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March 2007

Writing Well

The following is a transcript of moderator Dan Simmons asking questions of writers Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald regarding the craft and profession of writing. All quotes by Mr. Hemingway and Mr. Fitzgerald are verbatim.

DS:I’d like to thank both Mr. Hemingway and Mr. Fitzgerald for joining us here today. As you gentleman know, this site’s WRITING WELL series and its ON WRITING WELL forum are designed for those interested in good writing and for those readers and writers interested in writing as both craft and as a possible profession. I guess my first question is . . . how would you gentleman define good writing?

EH: Good writing is true writing. If a man is making a story up it will be true in the proportion to the amount of knowledge of life that he has and how conscientious he is; so that when he makes something up it is as it truly would be.

DS:Then what about imagination?

EH:It is the one thing beside honesty that a good writer must have. The more he learns from experience the more truly he can imagine. If he gets so he can imagine truly enough people will think that the things he relates all really happened and he is merely reporting.

DS:If that’s the definition of good writing, what is the best training for a writer?

EH:An unhappy childhood.

DS:Mr. Fitzgerald, do you agree that all good biographies of truly great writers will show an unhappy childhood?

FSF: There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people, if he’s any good.

DS:But would you agree with Mr. Hemingway that an author’s childhood is formative for his or her sensibilities through an entire career?

FSF:A writer can spin on about his adventures after thirty, after forty, after fifty, but the criteria by which these adventures are weighed and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of twenty-five.

DS:What prompted each of you to become a writer? Did you always know you were a writer? Was there something in childhood – other than the unhappy childhood itself that Mr. Hemingway alludes to – that made you decide I am a writer?

EH:No, I always wanted to be a writer.

FSF:There is another reason why I became an author.

DS:How’s that?

FSF:Well, I used to play football in a school and there was a coach who didn’t like me for a damn. Well, our school was going to play a game up on the Hudson, and I had been substituting for our climax runner who had been hurt the week before. I had a good day substituting for him so now that he was well and had taken his old place I was moved into what might be called the position of blocking back. I wasn’t adapted to it, perhaps because there was less glory and less stimulation. It was cold, too, and I don’t stand cold, so instead of doing my job I got thinking how grey the skies were. When the coach took me out of the game he said briefly:

“We simply can’t depend on you.”

The point is it inspired me to write a poem for the school paper which made me as big a hit with my father as if I had become a football hero. So when I went home that Christmas vacation it was in my mind that if you weren’t able to function in action you might at least be able to tell about it because you felt the same intensity – it was a back door way out of facing reality.

DS:So in a sense, Mr. Fitzgerald, part of your earliest reason for writing was to please your father. As you both got older – as your careers progressed – whom did you end up writing for?

FSF:There comes a time when a writer writes only for certain people and where the opinion of the others is of little less than no importance at all . . . .

EH:I believe that basically you write for two people: yourself to try to make it absolutely perfect; or if not that then wonderful. Then you write for who you love whether she can read or write or not and whether she is alive or dead.

DS:In our age, in the 21st Century, there’s a lot of moaning about the process of writing. Writers say that they’re glad to have written but often say they hate the act of writing itself. Do you think your writing is worth doing – as an end in itself?

EH:Oh, yes.

DS:You are sure?

EH:Very sure.

DS:That must be very pleasant.

EH:It is. It is the one altogether pleasant thing about it.

DS:Do you both agree that emotion plays a large part in both the act of writing and choice of content for a writer?

FSF:Whether it’s something that happened twenty years ago or only yesterday, I must start out with an emotion – one that’s been close to me and that I can understand.

EH: After a book I am emotionally exhausted. If you are not you have not transferred the emotion completely to the reader. Anyway that is the way it works with me.

DS:And what is the best way for a writer to transfer emotion “completely to the reader?” How is that possible?

FSF:Joseph Conrad defined it more clearly, more vividly than any man of our time:

“My task is by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see.”

DS:But words are so limited in their scope and . . .

EH:All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time . . .

FSF:Genius is the ability to put into effect what is in your mind. There’s no other definition of it.

EH:First, there must be talent, much talent. Talent such as Kipling had. Then there must be discipline. The discipline of Flaubert. Then there must be the conception of what it can be and an absolute conscience as unchanging as the standard meter in Paris, to prevent faking. Then the writer must be intelligent and disinterested and above all he must survive. Try to get all these in one person and have him come through all the influences that press on a writer. The hardest thing, because time is so short, is for him to survive and get his work done.

DS:So talent, discipline, conscience, intelligence, and disinterestedness – presumably in the sense that John Keats and Shakespeare used that word – are all prerequisites to truly good writing. But how does one define intelligence in this context?

FSF:. . . the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

DS:Which corresponds almost exactly to what John Keats called “negative capability.” How important is Keats . . . how important is poetry in general to a novelist or writer of prose? Should novelists read poetry?

FSF:It isn’t something easy to get started on by yourself. You need, at the beginning, some enthusiast who also knows his way around – John Peale Bishop performed that office for me at Princeton. I had always dabbled in “verse” but he made me see, in the course of a couple of months, the difference between poetry and non-poetry . . .

Poetry is either something that lives like fire inside you – like music to the musician or Marxism to the Communist – or else it is nothing, an empty, formalized bore around which pedants can endlessly drone their notes and explanations. “The Grecian Urn” is unbearably beautiful with every syllable as inevitable as the notes in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or it’s just something you don’t understand. It is what it is because an extraordinary genius paused at that point in history and touched it. I suppose I’ve read it a hundred times. About the tenth time I began to know what it was about, and caught the chime in it and the exquisite inner mechanics. Likewise with “The Nightingale” which I can never read through without tears in my eyes; likewise the “Pot of Basil” with its great stanzas about the two brothers,“Why were they proud,etc.”; and “The Eve of St. Agnes,” which has the richest, most sensuous imagery in English, not excepting Shakespeare. And finally his three or four great sonnets, “Bright Star” and the others.

Knowing those things very young and granted an ear, one could scarcely ever afterwards be unable to distinguish between gold and dross in what one read. In themselves those eight poems are a scale of workmanship for anybody who wants to know truly about words, their most utter value for evocation, persuasion or charm. For awhile after you quit Keats all other poetry seems to be only whistling or humming.

EH:[Turning to Fitzgerald]
Scott, you always took LITERATURE so solemnly. You never understood that it was just writing as well as you can and finishing what you start.

Someday I’m going to write about the series of calamities that led up the awful state I was in at Christmas. A writer not writing is practically a maniac within himself.

EH:[Still leaning toward Fitzgerald]
Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it – don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist – but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.

FSF:Last summer I was hauled to the hospital with a high fever and a tentative diagnosis of typhoid. My affairs were in no better shape than yours are . . . . There was a story I should have written to pay my current debts, and I was haunted by the fact that I hadn’t made a will . . . . I continued to rail against my luck that just at this crucial moment I should have to waste two weeks in bed, answering the baby talk of nurses and getting nothing done at all. But three days after I was discharged I had finished a story about a hospital.

The material was soaking in and I didn’t know it. I was profoundly moved by fear, apprehension, worry, impatience; every sense was acute, and that is the best way of accumulating material for a story.

When you first start writing stories in the first person if the stories are made so real that people believe them the people reading them nearly always think the stories really happened to you. That is natural because while you are making them up you had to make them happen to the person who was telling them. If you do this successfully enough you make the person who is reading them believe that the things heppened to him too. If you can do this you are beginning to get what you are trying for which is to make the story so real beyond any reality that it will become a part of the reader’s experience and a part of his memory. There must be things that he did not notice when he read the story or the novel which without his knowing it, enter into his memory and experience so that they are a part of his life. This is not easy to do.

DS:To return to the importance of poetry for a moment, you have both recommended to beginning writers the need to read good poets. Is there a secret in learning to write quality prose fiction through learning to read – and hear – good poetry?

EH:Nobody really knows and understands and nobody has ever said the secret. The secret is that it is poetry written into prose and it is the hardest of all things to do . . . .

DS:So if the . . . .

EH:Then there is the other secret. There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.

DS:So you’re suggesting that almost all of what most of us have learned in college, even about both your gentlemen’s work, is . . . .

EH:The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have it.

FSF: You don’t write because you want to say something; you write because you’ve got something to say.

EH:My temptation is always to write too much. I keep it under control so as not to have to cut out crap and re-write. Guys who think they are geniuses because they have never learned how to say no to a typewriter are a common phenomenon. All you have to do is get a phony style and you can write any amount of words.

FSF: . . . I’m afraid I haven’t quite reached the ruthless artistry which would let me cut out an exquisite bit that had no place in the context. I can cut out the almost exquisite, the adequate, even the brilliant – but a true accuracy is, as you say, still in the offing.

EH: If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in the writing.

FSF: This is a sort of postscript to my letter [to editor Max Perkins] of yesterday:

“I do think that you were doing specious reasoning in part of your letter. That that Ernest has let himself repeat here and there a phrase would be no possible justification for my doing the same. Each of us has his virtues and one of mine happens to be a great exactitude about my work. He might be able to afford a lapse in that line where I wouldn’t be and after all I have got to be the final judge of what is appropriate in these cases. Max, to repeat, for the third time, this is no way a question of laziness. It is a question absolutely of self-preservation.”

As I said, the hardest thing, because time is short, is for the writer to survive and get his work done.

[In TO HAVE AND TO HAVE NOT] I . . . threw away about 100,000 words which was better than most of what I left in. It is the most cut book in the world. That may be part of what offends people. It does not have that handy family package size character you get in Mr. Dickens.

FSF:What I cut out of [The Great Gatsby] both physically and emotionally would make another novel!

EH:It wasn’t by accident that the Gettsyburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.

DS:So are you both saying that writing good prose fiction is similar to a sculptor chipping away the stone that doesn’t belong in the finished statue? Just eliminating everything but the good parts?

EH:The good parts of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to overhear or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life – and one is as good as the other.

FSF:Often I think writing is a sheer paring away of oneself leaving always something thinner, barer, more meager.

EH:There’s no rule on how it is to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.

I love to write. But it has never gotten any easier to do and you can’t expect it to if you keep trying for something better than you can do.

DS:Our visitors tend to be interested in the nuts and bolts of writing. Not just the mechanics of the prose, but actual working habits. Do you have any specific advice? For instance, how much do you read over every day before you start to write?

EH:The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can’t do this every day read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read it all from the start. That’s how you make it all of one piece. And remember to stop when you are still going good. That keeps it moving instead of having it die whenever you go and write yourself out. When you do that you find that the next day your are pooped and can’t go on.

DS:What happens when you simply can’t go on?

EH:You just have to go on when it is worst and most helpless – there is only one thing to do with a novel and that is go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.

DS:[to Fitzgerald]
Do you have pretty much the same philosophy about snags?

FSF:. . . sometimes you can lick an especially hard problem by facing it always the very first thing in the morning with the very freshest part of your mind. This has so often worked with me that I have an uncanny faith in it.

DS:You’re a master of the short story. Is there any special formula you have for approaching the short story form?

FSF:Stories are best written in either one jump or three, according to the length. The three-jump story should be done on three successive days, then a day or so for revise and off she goes. This of course is the ideal – in many stories one strikes a snag that must be hacked at but, on the whole, stories that drag along or are terribly difficult (I mean a difficulty that comes from a poor conception and consequent faulty construction) never flow quite as well in the reading.

DS:What are the signs that a story or novel is on the wrong track?

FSF:Good stories write themselves – bad ones have to be written.

DS: Is there any special preparation you have for writing short fiction?

FSF:You must begin by making notes. You may have to make notes for years . . . When you think of something, when you recall something, put it where it belongs. . . . Put it down when you think of it. You may never recapture it quite as vividly the second time.

DS: Would you apply the same approach to writing a full novel?

FSF:Invent a system Zolaesque . . . best buy a file. On the first page of the file put down the outline of a novel of your times enormous in scale (don’t worry, it will contract by itself) and work on the plan for two months. Take the central point of the file as your big climax and follow your plan backward and forward from that for another three months. Then draw up something as complicated as a continuity from what you have and set yourself as a schedule.

DS:Do you use notes or charts to keep track of your characters and their backgrounds? Or do you just keep such things in your head?

FSF:My room is covered with charts like it used to be for Tender is the Night, telling the different movements of the characters and their histories.

DS:[to Hemingway]
Did you have any special ritual or plan when you were writing your early short stories in Paris? I know you used to go to an empty room every day – furnished with just a bare table and chair. Or you’d write at outside tables at brasseries and coffee shops.

EH:The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, were all you needed. For luck you carried a horse chestnut and a rabbit’s foot in your right pocket. The fur had been worn off the rabbit foot long ago and the bones and the sinews were polished by wear. The claws scratched in the lining of your pocket and you knew your luck was still there.

DS:How important do you think luck was to your writing in those early days in Paris? Was the place part of that luck?

EH:It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to do it. Going down the stairs when I had worked well, and that needed luck as well as discipline, was a wonderful feeling and I was free then to walk anywhere in Paris.

DS:[to Fitzgerald]
Do you have any similar place-specific memories of your early writing days?

FSF:I am alone in the privacy of my faded blue room with sick cat, the bare February branches waving at the window, an ironic paper weight that says Business is Good . . . and my greatest problem:

“Shall I run it out? Or shall I turn back?”

. . . Or:

“This is just bullheadedness. Better throw it away and start over.”

The latter is one of the most difficult decisions that an author must make. To make it philosophically, before he has exhausted himself in a hundred-hour effort to resuscitate a corpse or disentangle innumerable wet snarls, is a test of whether or not he is really a professional. There are often occasions when such a decision is doubly difficult. In the last stages of a novel, for instance, where there is no question of junking the whole, but when an entire favorite character has to be hauled out by the heels, screeching, and dragging half a dozen good scenes with him.

It is there that these confessions tie up with a general problem as well as with those peculiar to a writer. The decision as to when to quit, as to when one is merely floundering around and causing other people trouble, has to be made frequently in a lifetime.

DS:So even now, as a professional as experienced as yourself . . . even after producing a novel such as The Great Gatsby . . . you sometimes have serious doubts about your writing?

FSF:. . . I get a thing I call sentence-fever that must be like buck-fever – it’s a sort of intense literary self-consciousness that comes when I try to force myself. But the really awful days aren’t when I think I can’t write. They’re when I wonder whether any writing is worth while at all . . .

EH:You know that fiction, prose rather, is possibly the roughest trade of all in writing. You do not have the reference, the old important reference. You have the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true. You have to take what is not palpable and make it completely palpable and also have it seem normal and so that it can become a part of the experience of the person who reads it.

DS:How can a writer train himself to do that?

EH:Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you the emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what gave you the emotion: what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had. That’s a five finger exercise.

DS:All right.

EH:Then get in somebody else’s head for a change. If I bawl you out try to figure what I’m thinking about as well as how you feel about it. If Carlos curses Juan think what both their sides of it are. Don’t just think who is right. As a man things are as they should or shouldn’t be. As a man you know who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.

DS:All right.

EH:Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When you’re in town stand outside the theater and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.

DS:I’m curious . . . do you ever help each other with your writing when things get difficult?

. . . the only effect I ever had on Ernest was to get him in a receptive mood and say let’s cut everything that goes before this. Then the pieces got mislaid and he could never find the part that I said to cut out. And so he published it without that and later we agreed that it was a very wise cut. This is not literally true and I don’t want it established as part of the Hemingway legend, but it’s just about as far as one writer can go in helping another.

EH:You helped me with the ending of one of my novels, Scott.

FSF:[laughs again]
Years later when Ernest was writing Farewell to Arms he was in doubt about the ending and marketed around to half a dozen people for their advice. I worked like hell on the idea and only succeeded in evolving a philosophy in his mind utterly contrary to everything that he thought an ending should be, and it later convinced me that he was right and made me end Tender is the Night on a fade-away instead of a staccato.

DS:Do other writers, living and dead, help you through their books? I’ve been criticized a bit in this Writing Well series because I keep arguing that to learn to write well all beginning writers need not only to read the great authors but to study their styles. Am I off base with this suggestion?

FSF:Have you ever . . . read Pere Goriot or Crime and Punishment or even A Doll’s House or St. Matthew or Sons and Lovers? A good style simply doesn’t form unless you absorb half a dozen top-flight authors every year. Or rather it forms but, instead of being a subconscious amalgam of all that you have admired, it is simply a reflection of the last writer you have read, a watered-down journalese.

DS:Which authors would you two suggest that all prospective writers . . . absorb?

EH:Hope this doesn’t sound over-confident. Am a man without any ambition, except to be champion of the world. I wouldn’t fight Dr. Tolstoi in a 20 round bout because I know he would knock my ears off. The Dr. had terrific wind and could go on forever and then some. But I would take him on for six and he would never hit me and would knock the shit out of him and maybe knock him out. He is easy to hit. But boy how he can hit. If I can live to 60 I can beat him. (MAYBE)

For your information I started out trying to beat dead writers that I knew how good they were. (Excuse the vernacular) I tried for Mr. Turgenieff first and it wasn’t too hard. Tried for Mr. Maupassant (won’t concede him the de) and it took four of the best stories to beat him. He’s beaten and if he was around he would know it. Then I tried for another guy (am getting embarrassed or embare-assed now from bragging; or stating) and I think I fought a draw with him. This other dead character.

Mr. Henry James I would just thumb him once the first time he grabbed and then hit him once where he had no balls and ask the referee to stop it.

There are some guys nobody could ever beat like Mr. Shakespeare (the Champion) and Mr. Anonymous. But would be glad any time, if in training, to go twenty with Mr. Cervantes in his own home town (Clecala de Henares) and beat the shit out of him. Although Mr. C. very smart and would be learning all the time and would probably beat you in a return match. The third fight people would pay to see . . .

In the big book I hope to take Mr. Melville and Mr. Dostoevsky, they are coupled as a stable entry, and throw lots of mud in their faces because the track isn’t fast. But you can only run so many of those kind of races. They take it out of you.

Know this sounds like bragging but Jeezoo Chrise you have to have confidence to be a champion and that is the only thing I ever wished to be.

FSF:I’d rather have written Conrad’s Nostromo than any other novel. First, because I think it is the greatest novel since Vanity Fair (possibly excluding Madame Bovary), but chiefly because Nostromo, the man, intrigues me so much . . . I would rather have dragged his soul from behind his astounding and inarticulate presence than written any other novel in the world.

EH:It is fashionable among my friends to disparage him [Joseph Conrad]. It is even necessary. Living in a world of literary politics where one wrong opinion often proves fatal, one writes carefully . . .

It is agreed by most of the people I know that Conrad is a bad writer, just as it is agreed that T.S. Eliot is a good writer. If I knew that by grinding Mr. Eliot into a find dry powder and sprinkling that powder over Mr. Conrad’s grave Mr. Conrad would shortly appear, looking very annoyed at the forced return, and commence writing I would leave for London early tomorrow morning with a sausage grinder.

FSF:So many writers, Conrad for instance, have been aided by being brought up in a métier utterly unrelated to literature. It gives an abundance of material and, more important, an attitude from which to view the world. So much writing nowadays suffers both from lack of an attitude and from sheer lack of any material, save what is accumulated in a purely social life. The world, as a rule, does not live on beaches and in country clubs.

DS:In our age, movies are mostly written by 30-something children who’ve apparently had no life other than watching other movies and writing is taught mostly by college professors who have published little or nothing.

EH:I don’t know about that. I never went to college. If any sonofabitch could write he wouldn’t have to teach writing in college.

DS:But we were talking about books to read to learn style and writers, dead and alive, whom any would-be writer should know and study . . .

FSF: . . . a real grasp of Blake, Keats, etc., will bring you something you haven’t dreamed of. And it should come now.

DS:Who else would you recommend to read to learn . . . in order to “absorb,” which I guess means “synthesize,” . . . a sense of style? And how far should a writer go in borrowing other writers’ styles?

FSF: By style I mean color . . . I want to be able to do anything with words handle slashing, flaming descriptions like Wells, and use the paradox with the clarity of Samuel Butler, the breadth of Bernard Shaw and the wit of Oscar Wilde, I want do the wide sultry heavens of Conrad, the rolled-gold sundowns and crazy-quilt skies of Hichens and Kipling as well as the pastel dawns and twilights of Chesterton. All that is by way of example. As a matter of fact I am a professional literary thief, hot after the best methods of every writer in my generation.

EH:[nods and grunts]
Remember to get weather in your god damned book – weather is very important.

DS:And do you agree that absorbing style from other writers is important?

EH:I think you should learn about writing from everybody who has ever written that has anything to teach you.

DS: So what books do you think a writer has to read?

EH:He should read everything so he knows what he has to beat.

DS:He can’t have read everything.

EH:I don’t say what he can. I say what he should. Of course he can’t.

DS:Well what books are necessary?

EH:He should have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina by Tolstoi, Midshipman Easy, Frank Mildmay and Peter Simple by Captain Marryat, Madame Bovary and L’education Sentimentale by Flaubert, Buddenbooks by Thomas Mann, Joyce’s Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses, Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews by Fielding, Le Rouge et Le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme by Stendahl, The Brothers Karamazov and any two other Dostoevskis, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Open Boat and The Blue Hotel by Stephen Crane, Hail and Farewell by George Moore, Yeats’s Autobiographies, all the good De Maupassant, all the good Kipling, all of Turgenev, Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson, Henry James’s short stories, especially Madame de Mauves and The Turn of the Screw, The Portrait of a Lady, The American ---

DS:I can’t write them down that fast. How many more are there?

EH:I’ll give you the rest another day. There are about three times that many.

DS:Should a writer have read all of those?

EH:All of those and plenty more. Otherwise he doesn’t know what he has to beat.

DS:What do you mean “has to beat?”

EH:Listen. There is no use writing anything that has been written before unless you can beat it. What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasn’t been written before or beat dead men at what they have done. The only way he can tell how he is going to compete with dead men . . . .

DS:But reading all the good writers might discourage you.

EH:Then you ought to be discouraged . . . .

DS:Mr. Fitzgerald, does reading great writing ever discourage you? Are there any of your contemporaries who have had a real impact on you?

FSF:I read Ernest’s In Our Time with the most breathless unwilling interest I have experienced since Conrad first bent my reluctant eyes upon the sea.

DS:What about other good American writers?EH:The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain. That’s not the order they’re good in. There is no order for good writers.

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.

FSF:Huckleberry Finn took the first journey back. He was the first to look back at the republic from the perspective of the west. His eyes were the first eyes that ever looked at us objectively that were not eyes from overseas. There were mountains at the frontier but he wanted more than mountains to look at with his restless eyes – he wanted to find out about men and how they lived together. And because he turned back we have him forever.

DS:What about characters? How does one create them? How can we make them not just seem real but be real to the reader?

FSF: Character is action.

EH:[turning to Fitzgerald]
I liked and I didn’t like Tender is the Night. It started off with that marvelous description of Sara and Gerald . . . Then you started fooling with them, making them come from things they didn’t come from, changing them into other people and you can’t do that, Scott. If you take real people and write about them you cannot give them other parents than what they have (they are made by their parents and what happens to them) you cannot make them do anything they would not do. You can take you or me or Zelda or Pauline or Hadley or Sara or Gerald but you have to keep them the same and you can only make them do what they would do. You can’t make one be another. Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen.

That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best – make it all up – but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way.

Goddamn it you took liberties with peoples’ pasts and futures that produced not people but damned marvelously faked case histories. You, who can write better than anybody can, who are so lousy with talent that you have to – the hell with it. Scott for gods sake write and write truly no matter who or what it hurts but do not make these silly compromises. You could write a fine book about Gerald and Sara for instance if you knew enough about them and they would not have any feeling, except passing, if it were true.

[ Silence for a long moment]

In my theory, utterly opposite to Ernest’s, about fiction i.e., that it takes half a dozen people to make a synthesis strong enough to create a fiction character – in that theory, or rather in despite of it, I used [Sara and Gerald] again and again in Tender is the Night:

Her face was hard and lovely and pitiful”

and again

He had been heavy, belly-frightened with love of her for years”

-- in those and in a hundred other places I tried to evoke not Sara but the effect she produces on other men – the echoes and reverberations . . .

EH:. . . you ought to write, invent, out of what you know and keep the people’s antecedants straight.

DS:I’m a little confused. Mr. Hemingway, you’re very adamant about keeping characters in novels and stories true to their . . . real-life templates . . . but certainly there’s a role for synthesis and imagination in the creation of literary characters.

EH:When writing a novel a writer should create people; people not characters. A character is a caricature. If a writer can make people live there may be no great characters in his book, but it is possible that his book will remain as a whole; as an entity; as a novel. If the people the writer is making talk of old masters; of music; of modern painting; of letters; or of science then they should talk of those subjects in the model. If they do not talk of those subjects and the writer makes them talk of them he is a faker, and if he talks about them himself to show how much he knows then he is showing off. No matter how good a phrase or a simile he may have if he puts it in where it is not absolutely necessary and irreplaceable he is spoiling his work for egotism. Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over. For a writer to put his own intellectual musings, which he might sell for a low price as essays, into the mouths of artificially constructed characters which are more remunerative when issued as people in a novel is good economics, perhaps, but does not make literature. People in a novel, not skillfully constructed characters, must be projected from the writer’s assimilated experience, from his knowledge, from his head, from his heart and from all there is of him. If he ever has luck as well as seriousness and gets them out entire they will have more than one dimension and they will last a long time.

DS:You’re saying that a novelist shouldn’t have his or her characters – or I should say the people in his or her novels – be mere mouthpieces. That characters talking about things that the author doesn’t naturally know about is fakery – a form of showing off. But doesn’t that ignore the role of research in writing? Shouldn’t some of an author’s characters know more than the author? Shouldn’t the author be required to learn new things and know what his characters should know?

EH:A good writer should know as near everything as possible. Naturally he will not. A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge. There are some things which cannot be learned quickly and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things and because it takes a man’s life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave. Every novel which is truly written contributes to the total knowledge which is there at the disposal of the next writer who comes, but the next writer must pay, always, a certain nominal percentage in experience to be able to understand and assimilate what is available as his birthright and what he must, in turn, take his departure from.

DS:[to Fitzgerald)
Do you agree?

FSF:If I knew anything I’d be the best writer in America.

DS:Yet you’ve admitted in some of your non-fiction writings about your past that you knew you were intelligent, knew you had an unusually powerful command of facts and the ability to express them in words, and often were disliked because of it.

FSF:Nobody naturally likes a mind quicker than their own and one more capable of getting its operation into words. It is practically something to conceal. The history of men’s minds has been the concealing of them, until men cry out for intelligence, and the thing has to be brought into use . . . .

The mouth tight, and the teeth and lips together are a hard thing, perhaps one of the hardest stunts in the world, but not a waste of time, because most of the great things you learn in life are in periods of enforced silence.

DS:[to Fitzgerald]
In Jay Gatsby you’ve created one of the most enigmatic and enduring characters in our literature. Did you have a clear picture of Gatsby when you started the novel?

FSF:I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in and you felt it. If If I’d known and kept it from you you’d have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll understand . . . .

Start out with an individual and you find that you have created a type – start out with a type and you find that you have created nothing.

DS:Speaking of types . . . in our age, in our time, more and more writers attain a sort of unassailable high ground by speaking for – or claiming they speak for – various groups. What we call “communities.” The African-American community, the gay and lesbian community, the addicted community, the abused children community . . . the list goes on and on. There also seems to be a deeper, or at least wider, political dimension to being a novelist these days. Some would suggest that to be considered a serious novelist, one must be progressive . . . that is, left-wing in one’s politics.

Both of your gentlemen’s books are frequently taught in universities these days largely in terms of their political content: The Great Gatsby as a critique of capitalism, for instance, or To Have and To Have Not as an indictment of the class system that capitalism inevitably brings about. Mr. Hemingway, you were active, both in person and in your fiction, in some of the great political dialogues of your day . . . the Spanish Civil War, for instance . . . and you contributed scathing articles to such left-wing magazines such as The New Masses. It certainly caught the attention of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.

Do you think that a writer has an obligation to speak out for social justice?

EH:As for your hoping the Leftward Swing etc has a very definite significance for me that is so much horseshit. I do not follow the fashions in politics, letters, religion etc. If the boys swing to the left in literature you may make a small bet the next swing will be to the right and some of the same yellow bastards will swing both ways. There is no left and right in writing. There is only good and bad writing . . .

Now they want you to swallow communism as though it were an elder Boys Y.M.C.A. conference or as though we were all patriots together.

I’m no goddamned patriot nor will I swing to left or right.

Would as soon machine gun left, right, or center any political bastards who do not work for a living – anybody who makes a living by politics or not working.

DS:But in your writing you often stood up for the little man, the dispossessed, the persons marginalized in a capitalist socie . . .

EH:. . . don’t let them suck you in to start writing about the proletariat, if you don’t come from the proletariat, just to please the recently politically enlightened critics. In a little while these critics will be something else. I’ve seen them be a lot of things and none of them was pretty. Write about what you know and write truly and tell them all where they can place it . . . . Books should be about the people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you study up about. If you write them truly they will have all the economic implications a book can hold.

In the meantime, since it is Christmas, if you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara.

Then when you have more time read another book called War and Peace by Tolstoi and see how you will have to skip the big Political Thought passages, that he undoubtedly thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it, because they are no longer either true or important, if they ever were more than topical, and see how true and lasting and important the people and the action are. Do not let them deceive you about what a book should be because of what is in fashion now.

DS:Mr. Fitzgerald, do you think novelists should be especially sensitive to the social issues and political consensuses of their day?

FSF:Novels are not written, or at least begun, with the idea of making an ultimate philosophical system – you tried to atone for your lack of confidence by a lack of humility before the form.

DS:So you don’t see a novel as a mechanism for bringing about social change?

FSF:The theory . . . I got from Conrad’s preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, that the purpose of a work of fiction is to appeal to the lingering after-effects in the reader’s mind as differing from, say, the purpose of oratory or philosophy which respectively leave people in a fighting or thoughtful mood.

EH:Now a writer can make himself a nice career while he is alive by espousing a political cause, working for it, making a profession of believing in it, and if it wins he will be very well placed. All politics is a matter of working hard without reward, or with a living wage for a time, in the hope of booty later . . . .

But none of this will help the writer as a writer unless he finds something new to add to human knowledge while he is writing. Otherwise he will stink like any other writer when they bury him; except, since he has had political affiliations, they will send more flowers at the time and later he will stink a little more.

DS:In current studies of 20th Century literature, many critics and academics tend to group you two – Hemingway and Fitzgerald – with Thomas Wolfe in terms of your contribution to Modernism.

FSF:What family resemblance there is between we three as writers is the attempt that crops up in our fiction from time to time to recapture the exact feel of a moment in time and space, exemplified by people rather than by things – that is, an attempt at what Wordsworth was trying to do rather than what Keats did with such magnificent ease, an attempt at a mature memory of a deep experience.

EH:I think Tom was only truly good about his home town and there he was wonderful and unsurpassable. The other stuff is usually over-inflated journalese.

DS:Tell me first what are the things, the actual, concrete things that harm a writer?

EH:Politics, women, drink, money, ambition. And the lack of politics, women, drink, money and ambition . . . I said profoundly.

FSF:The history of my life is the history of the struggle between an overwhelming urge to write and a combination of circumstances bent on keeping me from it. . . .

It has become increasingly plain to me that the very excellent organization of a long book or the finest perceptions and judgment in time of revision do not go well with liquor. A short story can be written on a bottle, but for a novel you need the mental speed that enables you to keep the whole pattern in your head and ruthlessly sacrifice the sideshows as Ernest did in A Farewell to Arms. If a mind is slowed up ever so little it lives in the individual part of a book rather than in a book as a whole; memory is dulled. I would give anything if I hadn’t had to write Part III of Tender is the Night entirely on stimulant. If I had one more crack at it cold sober I believe it might have made a great difference. Even Ernest commented on sections that were needlessly included and as an artist he is as near as I know for a final reference.

DS: Gentlemen, we should probably draw this to a close soon. You’ve been very generous with your time. Is there any topic for the readers of the Writing Well forum that we haven’t touched on?

FSF:Adjectives and verbs..

DS:Adjectives and verbs?

FSF:About adjectives: all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move. Probably the finest technical poem in English is Keats’ ‘Eve of Saint Agnes.” A line like “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,” is so alive that you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement – the limping, trembling and freezing is going on before your own eyes.

EH:You know, Scott’s talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could remember when it had been effortless.


DS:Mr. Fitzgerald, would you like to reply to that?

FSF:Did you ever know a writer to calmly take a just criticism and shut up?

After all . . . I am a plodder. One time I had a talk with Ernest Hemingway and I told him, against all the logic that was then current, that I was the tortoise and he was the hare, and that’s the truth of the matter, that everything that I have ever attained has been through long and persistent struggle while it is Ernest who has a touch of genius which enables him to bring off extraordinary things with facility. I have no facility. I have a facility for being cheap., if I wanted to indulge that . . . but when I decided to be a serious man, I tried to struggle over every point until I have made myself into a slow-moving behemoth . . ., and so there I am for the rest of my life.

DS: Speaking of being serious men . . . my last question. Do you think more about critics in your time or about future generations of readers and how posterity will treat your work?

EH:About posterity: I only think about writing truly. Posterity can take care of herself . . .

FSF:An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters ever afterward.

EH:You must be prepared to work always without applause. When you are excited about something is when the first draft is done. But no one can see it until you have gone over it again and again until you have communicated the emotion, the sights and the sounds to the reader, and by the time you have completed this the words, sometimes, will not make sense to you as you read them, so many times have you re-read them. By the time the book comes out you will have started something else and it is all behind you and you do not want to hear about it. But you do, you read it in covers and you see all the places that now you can do nothing about. All the critics who could not make their reputations by discovering you are hoping to make them by predicting hopefully your approaching impotence, failure and general drying up of natural juices. Not a one will wish you luck or hope that you will keep on writing unless you have political affiliations in which case these will rally around and speak of you and Homer, Balzac, Zola and Link Steffens. You are just as well off without these reviews. Finally, in some other place, some other time, when you can’t work and feel like hell you will pick up the book and look at it and start to read and go on and in a little while say to your wife, “Why this stuff is bloody marvelous.”

And she will say, “Darling, I always told you it was.” Or maybe she doesn’t hear you and says,“What did you say?” and you do not repeat the remark.

But if the book is good, is about something that you know, and is truly written and reading it over you see that this is so you can let the boys yip and the noise will have that pleasant sound coyotes make on a very cold night when they are out in the snow and you are in your own cabin that you have built or paid for with your work.

(Note: Between installments of WRITING WELL, visitors to this web site interested in discussing writing issues can talk to each other and to me on the new ON WRITING WELL strand in the Dan Simmons Forum. While I will answer questions there from time to time, my hope is that these Writing Well installments might serve – at least partially – as a template for discussion so that we can move more slowly toward the usual huge questions of “How do I write a masterpiece and where can I get it published?”)

[Dan’s note: Acknowledgment to Ernest Hemingway on Writing and F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writing both edited by Larry W. Phillips (who in turn acknowledges the help of Michael Pietsch, formerly of Charles Scribner’s Sons, now of Little, Brown, with whom I had a very enjoyable lunch last week). Sources for Mr. Hemingway’s comments include By Line: Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon; Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters; Green Hills of Africa, and A Moveable Feast. Sources for Mr. Fitzgerald’s comments include Afternoon of an Author, The Beautiful and Damned, and The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Other sources include The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald, As Ever, Scott Fitz edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, Beloved Infidel by Sheila Graham, and F. Scott Fitzgerald in His Own Time edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli.]

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