November 9, 1938
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.
Monday, September 10, 2012
"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"
My friend is being brave and picking at scabs and pulling out old, gnarled scar tissue. And I'm so proud of her. Sometimes there is condescension in that phrase, but I don't intend it here. I'm proud of her and proud to be her friend. And my heart swells when she writes about tackling that deep down, dark and sticky tar that lines the heart and sits heavy in the soul and the stomach.
Sometimes punctuation makes me want to cry. I want to spend all day placing commas and periods and letting the weight of them sit on my chest like grief, and loneliness.
Her friend sent her this letter written by F. Scott Fitzgerald to a young friend of his who wanted to write.
And I want to give it to my students, and I want to give it to myself, and I want to write, and I want to do all the things.
Sometimes I wonder whether by asking our students to write their realities we are fetishizing their pain and their impoverishment. But then I read this about writing, and I think probably not. Because I think that what Fitzgerald describes as the "price of admission" to a life of writing is also the price of admission to a life well-lived. Because it is only by looking straight at those things that haunt you, by grasping those things that bleed "as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile," that, I don't know, you really live and really know life.
And, damn, even that searing pain, even the terror of turning around around, feels good compared to the other option, the not-feeling.