If you write, can you sell your heart?

The dashing F. Scott Fitzgerald when the world was his oyster.
The dashing F. Scott Fitzgerald when the world was his oyster.

SHE WAS YOUNG, only a sophomore at Radcliffe College, and she wondered if she had the talent to become a writer.

She thought she might.

But she didn’t know for sure.

Maybe an old family friend could help her.

But should she dare ask him?

He might not have the time for her.

He might not take the time.

But all he could was say no.

Frances Turnbull took a deep breath and, with some fear and trepidation, sent him one of her short stories to read.

It was good, she thought, to have a friend like F. Scott Fitzgerald.

His answer was forthright.

It was honest.

But did she really want to hear it?

In a 1938 letter Fitzgerald told her:

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 worthwhile 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.

What would she do with her talent?

How badly did she really want to write?

She could tell her stories all right.

She had the imagination for it.

She had the words for it.

But could she sell her heart?

It is a heavy price.

Not everyone can pay it.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    Fitzgerald’s statement is so simple, yet it is powerful. A novel must have heart or there’s no reason to write it.

    • I don’t recall the name of Frances Turnbull – what did she do with his excellent advice?

      Obviously, she could handle basic English, and such things as punctuating dialogue (or he would have told her to go get her mechanics under control).

      Did she spill her guts?

      My office is encrusted in blood and guts. Messy.

      • Alicia,
        I also Googled and found nothing. I think Caleb and Frances have gone to a warmer climate to wait out the weather. In fact, I do believe I see them up ahead on the beach, walking and talking, no doubt about writing, and is that Ernest Hemingway walking just behind them? Why it is. No wonder we couldn’t find Frances – she is on the beach with Caleb and Ernest.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          Bert/Alicia: I tried to track down Frances as well. I have an idea she was so disappointed with Fitzgerald’s comments that she put aside her dream of writing and took another direction through life. Ironically, Fitzgerald suddenly died two years after his letter to Frances. He was morose and disillusioned, convinced he was a failure as a novelist.

          • She probably became a critic or an editor, either one could have had a bearing on Fitzgerald’s death.

          • Caleb Pirtle

            She suggested changing the title of his novel to “The Mediocre Gatsby.”

  • I was just telling a new writer this the other day. She was afraid to expose her soul, so she held back.
    I think this (spilling our emotions on the page) is why I find new releases so terrifying. I never know how my stories will be received. I thought it would get easier, but as soon as I had a release date for my new thriller, panic set in again.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Sue, I live in a state of panic and that’s probably why characters do.

      • So you’re telling me it never gets easier? Never? When you think about it, writing is a strange gig. We write in private, in solitude and safety, and then put our work out there for all to judge. We must be half-mad to continue, but I don’t know one writer who can stop.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          Sue, it’s almost impossible to kick an addiction.

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