To Fitzgerald, a successful writer must be willing to risk it all for the story, and to him the first payment for an amateur involves exposure and evisceration – a writer must be willing to tear themselves apart for the reader.
You’ve Got to Pour Your Heart Out*
By Elizabeth Cutright
Yesterday I talked about embracing insecurity and facing your writerly fears. And in the past, I’ve touched upon how scary it is to put it all out there on the page, knowing other people are going to read what you’ve written, perhaps have opinions and judgments about your talent or your insights – and sometimes those readers and armchair critics won’t be gentle or kind.
Sometimes, when I look out across the expanse of a new blank page – its whiteness extending in front of me like an unreachable horizon – all I can picture is a horde of excitable readers wearing Viking helmets; frothing at the mouth, and ready to storm the mote and burn down the castle. I know I have to write over them and under them, subdue them with words and never let them see me blink.
It is a daunting process.
Recently, I came across a letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald addressed to a young writer and friend of the family. The writer, Frances Turnbull, was seeking Fitzgerald’s opinion on some writing samples, and in his response, he’s both kind and gentle, but unnervingly honest. His letter pulls no punches, “It doesn’t seem worthwhile to analyze why this story isn’t saleable,” he begins but softens the blow by adding, “If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than, Your old friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
It’s worth reading the entire letter – which can be found here – to get the whole gist of what Fitzgerald means when he urges amateur writers to “pay the price of admission.” To Fitzgerald, a successful writer must be willing to risk it all for the story, and to him the first payment for an amateur involves exposure and evisceration – a writer must be willing to tear themselves apart for the reader.
“You’ve got to sell your heart,” Fitzgerald writes, ”your strongest reactions, not the little, minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner.”
For Fitzgerald, a talent to string words along in smooth, flowing sentences is not enough. He compares the ability to a soldier who’s physically fit, “the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.” But writers aren’t just interested in ability, they require “the works.” As Fitzgerald points out, “you wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.”
For the beginning writer – or the unpublished novelist – Fitzgerald advises total emotional vulnerability. A neophyte hasn’t “developed the tricks of interesting people on paper” and so must rely on real emotion, on “tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.”
Fitzgerald has always been one of my favorites. Just reading this letter has convinced me to revisit Tender is the Night once I’ve finished the Octavia Butler trilogy I’m currently blazing through. While reading his letter to poor, amateurish Frances, I could imagine receiving a similar missive from an icon. Would I feel embarrassed? Relieved? Motivated or despondent? I wonder if Frances never wrote another word (a quick google search lead me nowhere). I wonder if she took it all in stride?
In the end, I hope his no-holds-bar advice inspired her to pay the toll, made her willing to bear it all for her writing.
I know I often pull my punches when I write. I’m trying to get better about venturing into the wilds, dredging up those darker elements and moments, and writing without tapping the brakes quite so often. As a child, I was always the kids following slowly behind the rest – never willing or able to fly down the hill on my bicycle or speedily skate around the rink. Back then I was afraid of bruises and skinned knees, but now the fear involves exposure and vulnerability. So I’m easing off the handlebars, oiling up the gears, and trying to stare down the long steep hill infront of me with courage both feigned and real. I know as soon as I put up that kickstand, I’m in for the ride of my life.
So the answer is ” yes,” Mr. Fitzgerald, I am (finally) ready to pay the price of admission…
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- New F. Scott Fitzgerald Story Is Discovered And Published By The New Yorker (yabookreviewer.wordpress.com)
- Writing Advice from F. Scott Fitzgerald (tracystaedter.com)
- You’ve got to sell your heart (lettersofnote.com)
- “It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald (poietes.wordpress.com)
- The Wire Breaks Down The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Classic Criticism of America (NSFW) (openculture.com)
- F. Scott Fitzgerald Continues to Inspire (silverbirchpress.wordpress.com)
- Writing Right (silverbirchpress.wordpress.com)
- Insecurity as an asset. (thedailycreativewriter.wordpress.com)
*This post was originally published on August 16, 2012.