An author I know sent me an email that said only this: “I’m glad F. Scott Fitzgerald isn’t reading my book.” He included this link.
It’s a letter written by the famous novelist to an aspiring writer. Fitzgerald pulls no punches in his critique of her work. It’s a pretty sound criticism. If I’d received a letter like this from a noted novelist today I’d undoubtedly be crushed. Here’s an excerpt from the body of the letter:
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.
What Fitzgerald said, “You’ve got to sell your heart,” inspired me rather than scared me. As I work through the ‘goblin project’ I’ll be thinking of this letter. Do I really sell my hearts on the page? Am I breathing all I have into the writing? Am I willing to make myself that vulnerable for the sake of the story? Am I willing to pay “the price of admission”?
I don’t know the answers to all of those questions yet, but I’m sure glad F. Scott Fitzgerald raised them. I read through one of the large action sequences of the goblin project last night. It was okay. I’m proud of it. I’ll gladly seek the critique of my friends and fellow writers. But I don’t think I’ve totally ‘sold my heart yet.’ I want the reader to be on the edge of their seat in the sequence. I want the characters to convey the same fear of uncertainty and/or death that I’ve felt at other times. I’m just not sure I’ve got it quite right yet, but Fitzgerald’s letter has reminded me how important it is.