F. Scott Fitzgerald

Welcome back, loyal listeners! This week, we talk F. Scott Fitzgerald and the letters he wrote to new writers. While we didn’t have a chance to get to all the juicy goodness in the episode, I have included several of the great lines (and a bit of my commentary on them) in the show notes, which, as always, you can find beneath the audio and the video. We hope you enjoy it, and we’ll see you next week when we look at Flannery O’Connor. Don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube and push the “like” button. Until next week, good writing!




  1. FIF winner–Cindy Smiddy Scott From an untitled WIP: Jensey Culpepper bit her tongue as she continued to sweat over a boiling stockpot in the tiny, constricting kitchen which she’d affectionately dubbed “The Devil’s Sphincter.”
  2. Pub term–”Work for Hire” (Al)
  3. F. Scott Fitzgerald
    1. Brief bio: (Al)
    3. Fitzgerald was a man of strong convictions and strong opinions on writing. Take what you will, what will benefit your writing.
    4. Feel free to disagree where necessary. I like what he has to say, but don’t always agree.
    5. Studying his philosophies will help us look at our writing in a new light.
  4. A Life in Letters
    1. As a world-renowned author, F. Scott Fitzgerald received several letters from amateur writers seeking honest critiques of their work.
    2. Fitzgerald was very good at responding, much to the dismay of those seeking his advice.
    3. He famously criticized the first two chapters of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises to the point that Hemingway completely took them out.
    4. He wrote often to his daughter, also an aspiring writer.
  5. Sell Your Heart
    1. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s response to Frances Turnbull, then a student at Radcliffe. She’d requested his feedback on her latest story.
    2. —“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…
    3. —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 onahaemophile.”
      1. Our stories must come from the most emotionally impactful things that have happened to us.
      2. Even if we don’t write “our” stories, we must tap into the deep emotions we’ve felt.
      3. If we haven’t felt what we’re describing, our reader will know it, and won’t experience what we hope they will.
  6. First Tragic Love Story
    1. “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 ofthreeuncharacterized 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.”
      1. Once we’ve taken a deeply rooted emotion and written about it, we’ll learn what it takes to evoke emotion in our reader.
      2. Once we’ve done this, and learned from it, we can then write about more subtle issues.
      3. Transferring emotions is a necessary evil in writing.
      4. We can call this Empathetic Writing, drawing from our well of emotion to put into characters.
  7. Qualifications ≠ Greatness
    1. “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.”
      1. Talent can only take us so far.
      2. Hammering words into a readable form takes talent, but it cannot create emotion from nothing.
      3. Emotionally evocative writing must come first from the heart. We must feel before we can tell.
      4. When the emotional context, the emotional heart of the story is complete, then we can worry about smoothness of prose, the hammering and wordsmithing that great prose demands.
  8. A letter to his daughter
    1. “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.”
      1. Simply wanting to write, Fitzgerald says, isn’t enough. It must be a passion, an unquenchable fire within you that burns until you find a way to extract it from within yourself and put it onto the page.
      2. In a way, you might see this as self-preservation.
      3. Do you write because you think it’d be neat to “have a book on the shelf?” Or are you content to write even if no one will ever see it. Is it a compulsion?
      4. When you find the pressing passion, put it on the page. Only then can you be a writer.
      5. It demands courage and an emotional nakedness, a brutal, sometimes self-deprecating honesty.
  9. “Nothing any good isn’t hard, and you know you have never been brought up soft, or are you quitting on me suddenly? Darling, you know I love you, and I expect you to live up absolutely to what I laid out for you in the beginning.”
    1. I wonder if God feels like this sometimes toward us?
    2. Writing can be very difficult, very discouraging, but God has called us to it anyhow.
    3. He’s also prepared us for what He’s called us to do.
    4. We should be encouraged with these words: we all struggle, all tear our hair out sometimes.
    5. And then, the voice of God. “I know it’s tough, but I’ve prepared you for this.”
  10. —Fitzgerald to Sheilah Grahm Hollywood gossip columnist): —“You must begin by making notes. You may have to make notes for years…. When you think of something, when you recall something, put it where it belongs. Put it down when you think of it. You may never recapture it quite as vividly the second time.”
  11. —From a 1936 letter to novelist John O’Hara: —“Invent a system Zolaesque…but buy a file. On the first page of the file put down an outline of a novel of your times enormous in scale (don’t worry, it will contract by itself) and work on the plan for two months. Take the central point of the file as your big climax and follow your plan backward and forward from that for another three months. Then draw up something as complicated as a continuity from what you have and set yourself a schedule.”
  12. —Again, to his daughter Scottie: —“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.”
  13. —From his 1926 story “The Rich Boy”: —“Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created—nothing.”
  14. —To friend and writer John Peale Bishop: —“You ought never to use an unfamiliar word unless you’ve had to search for it to express a delicate shade–where in effect you have recreated it. This is a [darn]good prose rule I think…. Exceptions: (a) need to avoid repetition (b) need of rhythm (c) etc.”
  15. —Again to his daughter, Scottie: —“About adjectives: all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move. Probably the finest technical poem in English is Keats’ ‘Eve of Saint Agnes.’ A line like ‘The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,’ is so alive that you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement–the limping, trembling and freezing is going on before your own eyes.”
  16. —From “One Hundred False Starts,” a 1933 Saturday Evening Post article: —“The latter (scrapping a story or character) is one of the most difficult decisions that an author must make. To make it philosophically, before he has exhausted himself in a hundred-hour effort to resuscitate a corpse or disentangle innumerable wet snarls, is a test of whether or not he is really a professional. There are often occasions when such a decision is doubly difficult. In the last stages of a novel, for instance, where there is no question of junking the whole, but when an entire favorite character has to be hauled out by the heels, screeching, and dragging half a dozen good scenes with him.”
  17. Cut out all the exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
  18. All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”
    1. —Love this description—writing is a breathless, desperate act, it is flailing in weightlessness, desperately searching for footing, for the relief that comes at the surface with the first sharp intake of breath.
    2. —Reading should have the same effect on us.
  19. You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.
    1. —Don’t let “theme” dictate your character or plot. Instead, tell your story, and let your characters learn (or not learn) what they will (or won’t).
    2. —Didactic writing falls flat for the same reasons as melodramatic writing.
  20. An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmaster of ever afterwards.”
    1. —Fitzgerald cared what critics thought. His goal was to be upheld as a genius writer. He accomplished his goal. Make of that what you will.
  21. What I’ve Learned from Reading Fitzgerald
    1. Imagery that transcends
      1. —The key to effective imagery is specificity of senses, of nouns and verbs.
      2. Read Poetry
      3. Marry the concrete and the abstract
      4. Symbolism is attainable, but should never be forced.
      5. from Winter Dreams: “—The dream was gone. Something had been taken from him. In a sort of panic he pushed the palms of his hands into his eyes and tried to bring up a picture of the waters lapping on Sherry Island and the moonlit veranda, and the gingham on the golf-links and the dry sun and the gold color of her neck’s soft down. And her mouth damp to his kisses and her eyes plaintive with melancholy and her freshness like new fine linen in the morning. Why these things were no longer in the world! They had existed and they existed no longer.”
    2. Importance of Poetry
      1. Develops strong sense of imagery, of meter and rhythm, of the concrete and the abstract.
      2. Consider reading:
        1. —Robert Frost
        2. —John Keats
        3. —Marianne Moore
        4. —Sylvia Plath
        5. —Elizabeth Bishop
        6. —Langston Hughes
        7. —Emily Dickinson
    3. Marry the concrete with the Abstract
      1. —Concrete: —“…the waters lapping on Sherry Island and the moonlit veranda, and the gingham on the golf-links and the dry sun and the gold color of her neck’s soft down. And her mouth damp to his kisses and her eyes plaintive with melancholy and her freshness like new fine linen in the morning.”
      2. —Abstract: —“Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished.”
    4. Symbolism is usually within grasp. If you have to reach for it, you’re trying too hard.
      1. “The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time.”
      2. If you’re trying at all, you’re trying too hard.
      3. Symbols will announce themselves as you re-read what you’ve written. They will work themselves into your text.
      4. When you see an image repeat itself, a description that surfaces time and again, it’s a symbol struggling to emerge from its shell.

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