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One Thing You Need To Be A Professional Writer

This is one of the best letters I’ve ever read about writing. Not surprisingly, it comes from my favorite writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The letter, which comes from the book F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life In Letters via brainpickings, is written from Fitzgerald to Frances Turnbull, a family friend, who sent F. Scott a short story for review.

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.

I love Fitzgerald’s blunt, honest advice. It reminds me a lot of a quote that’s attributed to Hemingway: “Writing is easy. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.” It also falls in line with Franzen’s advice: “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.”

You can see why so many great authors have a troubled past. Honestly, all that emotional baggage makes for great content. And finding a way to put those emotions onto paper in an honest, genuine way is what separates the professional from the amateur, according to Fitzgerald.

Just another reminder that writing isn’t all about technique.

(Letter via brainpickings)

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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36 Comments Post a comment
  1. Beautiful! Thanks for sharing this :).

    Like

    March 25, 2013
  2. I love Fitzgerald too. Thanks for passing on some great advice 🙂

    Like

    March 25, 2013
  3. I absolutely love this. What a fantastically, brutally honest letter. A great reminder to us all to always put everything we have into our works. I would love to reblog this, would you mind?

    Like

    March 25, 2013
  4. Excellent read, thanks! It’s curious because I’ve been having this dilemma myself just today: I’m wanting to write raw, but I pull back, in the way a rider might refrain from letting their horse gallop because of the slight risk of being thrown and breaking their neck in a muddy puddle of slops. I know it’s not going to kill me, but I’m damned scared of taking the risk and maybe getting dirty. This letter reminds us to be brave, to write, not just to sell, but to write well and beautifully.

    Like

    March 25, 2013
    • Yep, exactly. I love how Fitzgerald explains that concept.

      Like

      March 25, 2013
  5. What a great letter. I would love to reblog as well. Thanks

    Like

    March 25, 2013
  6. Reblogged this on My Ridiculous Life and commented:
    This is the best I have heard about writing. What a great letter.

    Like

    March 25, 2013
  7. Thanks Robert, this is excellent advice from one of our best writers.What a find! If you have time, check out the Paris Review today on FB, they featured an interview with Doris Lessing from the 90’s that is wonderful.

    Like

    March 25, 2013
  8. I don’t even want to be a fiction writer. I just want to be able to write a letter like that.

    Like

    March 25, 2013
    • alibrice191 #

      Me too!

      Like

      March 25, 2013
    • I know. That guy was just ridiculous as a writer. So good.

      Like

      March 25, 2013
  9. Here’s a lesson in how to be honest, supportive, and kind when reviewing other writers’ work. Thanks for sharing this! I would like to reblog this on DogpatchWritersCollective.

    Like

    March 25, 2013
  10. I am so obsessed with Fitzgerald right now… What do you think about the accusations that he used Zelda’s ideas? There are a couple of Zelda novels coming out soon that I am interested to read. I

    Like

    March 25, 2013
    • I would be interested to read her novels. But I don’t think he stole his ideas from her.

      Like

      March 26, 2013
  11. Reblogged this on Filling Blank Pages and commented:
    Found this post on the wonderful blog 101 Books, where Robert is reading his way through Time Magazine’s 100 Greatest Novels. This is a letter F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of my favorite writers, wrote to his friend who had sent him work to be critiqued. HIs frank, yet heartfelt, reply is a good lesson to us all on how we should approach our work. No matter how accomplished we are, but especially if we are just starting out. This letter really spoke to me and I wanted to share with y’all what I found to be very inspirational.

    Like

    March 25, 2013
  12. Cosmic Scribbles #

    He had such an amazing gift for maintaining his eloquence whilst being blunt. I also admire how his passion for writing still lingered inconspicuously throughout the text. This was a fantastic read, thank you for sharing!

    Like

    March 25, 2013
  13. That’s such a beautiful letter. Recently, someone asked me why don’t I write novels? The assumption was that because I write blogs and because I love to read books, well, then I should be able to write one as well.

    I was quite startled by the question, and didn’t articulate my response clearly enough. I guess this letter explains so clearly what I was trying to say but couldn’t say.

    Like

    March 26, 2013
  14. Reblogged this on angelanowakforgod and commented:
    An Awesome insight & so true!

    Like

    March 26, 2013
  15. I love this. It is, in a nutshell, what every writer wants to do, and what I strive for every day.

    Like

    March 26, 2013
  16. You are right about this being blunt and a little brutal. It is what we all need, I think, to challenge ourselves not to be better, but to be great. A few painful reminders once in a while are what keep us moving forward. Thanks for a great post!

    Like

    March 26, 2013
  17. What a genuine, kind and inspirational letter it is!

    Like

    March 26, 2013
  18. Reblogged this on catherinepopova.

    Like

    March 26, 2013
  19. Wow I love it , it fits in with my blog so will have to re blog such brilliant advice

    Like

    March 26, 2013
  20. Hi guys! I am a budding blogger and poet who would like to get his website out there. If you like poetry, you may want to check me out. All info is on my home page which is theyoungpo3t.wordpress.com.

    Like

    March 26, 2013
  21. CCB #

    Wonderful letter with wise advice. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

    March 27, 2013
  22. That’s awesome, but leaves me wondering: If I can do that, if I can pay the price of admission, do I do that before therapy, after therapy, or instead of therapy?

    Like

    April 1, 2013
  23. Thank you for sharing this!! It tells me I am absolutely on the right path. I will bleed all over the page if it will bring myself and others joy. Joy is the gift God gave me to share with the world. Smile and world smiles with you.

    Like

    April 9, 2013
  24. Reblogged this on Water Girl in the Mountains and commented:
    What would Fitzgerald said about blogs?

    Like

    April 9, 2013
  25. Reblogged this on book of ninja.

    Like

    May 20, 2013
  26. Reblogged this on Ficelle and commented:
    This is a precise, concise statement of the heart of the matter of writing.

    Like

    May 15, 2015

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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