F. Scott Fitzgerald on what it takes

fitzgeraldYou’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Modern Library Association voted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, as the 2nd best novel of the 20th century. (James Joyces’s Ulysses was first). The story is superb. The novel is ultimately a meditation on the social and moral decay of the 1920s, that’s brought about by an unchecked desire and greed for money and pleasure. The book was required reading when I was in High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in the 1980s. I’ve read the novel at least three times since then and each time I discover something else interesting or insightful about the book I didn’t see before. I guess that’s the real genius of art. It always speaks to us at that moment in time about something that’s timeless.

For me it’s interesting to hear great artists talk about their craft and how they approach the creative process. The philosopher in me wants to understand how the artist conceptualizes. I want to know how the artist thinks about their craft. For novelists, it’s about how they approach the craft of writing and how they develop their own unique style.

Fitzgerald’s prose and poetic depth are captivating. You may recall these haunting lines from The Great Gatsby:

Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

And who could forget the final lines from this novel that was ultimately inscribed on Fitzgerald’s tombstone:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Some of the best insights about writing, philosophy, and life come from the private letters of great writers and thinkers. Below is a specimen from a collection of Fitzgerald’s letters that I found very interesting and insighful. In this letter Fitzgerald talks to Frances about the high price that must be paid for “professional work.”

November 9, 1938

Dear Frances:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.

This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.

The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming — the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.

That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is ‘nice’ is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’ You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.

In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,

Your old friend,

F. Scott Fitzgerald

P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent — which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.

3 thoughts on “F. Scott Fitzgerald on what it takes

  1. Pingback: The Difference Between Well Intentioned and Serious « The Mind's Cabin

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