F. Scott Fitzgerald: a letter to Frances Turnbull

Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters. Hat tip to Brain Pickings via The Passive Voice.

I should like to call particular attention to the last sentence of the P.S.:

You have talent — which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.

This is perhaps the best definition of talent, that obscure and much-abused term, that I have ever read. —T. S.


 

November 9, 1938

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

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.

Comments

  1. Sherwood Smith says:

    Condescending much?

    • What’s condescending about it? Frances Turnbull was a family friend, a college student at the time, who sent one of her early stories to Fitzgerald with a request for criticism — which he gave.

      I gather from other sources that the Turnbull house was a bit of a hangout for writers and other creative folk in those days; Fitzgerald would hardly have been her only source of advice, or in a position to condescend to her. (One source I checked out this morning makes it clear that Fitzgerald was not the most famous person to frequent the house.)

  2. houseboatonstyx says:

    Okay, Fitzgerald mentions three elements here.

    1. talent (” I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent [….]”

    2. “the tricks of interesting people on paper, [….] the technique which it takes time to learn”

    3. raw autobiographical emotion

    So what are some of the #2, tricks for interesting people, that apply in both Fitzgerald’s sort of stories, and in your Tolkienesque?

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