How A Hemingway Assignment Underscored The Freedom to Write

This spring my American Literature class was given the daunting assignment of classifying Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as a triumph or defeat. Ready for the task and zealous to craft yet another argumentative piece, the writer in me internally jumped for joy; however, a trace of skepticism lingered.

Without doubt, I have always privileged reading nonfiction pieces over fiction. Though, there is something angelic about being immersed into a narrative that is not rooted in truth. As a fiction piece, I blamelessly felt free to fight for my discernment of Santiago’s triumph. Whereas with nonfiction, I am left torn—bound by an internal moral dilemma of shielding my perception for the sake of being “benevolent” or “inoffensive.” I inwardly wondered: What if this novella was nonfiction, an account of someone’s personal story? Who am I to judge someone else’s experience? To that end, this assignment was not designed to impose grim stipulations; it did, however, allot an additional inquiry: Are there limits to writing?

“To that end, this assignment was not designed to impose grim stipulations; it did however allot an additional inquiry: Are there limits to writing?”

Indeed, it is the feeling of being restricted that troubles me most.

Innately, I have never viewed writing as an act bounded by regulations. Sure, there’s a protocol to be grammatically correct and coherently sound, but I could not help but wonder if our writing is confined in some way—especially when regarding an experience other than our own. The very thought makes me squirm—yet the inclination to know grew as an extension to a much broader assignment.

As an English enthusiast, I jump at the chance to write about almost anything. Abruptly, the words “triumph” and “defeat” created an unwarranted conflict that mirrored my feelings towards reading works of nonfiction. The ambiguousness of the assignment brought comfort, but there is something unsettling when it comes to writing about a person’s life journey when regarding it as anything other than positive. As writers it comes with the territory, right? Read, reflect, and respond. Notably, at no point are we tasked with hesitating or filtering.

“At no point are we tasked with hesitating or filtering.”

Recently, a young girl around the age of twelve asked me, Why do you write so much? The genuineness of the question tugged at my heart, while the young girl’s candor left me panicked. Overwhelmed with a stream of thoughts, I responded with a coy, I find it fun and relaxing. As a question I have never been asked before, the inquiry functioned as a moment of self-reflection. Unsatisfied with my answer, I internally dug deeper. My love for writing actually began at an early age. A quiet girl, drafting reflections about fun days at school and even writing overly detailed birthday cards for friends and family. With those memories, I often marvel at the power writing gives us. I don’t recall ever feeling limited, just the opposite in fact. Those days, I didn’t wince at the thought of writing about anything. That is to say, I firmly know that my love of writing has grown just as I have.

In truth, I believe the question of the assignment served a greater purpose. Indeed, the work was fiction, and no, it was not an easy question to respond to. Nonetheless, writing is not solely a task, but also a tool that lends us the power to express our thoughts with conviction. The difficulty of articulating the condition of the protagonist’s experience symbolically hit the art of writing at its core—­we all have the prerogative to reply to any piece, both fiction and nonfiction; any genre for that matter. Likewise, we must read, reflect, and freely respond.

“Writing is not solely a task, but also a tool that lends us the power to express our thoughts with conviction.”

As we near the end, I would like to share a Hemingway quote I haphazardly stumbled across while sipping on a warm cup of tea and scrolling away on Pinterest—as per my morning ritual. He writes:

There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.

So, at long last, are there limits to writing? Here is what I have come to know: our privilege as writers is rooted in our creative ability to reject limitations. Though let’s be honest, writing is sometimes like drilling a rock. Even so, at some point we must penetrate the barrier of our comfort zones and just write. Remaining grounded and mulling over the eloquent words of Hemingway, who seemingly rejected any limitations of writing, I have kept this question in the back of my mind. While writing is not always an “easy” or “perfect” undertaking, I am left knowing that our freedom to write is timelessly immense.

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Tamiya Anderson is an undergraduate student at Pfeiffer University, pursing a degree in English and a minor in Communication. She lives in Concord, N.C. and is the Lead Editor of Fiction and an Editor of Creative Nonfiction for her university’s literary journal, The Phoenix.