The Writer's Arms, non-fiction by Ben Nadler

Last year, Shoot­ing Sports­man pub­lished a book enti­tled Hemingway’s Guns: The Sport­ing Arms of Hem­ing­way.  The idea of the book is that through the cat­a­logu­ing of the var­i­ous guns Ernest Hem­ing­way owned over the course of his life – from his first break-action air rifle, to his trusty Win­ches­ter Mod­el 12, to the Scott shot­gun he used to com­mit sui­cide – a sort of biog­ra­phy can be estab­lished.  “Hemingway's guns,” the authors argue in their intro­duc­tion, “as well as how he acquired them and what he did with them, tell us about Hem­ing­way as a man.”

I under­stand the skep­ti­cism that many peo­ple in the lit­er­ary world have towards such an approach.  The bran­dish­ing of guns was cer­tain­ly an ele­ment of Hemingway’s macho per­sona, and it is tempt­ing to dis­miss any dis­cus­sion of Hemingway’s rela­tion­ship to firearms as mere­ly a glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of this per­sona.  Fur­ther­more, a book filled with this many pic­tures of guns is unlike­ly to appeal to a read­er who does not already have a strong inter­est in firearms.  Nonethe­less, I do believe that Hem­ing­way the marks­man has a lot to teach us about not just Hem­ing­way the man, but Hem­ing­way the writer as well.

Ralph Elli­son cer­tain­ly thought so.  In a 1954 Art of Fic­tion inter­view with The Paris Review, he described the two par­al­lel influ­ences that Hem­ing­way held on him when he was in his ear­ly twenties:

I prac­ticed writ­ing and stud­ied Joyce, Dos­toyevsky, Stein, and Hem­ing­way. Espe­cial­ly Hem­ing­way; I read him to learn his sen­tence struc­ture and how to orga­nize a sto­ry. I guess many young writ­ers were doing this, but I also used his descrip­tion of hunt­ing when I went into the fields the next day. I had been hunt­ing  since I was eleven, but no one had bro­ken down the process of wing-shoot­ing for me, and it was from read­ing Hem­ing­way that I learned to lead a bird.

 For Elli­son, learn­ing to con­trol the swing of a shot­gun and learn­ing to write a sol­id sen­tence were part of the same process.  In Hem­ing­way, he found a teacher who had a fun­da­men­tal under­stand­ing of both the very phys­i­cal real­i­ty of shoot­ing and the more abstract–but no less precise–structuring of prose.

I have dis­cov­ered this rela­tion­ship between writ­ing and marks­man­ship in my own life as well. Last year, I entered the MFA pro­gram at The City Col­lege of New York.  I was already a fair­ly dis­ci­plined writer, but the struc­ture of such a pro­gram can great­ly increase your focus and your atten­tion to craft.  If noth­ing else, you are in an envi­ron­ment where you are expect­ed by your peers and instruc­tors to pro­duce, and to improve.  A few months into my MFA expe­ri­ence, I joined the rifle club at the West Side Pis­tol & Rifle Range, the last remain­ing shoot­ing range in Man­hat­tan.  I have shot guns spo­rad­i­cal­ly through­out my life, but this was the first time I shot with enough reg­u­lar­i­ty to real­ly devel­op a shoot­ing prac­tice.  My girl­friend and I made a pledge that, no mat­ter how busy we were with grad school and work, we would take the time out to get to the range at least once a week, to tar­get shoot with .22 cal­iber rifles.

What I have found is that these shoot­ing ses­sions are not so much breaks from my writ­ing prac­tice as they are a com­pli­men­ta­ry part of the same larg­er prac­tice.  There is a shared estab­lish­ment of a reg­u­lar rou­tine, and a resul­tant feel­ing of progress.  There is a grow­ing famil­iar­i­ty with the tools at my dis­pos­al, and a grow­ing knowl­edge of how to wield them with precision.

Over this past sum­mer break, a poet friend, Liat, and I spent some time vis­it­ing anoth­er friend who lives in a moun­tain cab­in in Col­orado.  One day, when our host was off work­ing, Liat and I decid­ed to get some shoot­ing in.  We brought two rifles with us–a semi-auto­mat­ic SKS, and an old­er pump action .22–and spent the day chat­ting and plink­ing at tar­gets.  We set up cans and sticks, and did our best to knock them down.  We dis­cussed the weight of the guns, the rel­a­tive smooth­ness of their actions.  We spoke of the need to breathe deeply and line up the open sights, of the absur­di­ty of fir­ing off rounds just to hear the bang.

Dur­ing a break from shoot­ing, we sat down on some rocks, and talked about oth­er things.  Liat brought up the book of cre­ative non­fic­tion that she’s been want­i­ng to write, say­ing said she felt that she need­ed to put this project off indef­i­nite­ly in order to devote her­self to her mar­tial arts prac­tice.  Her dai­ly train­ing at the dojo was tak­ing all of her focus, and the book project would have to wait until some future time, when she is in a dif­fer­ent place.

My imme­di­ate reac­tion was very neg­a­tive.  I have always been of the opin­ion that the only way to get a book writ­ten in the future is to start writ­ing it now.  I told her that she would only get clos­er to her project by writ­ing towards it, not by putting it off.  On reflec­tion, though, I rec­og­nize that it is not fair to say she is “putting it off,” as it is not an issue of  avoid­ing the work at hand.   Rather, she is engag­ing in train­ing that will help her in the devel­op­ment of her craft.  The under­stand­ing of the body, the under­stand­ing of force, the mas­tery of con­trol and pre­ci­sion in a strike, and the dis­ci­pline of a dai­ly prac­tice will all con­tribute great­ly to her ulti­mate engage­ment with this prose work.  The mar­tial arts side of her prac­tice that she’s devel­op­ing now will brace the writ­ing side of her prac­tice in the future.

At the end of that same day, I was forced to use a gun to kill.  I would have been more than con­tent to shoot noth­ing but cans, but on our way home I stum­bled upon a rat­tlesnake right out­side the cabin’s front door.  Had I encoun­tered a snake up in the moun­tains, I would have sim­ply backed away, and allowed it to go its own way. This rat­tlesnake, how­ev­er, was not six feet from the cab­in where our friend lived year round, and not two feet from the entrance to the dog­house where his curi­ous Ger­man Shep­herd napped.  It sim­ply could not be allowed to dis­ap­pear into the grass, and reemerge lat­er.  We could tell by its size that the snake was young, but this only meant that it had more high­ly con­cen­trat­ed ven­om to inject into my friend’s foot or his dog’s muzzle.

I knelt a cou­ple yards behind the snake with the pump rifle.  It sensed dan­ger, and as it raised its head to look around, I placed a .22 cal­iber bul­let in the cen­ter of its neck.

It was a fatal shot, but even after the ven­om-filled head was com­plete­ly sev­ered, it took near­ly an hour for the body to stop writhing.  When the head­less snake final­ly did stop mov­ing, we skinned and gut­ted it.  My friends tacked the intri­cate­ly pat­terned skin to a board to dry, while I fried the meat in a skillet.

I’d gone out to shoot at cans, and end­ed up killing a beau­ti­ful ani­mal.  This expe­ri­ence made it clear to me that I need to remem­ber, every time I pick up a firearm, that I am engag­ing in a prac­tice whose stake are ulti­mate­ly those of life and death.  This is true of sit­ting down to write as well.  I keep the rat­tle on my desk so I don’t forget.

Ben Nadler is the author of the nov­el Harvitz, As To War, which was released in Novem­ber by Iron Diesel Press. Oth­er recent writ­ing of Ben's can be found in The Rum­pus, Harpur Palate, and The Safe­ty Pin Review.

Ben lives in Brook­lyn, New York.  He spends most of his time at the City Col­lege of New York (where he is pur­su­ing an MFA), but prefers to spend his time hang­ing out on the fish­ing pier in Coney Island.


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