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F. Scott Fitzgerald on the Secret of Great Writing

9 January 2013

From Brain Pickings:

In the fall of 1938, Radcliffe College sophomore Frances Turnbull sent her latest short story to family friend F. Scott Fitzgerald. His response, found in F. Scott Fitzgerald. A Life In Letters:

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.

Link to the rest at Brain Pickings and thanks to Patricia for the tip.

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20 Comments to “F. Scott Fitzgerald on the Secret of Great Writing”

  1. That is one of the greatest bits of writing wisdom ever given by a professional to a young writer. Absolutely fantastic. And apt for today’s self-publishing writers rushing into genre with dollar signs in their eyes. Better to concentrate on getting the torn heart onto the page. Readers sense when that happens, and return to buy more of the same.

  2. I agree with James.

    This is profoundly true, and very moving.

    I also want to add – this is one of the best rejection letters ever written.

  3. Ironic that this is posted the same day as the book as candy piece.

    I think the candy wins.

    • Yeah. My thought was — hey this is a great letter about writing great literature, but terrible advice to an individual person.

      In those days in particular, but even today, trivial stuff does sell. So if if what is in that young writer’s soul is trivial, there is no reason to he or she can’t. The problem is that you can’t sell trivial stuff to non-trivial markets.

      • Trivial stuff does sell, but usually it isn’t trivial to the author. The way we sell trivial stuff is to communicate our enthusiasm — to make our readers participate in our view of the world just enough to get why we find this particular story worth telling.

        So from that perspective, I agree with Fitzgerald on this one.

        By the way, the last sentence of the P.S. is sheer brilliance, and the best definition of the word talent that I have yet encountered.

        • Nor is it trivial to the audience.

          However, this is really common advice given in literary circles. A Big Literary Star is asked to assess something and says “It’s trivia! You don’t care enough about it! It’s not worth writing! Go deeper!” When in actuality, it’s the Big Literary Star who doesn’t care about it, and the person asking advice actually DOES care about it deeply — and so does the audience.

          That’s why I think this advice sounds really profound among people who are talking about somebody else’s work, but it really is not profound at all as advice.

          It’s great as a theory and generalization. But it’s lousy advice to give over a specific work — because you have no idea if that “trivial” thing that someone wrote really is trivial. That person may be marching to a different drummer that you have no hope of ever hearing.

          Only the writer can actually define what taking a risk and putting it all out there actually means.

          • Nor is it trivial to the audience.

            Very often, that is only because the skill and conviction of the author have made it important to the audience. I have read many a book and article that I would have thought utterly trivial before reading them, but when I browsed for a moment, I found the author saying something that pulled me in and gave me a reason to feel a lively interest.

          • But isn’t that the point? That a beginning writer doesn’t yet have the skill to make usually trivial things come across as important on a person level? And so he says that’s why a beginning writer should write about the universally important things first, until they’ve gained enough skill and technique to write about trivial things importantly? Makes sense to me. If an author doesn’t have the skill to make me, the reader, care about the minor things then I personally don’t care if the author cares about it or not.

        • Oh, and I should point out, there is a need people who write fillers and anecdotes and “…little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner.”

          There is no reason not to write those things, even if they do only touch you lightly and are completely forgettable. Just because they’re not worth the time of a Literary God, doesn’t mean they aren’t worth the time of those who write and read them.

          • Oh, and I should point out, there is a need people who write fillers and anecdotes and “…little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner.”

            True; and writing them well is a specialized skill, which is why Fitzgerald was warning a beginner not to start with that kind of material. The less you can rely on the obvious importance of your subject matter, the more you have to rely on your own skill as a writer to communicate whatever importance the subject does have.

            In the case of anecdotes, by the way, the importance can be described in the sentence, ‘This will make you laugh.’ That is an art in itself, a difficult and unforgiving one, and very few writers ever learn to do it successfully. Here again, the lighter the contract seems on the surface, the more expert the writer must be to fulfil it.

  4. Great post.

    One of the greatest things about being an author is the ability to make the reader feel an emotion so strong, it’s of the kind we only feel a few times in our real lives. Hemingway said: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” With so many writers publishing today, there’s a lot of casual tripe. So here’s to those who are still willing to bleed.

  5. I fully agree. One of my earlier blog posts from last year was called “Write With Feeling” (http://matthewleeadams.com/2012/02/write-with-feeling/).

    In anything I read, I like to be able to feel along with the characters and the writer. Without that, a story doesn’t have the resonance it otherwise could have. It might still entertain or pass the time, but the stories that remain with me and make me ponder are the ones in which I can really sense those emotions coming alive through the story.

  6. The advice rings true – part of why I tire while writing is because it’s such an emotional process. All that intense feeling wears me out! (And exhilarates me. But that’s another story.)

    But advising someone else that she must bleed, if she wants to write rings alarm bells within me. How does he know? He must bleed to write, but maybe she is different. Every writer’s process is different. No matter how expert one may be, it’s dangerous to prescribe for others.

    “I have found that this is true for me.” Yes.

    “This may be true for you.” Yes.

    “This is the way to do it, and you must do it this way, if you wish to succeed” No.

    • This is exactly what I was just thinking. Especially when we’re talking various genres. Believable characters are part of it for every genre, but you can get away with a lot more on the character side in some genres if you have a great plot and concept.

      Of course, even writing deep characters can come from different places. In my case, I don’t so much as bleed onto my characters as my characters bleed onto me. I get so far inside the heads of my characters, I feel as they feel. I’ve lived more, through my characters, than I ever have in real life.

    • True. Emily Dickinson didn’t bleed (at least that we know of), although she may have been lonely. But certainly, she managed to write without living some Ernest Hemingway-type life.

      • I would say that Dickinson did a lot more bleeding in her work than Hemingway. She wrote from the heart, with a directness and emotional force that is often disconcerting. Hemingway had a tendency to write from the gonads, loosely directed by the brain: he looked for Manly He-Man Things To Do so that he would have plenty of external material to write about — partly, I suspect, because the internal stuff was too painful for him to face.

  7. I’m with Camille on this one.

    Personally, I thought this letter was pretentious as hell. But maybe that’s because I am not writing Art. I write honestly, and I suppose there are infusions of my own emotions into the actions and experiences of my characters, but…I’m not writing either memoir or memoir thinly disguised as fiction. And even if I were, I’m too prosaic to spend much time angsting on page about the past. Once I have moved beyond the emotion of the moment, it is very difficult for me to find it again (I just look back and wonder what I was so upset about). Maybe I have merely been singularly blessed (in which case, does it make me less qualified to write, because I don’t FEEL THESE EMOTIONS SO ACUTELY?). Maybe it makes me facile and shallow, that I can let things go. But I just rolled my eyes at this letter. File it under “not what I’m writing” and move on.

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