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Work Alone: Ernest Hemingway’s 1954 Nobel Acceptance Speech

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.”

“One can never be alone enough to write,” Susan Sontag observed. Solitude, in fact, seems central to many great writers’ daily routines — so much so, it appears, that part of the writer’s curse might be the ineffable struggle to submit to the spell of solitude and escape the grip of loneliness at the same time.

In October of 1954, Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. But he didn’t exactly live every writer’s dream: First, he told the press that Carl Sandburg, Isak Dinesen and Bernard Berenson were far more worthy of the honor, but he could use the prize money; then, depressed and recovering from two consecutive plane crashes that had nearly killed him, he decided against traveling to Sweden altogether. Choosing not to attend the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm on December 10, 1954, Hemingway asked John C. Cabot, the United States Ambassador to Sweden at the time, to read his Nobel acceptance speech, found in the 1972 biography Hemingway: The Writer as Artist (public library). At a later date, Hemingway recorded the speech in his own voice. Hear an excerpt, then read the transcript of the complete speech below:

Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize.

No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.

It would be impossible for me to ask the Ambassador of my country to read a speech in which a writer said all of the things which are in his heart. Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.

I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.

Complement with Woz on working alone as the key to creativity and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on our essential capacity for “fertile solitude.”

Portrait of Hemingway by Yousuf Karsh


Sign Painters: What a Disappearing Art Teaches Us About Creative Purpose and Process

“It is at the moment o f a craft’s disappearance that its cultural value suddenly becomes plain to see.”

As a lover of exquisite handlettering, elegant vintage-inspired typography, and vibrant storefront signage, I was instantly smitten with Sign Painters (public library) — a stunning companion to Faythe Levine and Sam Macon’s documentary of the same title, exploring the disappearing art through interviews with some of its most prominent masters amidst a lavish gallery of extraordinary hand-painted signage, with a foreword by Ed Ruscha. But this is no mere eye candy — brimming with candid insights, personal stories, and wisdom on the creative life, the book envelops the “what” with rich and ample layers of the “how” and the “why.” Macon affirms this in the introduction:

This book, like the job of the sign painter, isn’t always about eye-popping, flashy designs. It’s about process. It’s about communication. It’s about the experiences, years of practice, tricks of the trade, and design fundamentals learned over time that transform a person who just wants to paint signs into a great sign painter.

Cautioning against the glamorized nostalgia that the trope of documentaries about near-obsolete occupations tends to deliberately play on, Glenn Adamson, head of research at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, writes:

In setting on this topic, Levine and Macon are just in time. Many sign painters are now retired, or about to hang up their brushes; others have made the transition to easier, cheaper, but depressingly homogenous vinyl lettering or large-scale digital printing. As is often the case, it is at the moment o f a craft’s disappearance that its cultural value suddenly becomes plain to see.

In many ways, the individual journeys of the featured painters embody Daniel Pink’s concept of autonomy, mastery, and purpose as the trifecta of success. We see them enter into the craft via astoundingly different paths — from generations-old family sign-painting traditions to serendipitous discoveries, from fine art to street art, from graphic design to gardening — yet what unites them is a shared celebration of having found creative purpose, loving the work in and of itself rather than seeing is as a means to some material end.

Doc Guthrie (Los Angeles, California) echoes Alan Watts and articulates it beautifully:

This was a real creative way to make a living — and notice I said ‘make a living,’ not ‘get rich.’ If your’e under the illusion that you’re going to do something like this and get rich, it’s not going to happen. If you want to make a good living, and you want to wake up every morning and look forward to the day, look forward to painting a truck, getting up on a wall, painting a movie background, that’s a good life. Many people in this country dread getting up and going to work. You have fifty years of work ahead of you, and it should be something that you really love. I never got rich, but I provided a living for my family and owned a home — that’s a working-class American success story.

Over and over, we see this recurring theme of creative romanticism scoffing at mercantile motives. Bob Behounek (Chicago, Illinois) laments:

Bigger and better machines became available. People were getting into the sign business just to make money. … There are more people out there now who don’t understand or don’t have the passion to create a well-designed sign. Vinyl machines can cut, they can give you a circle and a square, but they can’t give you the passion of a sign painter.

If you’re in a creative field and have ever been asked about how you’re going to “scale” what you do, you might share in shuddering. Sean Starr (Denton, Texas) gets to the heart of it:

When you get the sign-painting bug, it’s not about the money. If it was, you could expand in the right market and have twenty people working for you, but you wouldn’t have the enjoyable aspect of taking time on projects. If you’re in a high-production shop, which I worked in on the digital and vinyl side years ago, it’s just miserable. It’s like a sweatshop. You don’t have the latitude for creativity because you’re being told, ‘Okay, we need three hundred of these, two hundred of this, by this deadline.’ Who cares about the money?

Coupled with that is a courageous championing of pursuing creative rewards despite uncertainty and the fear of failure. Norma Jeanne Maloney (Austin, Texas) echoes Thoreau and captures it beautifully:

There’s some fear involved in doing what you love. I get up every morning and I look at that fear and say to myself, ‘I’m doing what I love today,’ and that gets me through the day.

Some are journeys of overcoming unlikely odds, like the story of Rose Otis (Las Vegas, Nevada):

I worked with the master [Jerry Albright] for five years. After the apprenticeship, he tagged on six months for students who wanted to learn gold-leaf techniques. There were probably three or four women in my class, and it was very hard to get a job. The guys at the sign shops said that i was too small an d short (I was), that I couldn’t carry my ladders, I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do that. They basically said that they’d hire me to sweep the floors and make coffee, but as a woman I wasn’t going to be working in the world as a sign painter.

Or take Bob Dewhurst (San Francisco, California):

I first got interested in sign painting because I was locked up in a mental institution. THere was this guy who escaped, and when they finally caught him everyone wanted to know what he’d been doing. ‘I went to San Francisco and made all this money as a sign painter,’ he told us. I thought, ‘Yeah, maybe if I escape I can go to San Francisco and paint signs, too.’

For some, this is the dawn of a brave new world that only expands our collective creative acumen. Gary Martin (Austin, Texas) marvels:

I’m extremely happy. I feel like I’ve been living on a desert island by myself for years and then all of a sudden a bunch of other people started showing up to join me. I weathered it,and sine the new wave of these younger sign painters started getting involved it makes me work and try harder. It has energized me so much. Now I can post my stuff online and get reactions from other sign painters. When I’m designing a sign I’m thinking, ‘Okay, this will be seen by a lot of people who have discriminating eyes. I have to make this good.’

For others, the virtual world is the villain to beware. Ira Coyne (Olympia, Washington) shares in Anaïs Nin’s celebration of handcraft and considers the cultural value of this disappearing art:

Sign painting creates jobs — more importantly, jobs for artists. Art and music are the first things to go in schools. The role of art is disappearing. When we were kids, we learned about bakers and candlestick makers. We learned about cobblers and all these old-school, awesome things that people did their entire lives. They specialized in making one thing. … In archeology, the things that matter most are handmade: ceramics, glass, sarcophagi, paintings. The most valued objects of lost cultures are the things that were made by hand. We need to start making things with our hands again.

In fact, Coyne believes that learning to avoid work and pursue passion will profoundly change our cultural landscape:

When corporate America started taking over and steamrolling everything, we became more and more disconnected. People are starting to rebuild those neighborhoods. If the guy who’s been working at some job that he hates moves on and opens that coffee shop or store he has always wanted to own, that will change the landscape of America.

Keith Knecht (Toledo, Ohio), who passed away in 2011 and to whom the book is lovingly dedicated, frames the historical context of sign painting as an intersection of art and commerce:

Sign painting, as we know it here in America, is a good 150 years old. It all started when growers and manufacturers began to brand their products. Before that, if you needed flour, you went to the general store and the shop owner would have a barrel of flour and would fill up a canvas bag for you. Manufacturers realized that they had to market their products to show that their goods were better than the competition. That’s when Gold Medal flour, Morton Salt, and other brands were introduced. In 1840 there weren’t big advertising agencies on Madison Avenue designing logos and creating campaigns for these companies. Sign painters designed these logos.

This osmosis of the creative and the practical appears again and again. Forrest Wozniak (Minneapolis, Minnesota) observes:

What I feel separates sign painting from art is that art is an exploration of one’s self. Whether they are exploring their egos, emotions, or their pasts, artists are exploring themselves. There’s no real failure in pursuing art. you have to do signs correctly; there’s a correct format. It’s similar to carpentry. If you need to cut something seventeen inches long, you have to cut it the right size. Sign painting appealed to my logical nature. It’s a way to pursue art with a right and a wrong.

From Wozniak also comes what’s possibly the most poignant observation on the craft’s singular allure:

As a sign painter you are a deacon to society because you don’t work for someone who is successful, you work for someone who hopes to be successful.

But underpinning the entire cross-section of sign artists is a quiet yet unflinching testament to the ethos that the best kind of success is the one you define yourself, based not on prestige or money but on process and happiness. And what makes Sign Painters particularly alluring is its focus on something so tangible and lasting, on permanent atoms in the age of ephemeral bits, reminding us that these artists are not remnants of a bygone era in the evolution of creative culture but a vital signpost pointing in the unchanging director of what’s truly and everlastingly human.

Thanks, Lisa; images courtesy Princeton University Press


Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Godmother of Rock & Roll, Live in 1964

“I’m singing, oh I’m singing in my soul, when the troubles roll, I sing from morn’ till night, it makes my burdens light…”

Reconstructionist and Literary Jukebox hero Sister Rosetta Tharpe is celebrated as gospel music’s first superstar, the godmother of rock and roll, “the original soul sister.” No better way to celebrate her spirit and legacy than with her legendary, electrifying 1964 live performance of “Didn’t It Rain” at the Manchester train station, complete with her iconic white coat and electric guitar.

Sister Rosetta’s remarkable story unfolds like never before in the 2007 biography Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (public library). It opens with gospel singer Ira Tucker’s perfect depiction of her spirit:

When you talked about Rosetta Tharpe you talked about a ball of energy. This woman would come out on the stage she’d have people laughing, she’d talk to them in a way that it was almost like she was related to them. And when she finished her act, they were standing. You know, they would love this woman. And she was a lovable person. I mean she was an approachable person. Even though she was a diva too, you know, because she did play the diva role.

Also of note and delight, the 2003 tribute album Shout, Sister, Shout!.


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