Thursday, November 3, 2011

Andromeda: Writing advice from F. Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter-- and to all of us

Writing is done mostly alone, but mentors can help, and one reason that MFA programs have exploded this decade, I think, is that most of don’t know how to locate a mentor without finding a paid one, in academia. Professional editors who are already invested in a project are the best people to offer the most hands-on advice about polishing or restructuring a work. Mentors, especially paid ones, do a little of that, but they do other things as well. They can offer reading lists, introduce us to new critical language and craft topics we didn’t even know we needed to consider, and model—in their words and in their actions, and sometimes in how their actions are different from their words—how a writer lives and works and survives and teaches himself or herself how to “fail better.”

A breathing, living mentor who can do that is a great thing. But when living mentors are scarce (or busy), dead and imaginary ones can fill an important role.

As someone who invents characters and makes up dialogue in my head, I’m using to having imaginary conversations. A few years ago, I started having imaginary conversations, on paper, with favorite writers. I prefer for my real mentors to be at least as encouraging as discouraging (a 60/40 balance maybe). But I often invent imaginary mentors who aren’t quite that touchy-feely: the “tough cop” or “tough coach” type. A few years ago, I finished a novel and wrote down what I thought five of my favorite writers (living or dead) would have said about it, and how they would advise me through revisions. They weren’t always nice. But it was an interesting exercise, letting those imaginary voices be the first critics of a finished work.

Lately, I thought it would be fun to research what kind of advice an imaginary mentor might really give. Today, I offer you the wise, poignant words of F. Scott Fitzgerald as culled from the last year of his life, 1940, from actual letters to his daughter Scottie, an aspiring writer. He died just months after writing most of these letters.

The Great Gatsby author had burned himself out on a life of intense writing (short stories and screenplays in addition to his novels, the fifth and last unfinished), alcoholism, coping with his mentally ill wife Zelda, and chasing mountains of money only to spend it very quickly. (One of my own living mentors, Leonard Chang, says that the writing lesson we learn from Fitzgerald is to live with a lower overhead–and I think that, too, is profound advice.)

During his last year, when he was writing for Hollywood, the famous chronicler of the Jazz Age characterized himself as a hack. Fitzgerald died in December 1940 at the age of 44.

On making it new…


You asked me whether I thought that in the Arts it was greater to originate a new form or to perfect it. The best answer is the one that Picasso made rather bitterly to Gertrude Stein: “You do something first and then somebody else comes along and does it pretty.”

In the opinion of any real artist, the inventor—which is to say Giotto or Leonardo—is infinitely superior to the finished Tintoretto, and the original D. H. Lawrences are infinitely greater than the Steinbecks.

On the danger of bankrupting one’s energy and resources…

Our danger is imagining we have resources— material and moral—which we haven’t got. One of the reasons I find myself so consistently in valleys of depression is that every few years I seem to be climbing uphill to recover from some bankruptcy. Do you know what bankruptcy exactly means? It means drawing on resources which one does not possess. I thought I was so strong that I never would be ill and suddenly I was ill for three years, and faced with a long, slow uphill climb. Wiser people seem to manage to pile up a reserve…

On becoming a serious reader…

I wonder if you’ve read anything this summer—I mean any one good book like The Brothers Karamazov or Ten Days That Shook the World or Renan’s Life of Christ. You never speak of your reading except the excerpts you do in college, the little short bits that they must perforce give you. … A good style simply doesn’t form unless you absorb half a dozen top-flight authors every year.

On not discussing an unfinished work prematurely…

My novel is something of a mystery, I hope. I think it’s a pretty good rule not to tell what a thing is about until it’s finished. If you do, you always seem to lose some of it. It never quite belongs to you so much again.

On the importance for a writer of broader life experience…

I felt all my life the absence of hobbies …. And after reading Thoreau I felt how much I have lost by leaving nature out of my life.

So many writers, Conrad for instance, have been aided by being brought up in a metier utterly unrelated to literature. It gives an abundance of material and, more important, an attitude from which to view the world. So much writing nowadays suffers both from lack of an attitude and from sheer lack of any material, save what is accumulated in a purely social life. The world, as a rule, does not live on beaches and in country clubs.

On having something to say and a way to say it…

Don’t be a bit discouraged about your story not being tops. At the same time, I am not going to encourage you about it, because, after all, if you want to get into the big time, you have to have your own fences to jump, and learn from experience. Nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one. If you have anything to say, anything you feel nobody has ever said before, you have got to feel it so desperately that you will find some way to say it that nobody has ever found before, so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter—as indissolubly as if they were conceived together...

Let me preach again for a moment: I mean that what you have felt and thought will by itself invent a new style, so that when people talk about style they are always a little astonished at the newness of it, because they think that it is only style that they are talking about, when what they are talking about is the attempt to express a new idea with such force that it will have the originality of the thought. It is an awfully lonesome business, and, as you know, I never wanted you to go into it, but if you are going into it at all, I want you to go into it knowing the sort of things that took me years to learn.

All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.

On living first, and two kinds of talent…

Most of my contemporaries did not get started at twenty-two, but usually at about twenty-seven to thirty or even later, filling in the interval with anything from journalism [or] teaching [to] sailing a tramp-schooner and going to wars. The talent that matures early is usually of the poetic [type], which mine was in large part. The prose talent depends on other factors—assimilation of material and careful selection of it, or, more bluntly: having something to say and an interesting, highly developed way of saying it.

On finding out what matters most, too late…

What little I’ve accomplished has been by the most laborious and uphill work, and I wish now I’d never relaxed or looked back—but said at the end of The Great Gatsby: “I’ve found my line—from now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty—without this I am nothing.”

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the work that went into excerpting and posting this. Andromeda, I appreciate your posts in particular, as they are often thoughtful, with depth and humor, and show an interesting mind at work, one that's reaching for challenge. You are a mentor that way, too.

Shannon Huffman Polson said...

Excellent, sage advice. I'm tempted to print out and hang above my computer. Thank you!

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Wow, beautiful advice. is this from a published book, and where can I find this?

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

Thanks everyone -- and Lynn, there may be a single book where all these letters are collected (on amazon you can find many books about Fitzgerald, including letter collections), but I can't confirm that, since I gathered and excerpted using online sources.

PONS Idiomas said...

Hola, quizás os interese saber que tenemos una colección que incluye el relato 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' de F. Scott Fitzgerald en versión original conjuntamente con el relato 'The Swimmer' de John Cheever.

El formato de esta colección es innovador porque permite leer directamente la obra en inglés sin necesidad de usar el diccionario al integrarse un glosario en cada página.

Tenéis más info de este relato y de la colección Read&Listen en http://www.ponsidiomas.com/catalogo/f-scott-fitzgerald---john-cheever-.html