Letters of Note featured a fascinating letter by F. Scott Fitzgerald to Frances Turnbull, an aspiring writer, dated November 9, 1938, in which he said:
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.
He gives his honest appraisal of her work, ultimately concluding, “it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable,” but noting that if she improves her manuscript by adding her emotions and experience to her writing, he would be interested in reading it. My favorite part is the analogy between writers and soldiers: “You have talent—which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.”
I wonder what Frances Turnbull thought of this letter. Did she think her story lacked emotion? I would guess that most writers believe that their creative work is deeply personal, though I suppose not everyone can transmit their emotions and experience to paper effectively, especially not at first.
Fitzgerald’s letter is a good reminder of the importance of honest criticism, even if it’s hard for a writer to hear. It’s certainly better to hear this type of criticism pre-publication than after a novel’s debut.
It’s wonderful that we have access to Fitzgerald’s 1938 letter, and I wonder, in light of the challenges electronic media present to historic preservation, if there will be “emails and text messages of note” in the future?