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I owned a piece of Hemingway!

duncan-aldersonI did a rather drastic thing in my forties. I walked out on a teaching career to become a writer. “Leap and the net will appear” was my slogan. After twelve years teaching English at the Toronto Waldorf School, I decided to move downtown and take up the bohemian life. When I spoke to my real estate agent, he said, “Well, Hemingway’s apartment is for sale.”

To make a long story short, I ended up purchasing this piece of literary history!  What better place to start my career as full-time writer? There was even a plaque on the building which read: “American-born Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), internationally renowned author, lived in this apartment building, 1597-1599 Bathurst Street, in 1923-24, while working as a journalist for the Toronto Star.” His apartment (and mine) was the penthouse in the left tower, as he said he could look out over the Cedarvale Ravine where he enjoyed riding on horseback. He wrote to Gertrude Stein, describing it as “a corker of an apartment.” And it was. There was a lovely sunporch off the master bedroom that looked down on the trees. As I renovated the space, I fantasized finding a faded typewritten manuscript hidden in the walls because this was the period when he started writing short stories. As I sanded down the woodwork, I imagined that Hemingway’s very sweat was mingled in the dust.

What I didn’t understand at the time is that a writer must own his “inner real estate,” what Henry James liked to call the donnée, from the French for “given” — that intellectual property which you inherit from your family of origin. This is the territory that you need to explore and retrofit, refashioning it through a series of “shitty first drafts,” as Hemingway was fond of calling them. It’s work. Living in Hemingway’s apartment wasn’t enough. The sweat had to be mine, not his. I ended up selling the renovated co-op a year later at a tidy profit, but moved no closer to my goal of becoming a novelist until I took Hemingway’s advice to Martha Gelhorn: “There’s nothing to writing, Gelhorn — all you do is sit down to your typewriter and bleed.”

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