Authentic Voice & F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Advice on “the price” of Being a Writer

Topic Progress:

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Advice to Frances Turnbull

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.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Letter to His Daughter on Writing

Grove Park Inn
Asheville, N.C.
October 20, 1936

Dearest Scottina:

[…]

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 one 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 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.

[…]

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.

Scott

Authentic Reading Exercise

If you had never seen your face in a mirror, would you recognize yourself in a picture someone handed to you? We form concepts of self by how we view ourselves in mirrors, family, friends, even in those whom we do not call friends. Without these mirrors both literally and figuratively, we would have no sense of ourselves within the larger communities. It is not so different with our authentic voices. Equally important is that we find mirrored images of self within the people who are current and relevant to our states of being. For instance, if you were sitting across a cafe table from your great great great grandmother and your mother, would you expect them to view you and describe you in the same manner? Likewise, if you sat across a cafe table from Charles Baudelaire and George Saunders, would you expect them to view your writing and describe it in the same manner?

The writers we read and connect to not only teach us about their narratives and crafts, they mirror a sense of our own narratives, crafts and authentic voices, both the contemporary writers we love and the ones we don’t.

Your first assignment for this workshop is to find three short stories or collections you love and three short stories or collections you hate. It is not enough that you are luke warm on these works. They must be three you love, feel at home with, want to emulate. Three you can hardly get through the first pages. It is okay to have your preferences. This is individual to you and in pursuit of further exploring your authentic voice. They must have been published within the last ten years. You may have already read them or merely started them. Once you identify these three works you love and three you hate, follow these directions:

  • Read or reread the first three or more pages of the works you love and hate (if you can find amazon excerpts and do not need to purchase the books, that’s fine.)
  • List the works by love/hate and write a few lines, no more than a paragraph per work, on why you love or hate each one. Be specific. Look at the word choice, the way the narrative opens, the syntax, cadence, does it use poetic vehicles such as repetition and internal rhyme, is the context of interest to you….
  • Now, choose your favorite of the three. Read the first 1000 words or close to this.
  • Choose one short story or short short story you have already written.  We are going to focus on the first 1000 words of this story. Read these first 1000 words.
  • Read your favorite work again, first 1000 words.
  • Yes, read the first 1000 words of your story again. (Of course, feel free to take a breather between reads but it is helpful if you can do this within the space of a single day with a few minutes or hours between.)
  • Now, do the same with your second favorite book. Read the first 1000 words of the book. Read the first 1000 words of your story. Read the work. Read your story. It is preferable that you do this within the span of a single day.
  • Now, the authentic voice writing assignment…

Writing Authentic Voice Assignment

Put your favorite works and your short story away. Do not look at them. Do not even peek. Now, write your story, again, from memory. DO NOT PEEK! This isn’t about recreating your original story or making it perfect. This is about working from a familiar narrative after immersing in authentic reading likes and dislikes. Allow this narrative to go wherever it wants to go and do not worry about it being like your favorite works. Just let your subconscious talents do their work. (When we read and connect to favorite works and disconnect to hated works, our minds are forming schematics both consciously and subconsciously. By letting go of the “control” aspect in our writing, we allow our subconsciouses to better support our conscious craft. Remember, this authentic voice writing assignment isn’t about creating a perfect work, its about giving your narrative craft and authentic voice a chance to meet, play and marinate. We will be working on “perfecting” the manuscript in form and context later in this workshop.)

Discussion

Below in the comments section, identify your favorite and hated works. In less than 500 words, explain what you feel connects you to the three favorite works collectively. Also, explain what you feel repels you from your hated works, collectively.  Don’t worry about offending anyone. We all have our authentic voices and preferences and we can agree and disagree while respecting each others’ preferences.

Submit for Individualized Feedback

  • Submit your work for developmental editing, line editing, copy editing, editorial assessment and more at Reedsy.com, where hundreds of experienced, awarded writers and editors are ready to read your work and help you make it the best it can be.

     


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