decks. When she wrote, she said, she tried to find God. It’s hard not to fall in love with that desperation, because the desperation isn’t cheap. I suppose she spooled her heart out.

But let’s imagine you meeting Carson McCullers, an alcoholic chain-smoker with a talent. She sits, curiously looking at you, waiting to see what you do. She seems excited, but you wonder if she’s going to fold in on herself. You talk. She delights you. You delight her. She’s so charming she can make a drawl endearing. You’re so charming she forgets to smoke.

That night you walk her to her front door. She’s looking at you, trying to be playful, but she’s an ace of broken hearts and doesn’t quite manage to play the game you are. You love the attempt, however, and lean in for the kiss. She takes you in, softly, unbelieving, until her hand finds its way to your neck, yours to her waist. As the kiss lingers she becomes real to you as you want to be real to her.

She now has a chance to invest her feelings in you, or let her insecurities become her. What does she choose? Does she step back, thinking that happiness is a trap, a mountain to scale, where the higher you climb, the further you have to fall, no matter how often you climb? Or does she let herself fall for you, trust you to help her scale that mountain, trust herself to help you, climbing areas steep and dangerous? Does she trade a morsel of immortality and insecurity for a bright spark of happiness, no matter how intangible happiness really is?

A writer is an idiot who spills their heart out on paper instead of to a therapist. If the writer is lucky or charming, they are a fucking idiot. And naturally, she will love you, make love to you, fuck you, but then she will crumple you and throw you away, a misfired use of her feelings, an unused draft of an excerpt in the great novel she will be writing soon, soon, soon.


Shakespeare was kissed in a meadow brushed with coriander: lustily entangled, mouths moving from lips to skin to graze like deer near pleasant fountain and jutted wood. A rival poet, unskilled but beautiful, lies with them, a love triangle finally locked into place, love, jealousy and lust shifting and morphing – perhaps all three desperately wanting and loving each other, but wanting the other two for themselves.

Shakespeare must have realised his happiness and his misery were intertwined, and written, throbbing, to exorcise it: the universal human nature he wanted to encompass, blooming gradually to him alone. He learned to live with it, I imagine, not to claw at it and tear it, and in his own time let it go, like Prospero, with relief.

And so they lived, knowing, trying, needing, wanting, loving, hating,  gathering all the little whispers they waded in and the joys and the failures and the fears.  They set words to paper, blazing with the intensity of boats on fire in a dark ocean. They were self-loathing but idolized and envied, one but not in harmony with other beautiful, broken things in the world.