You Only Have Your Emotions to Sell

One of the key sources that biographers use to tell the story of a particular individual is his or her correspondence. Letters to colleagues, family, and friends provide an unclouded lens into the thoughts and emotions of an author. Fortunately for biographers, many 19th and early 20th century authors were prolific letter writers; for example, Charles Dickens once wrote 100 letters in a single day. What is really remarkable — particularly for a modern audience that is so accustomed (or addicted to — depending on your perspective) to typing or texting — is that these letters were handwritten.

F. Scott Fitzgerald scholar, Matthew Bruccoli, assembled one of the best collection of the author’s letters. The letters reveal a number of issues that dominated Fitzgeral’s life: his wife’s mental illness, his complex relationship with his daughter, his own health problems, and his financial struggles. In addition to these personal issues, the author discusses artistic issues surrounding his novels and short stories. Amid all these letters to family members, editors, and business associates is a remarkable letter (dated November 9, 1938) written to Frances Turnbull, a young writer and family friend, who wanted his advice about her writing. His candid and thoughtful response presents a brilliant insight into the craft of writing:

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

Read related posts: John Fowles on the French Lieutenant’s Daughter
Letters to a Young Poet
William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty

For further reading: F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters: A New Collection, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, Scribner (1995)
F. Scott Fitzgerald A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work, Mary Jo Tate, Facts on File (1998)

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