I recently heard a profile on NPR on a new biography of one of my literary heroes, J.D. Salinger, and during the segment it was mentioned that he tromped all over Europe--and into combat--during WWII while carrying the manuscript of Catcher in the Rye with him. I came across an article regarding the new book, and the article mentioned that on a few occasions ole J.D. sought out Hemingway to discuss writing (as well as mentioning a recollection of J.D. taking cover under a table during a shelling so he could keep typing!). Those stories made me intensely happy, the first because it is an insight into the obsessive and passionate nature of my hero, a nature I believe is required to create art, and the second because I believe it is an insight into the humility and desire to learn that is required on the path towards creating art.
I can picture Salinger going to the by now widely published, and highly regarded Hemingway--what was going on in his head, what he hoped to learn, what he hoped to share. I can picture it because I've done it myself, time and again, not with Hemingway of course but with a multitude of writers whose work I loved and respected.
I don't believe for a moment that Salinger went to Hemingway with the intention of asking him how to get published, or if he could recommend a good agent, or if he could provided the names and numbers of contacts who could truncate his path to publication. These topics may have come up, but that would not have been the reason why Salinger went to Hemingway.
Salinger's questions would have been around the work itself--how did you create what you've created? What was going through your head, and how did you get it on the page? Why did you write it? And there would have been an exchange; it would not have been Papa pontificating without Salinger taking the time to discuss his thoughts on process, on story, on work habits and on why he needed to carry that manuscript around with him, through the explosions and the flames.
Okay, maybe my romantic notions spill all over reality and their conversations weren't anything like what I just described. Maybe the little vignette I just related, stitched together from radio and print fragments, is just a fantasy that allows me to point out the differences in the questions that aspiring writers, like Salinger was, like I was, (heck, like Hemingway himself was), ask of those who are professionals: there is a world of difference between "how do I get published?" and "how do I write something great?".
One of those questions is everything to a writer. Figure out the answer to the important question, and the answer to the lesser one will arrive before too long.