When I was in my 20s, already dreaming of being a writer and still looking for my voice, my parents took my brother and me on vacation to Marathon, Florida. Marathon is a city of seven keys, 45 miles east of Key West. And we all know that Key West is Hemingway’s key.

Bar Buddies

Marathon Tiki bar voice

Most of the photos of me on that vacation are fuzzy, which is appropriate considering I spent too much time at the resort’s Tiki bar.

I met an older gentleman at the bar. We’ll call him Ed, not so much to protect him, but because I don’t remember his name.

Ed and I shared delightful conversations about literature, writing, and Earnest Hemingway. Ed was a huge fan. I think he liked talking to me because I had read most of Hemingway’s published works and because I had visited many of the places featured in The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Death in the Afternoon when I was a kid and my family lived in Spain. Also, we both dreamed of writing a great American novel.

Ed greeted me with enthusiasm whenever my brother and I straggled into the bar from fishing, failed windsurfing ventures, and day trips to Sloppy Joe’s and other Hemingway destinations. He even let me wear his hat.

You’re Not Real.

Four or five nights in, something happened. I was still on my first tequila sunrise when Ed took a step away from the bar. In an incensed, disapproving tone, he told me:


Shoot. I don’t remember exactly. The event is seared in my memory, but I lost the exact words.

The gist was: “You’re not the real thing!” or “You’re a fake!” That is, he accused me of not being authentic.

Ed wasn’t wrong, but he wasn’t right. I was still finding myself.

To this day I’m not sure what I did or said to provoke Ed. Maybe I failed at a bit of Hemingway trivia or a literary reference. Or perhaps he finally saw me in my moment: a 20-something college student in love with words and literature, a little infatuated with Hemingway, but still putting the party ahead of a writing routine.

I think Ed was deflecting. He was crawling across US Highway 1 toward Key West because he wanted to be another Hemingway. He was angry with himself because he fell short of that dream.

Finding Your Voice

Ed is probably long dead by now, and, sadly, I’m not sure he ever lived into his dream or came closer to Hemingway than Marathon, the seven-key city east of the seven-mile bridge.

The PSA of this post isn’t just for writers. We’ve all met people who put a lot of energy into being like someone else or into being something they’re not. Maybe sometimes we were that person, dressing, talking, or laughing like someone else. Or, these days, taking selfies that portray an edited (often inauthentic) version of ourselves.

Models are great and necessary, and portraying the joyful moments in our lives has value. But when we aspire to write, speak, act, create, or be exactly like those models or when a selfie skews our authenticity, we become cringy.

I never saw Ed and his hat after the night he hurled words at me that I don’t remember, and it’s telling that I don’t remember his name or the words.

I wish I could have been a wiser barmate and told Ed to put down his copy of The Sun Also Rises to focus on Ed. What if I had had the insight to remind him to seek his own voice and to stop crawling west along US Highway 1 toward Sloppy Joe’s? I might know his name; I might find his book at the bookstore and feel a wave of glee.

“Hey! This is Ed! We talked till 3:00 am about words and writing and living.”

But all I have are blurry photos and fuzzy memories.

The PSA or CTA? In a world of Hemingways and Gilbert wanna-bes, be yourself. Find your own voice.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2023.