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Tough Love from a Guy Named Francis


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F. Scott is NOT having it

(Yes, this actually IS a photo of F. Scott Fitzgerald.)

In my previous post, I focused on the importance of the written word in the time of Covid, and on how I was embracing a newfound reliance on written correspondence to stay connected with people – in particular, people I care deeply about. Among the books I mentioned in that post was this collection of letters written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which I recommend to anyone who’s a fan of the author.

Since posting that, I stumbled onto a powerful quote from F. Scott. (By the way, how cool is his name? I actually went through a phase in college where I insisted on being listed in musical programs as “K. Daniel Cronin.” Good thing I wasn’t pretentious or anything, right? But I digress…)

The particular quote attributed to F (er, can I call him F? Okay, probably not) was: “Nothing any good isn’t hard.”

Or at least that’s what Facebook (or Instagram or some other social media site) wanted me to believe. Ever the skeptic, I researched the quote to see whether F (okay, his real first name was Francis, which helps me understand why he chose the initial) actually ever said that. Turns out, he did.

But far more interesting to me was the context in which Mr. F expressed that thought: It was in a 1936 letter to his then 15-year-old daughter “Scottie,” to whom he was providing a combination of coaching and tough love re her aspirations to become a writer like her dear old man. The letter skips around a bit, some of it addressing Scottie’s complaints about life at the new boarding school she was attending, but then her father turns his attention to a story she’d written. To quote from the book I mentioned above:

“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.”

Something tells me Mr. F was not big on “participation trophies,” and likely didn’t cover his refrigerator with drawings or stories by his young daughter. But I get what he was trying to do. When you read prose as gorgeous and smart and smooth as Fitzgerald’s, it’s not unreasonable that you might assume it came easily to him. So I understand his desire to set (or possibly re-set) his daughter’s expectations for what the life of a serious writer would actually entail.

Although the letter was written only for his daughter, there is SO much insight to unpack that is relevant to any aspiring writer. Seriously, read it again.

Tough and Tougher

Two years later, Fitzgerald amped up the tough love in another letter to an aspiring young writer (also contained in the aforementioned book). The recipient this time was a family friend, a Radcliffe College sophomore named Frances Turnbull who had sent her latest short story to Fitzgerald. Trigger alert: this time the gloves really came off.

“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.”

Ahem. Let me just say:

Daaaammmnnn!

Looks like even F. Scott realized that maybe he was coming down a bit hard, so I’m really glad he added that P.S.

Maybe Unconditional Support Isn’t Always What We Need

Both of these letters were written nearly four score and seven years ago (dammit, why is Lincoln still the only guy who could pull off that phrase and make it cool?). My point is: Times change, and so do sensibilities. The kind of tough love Fitzgerald was doling out pre-WWII might not resonate with many young artists in 2022, and could possibly hurt or offend them. Writing communities such as our own WU pride themselves on being supportive, and that support is frequently offered through positive feedback and general cheerleading. But is that the only kind of support we need?

What with myself being three score and two years old (nope, it still doesn’t work, dammit!), I grew up the recipient of lots of tough love, first as the youngest member of a hard-scrapping family for whom money was in short supply; next as a musician entering a brutally competitive big-name conservatory; then actually hitting the road as a drummer and trying to stay afloat in a business no college course could have prepared me for. And then, because I’m a freaking masochist, when I turned 40 (that’s two score to you, Abe), I decided to try my hand at this whole writing thing. I mean, how hard can it be to write a book and get it published, right?

Bottom line: I keep finding new opportunities to be told in no uncertain terms that what I’m doing is just not good enough.

But here’s the thing. As cliché as it sounds, I’ve learned more from my hardships – and, let’s be honest: my flat-out failures – than I have from any positive feedback or successful experience. And so often the crucial lesson I need to learn is what NOT to do. That is a lesson I keep boomeranging back to, in any field I’ve pursued. What can I say? I’m a slow learner. But I do learn. And I seem to learn the most from the things I get wrong – as an artist, and as a man. So over all these score of years (or would it be scores? So many questions…), I’ve found “tough love” to be one of life’s greatest teachers.

But it takes more than mistakes to get good at something. It also takes practice

Clear as Glass

The key to learning from your mistakes is NOT to conclude “I suck.” Instead, it’s to identify the things you need to improve, and then put in some real work on those things. And then comes the hard part: patience. It simply takes time to get good at something. And the way to get good is to do that thing a LOT.

Writer, radio personality and all-around interesting guy Ira Glass put it MUCH better than I ever could, and this video presents his thinking beautifully. Please do yourself a favor and take a minute and 45 seconds of your life to watch it. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

I love the clarity with which Glass describes the gap between our tastes and our abilities, and I so agree. And I particularly love his solution:

“It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.”

That’s the goal. And getting there is seldom easy. So it is a HUGE help when you have a support system, whether it’s your family, your partner, or (hint, hint…) an online writing community. I’m talking about having somebody who gets what you’re trying to do – or if they don’t actually get it, they get that it’s important to you, and that’s good enough for them.

I’ve been lucky that way. My family has supported my writing and cheered me on, and I’ve experienced truly life-changing support – and built some deeply rewarding friendships – through online writing communities over the past couple of decades. So I will always encourage others to avail themselves of the insights to be gained – and amazing relationships to be built – by being active in online communities for writers (and any other arts or pursuits that are close to their hearts).

Back on the home front, my late mother used to read my drafts – even though they nearly always contained “colorful” language of which I knew she would not approve. And one of the nicest bits of support I ever received was a hand-written note my daughter mailed me with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous quote: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” I framed that note, and have kept it in my line of sight in my office ever since.

Nathaniel wasn’t wrong. Neither was F. Scott. And neither was Ira. Or even this guy:

writing is HARD

Epilogue:

To follow up on the quote on which this post initially focused, you might be interested to learn that Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald, the daughter and only child of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, went on to become a successful writer and journalist, working for The Washington Post and The New Yorker, among others. In 1992, Scottie was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame.

Hmmmm… maybe this tough love stuff works after all.

How about you?

Have you ever been the recipient of some particularly tough love as a writer? Did it help? Or did it discourage you? Please chime in and share your stories. Thanks for reading, and please stay safe.

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About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels Me Again (originally published by Five Star/Gale), and Tony Partly Cloudy (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin (he/him) is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and alligators with his ukulele.

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