Hemingway’s Tough-Love Letter of Advice to F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writing and Turning Suffering into Creative Fuel
“Forget your personal tragedy… Good writers always come back. Always.”
By Maria Popova
In the spring of 1934, just before dispensing his finest advice on writing and ambition to an aspiring writer who had hitchhiked atop a coal car across the country to see him, Ernest Hemingway (July 21, 1899–July 2, 1961) received a request for input by a writer far less unknown: his old pal F. Scott Fitzgerald. Despite their divergent politics and worldviews, the two had become fast friends a decade earlier and corresponded with uncommon candor about their convictions, their struggles, and the intricacies of their common craft.
Fitzgerald, who had taken a nine-year addiction-aided hiatus from publishing after the success of The Great Gatsby, had just released Tender Is the Night and was turning to his old friend for feedback. Hemingway did not hold back — he fired a missile of tough love not nearly as polite as Beckett’s, not nearly as intellectually elegant as Margaret Fuller’s, and yet absolutely brilliant and brimming with sobering advice for any writer.
In a spirited letter from May 10, 1934, found in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library) — the trove of wisdom and delight masterfully curated by Shaun Usher, which also gave us E.B. White’s emboldening advice to a man who had lost faith in humanity and young Hunter S. Thompson on how to live a meaningful life — 36-year-old Hemingway writes to 39-year-old Fitzgerald:
I liked it and I didn’t. It started off with that marvelous description of Sara and Gerald (goddamn it Dos took it with him so I can’t refer to it. So if I make any mistakes –). 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 they have (they are made by their parents and what happens to them) you cannot make them do anything they would not do… 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 marvellously 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.
There were wonderful places and nobody else nor none of the boys can write a good one half as good reading as one that doesn’t come out by you, but you cheated too damned much in this one. And you don’t need to… A long time ago you stopped listening except to the answers to your own questions. You had good stuff in too that it didn’t need. That’s what dries a writer up (we all dry up. That’s no insult to you in person) not listening. That is where it all comes from. Seeing, listening. You see well enough. But you stop listening.
Here, Hemingway realizes that he has heated himself into a seething cauldron of righteous, if well-meaning, fury and tempers his fervency:
It’s a lot better than I say. But it’s not as good as you can do.
He then pivots into benevolence with counsel on how to handle — that his, how not to heed — the critics, be they external or internal:
We are like lousy damned acrobats but we make some mighty fine jumps, bo, and they have all these other acrobats that won’t jump.
For Christ sake write and don’t worry about what the boys will say nor whether it will be a masterpiece nor what. I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket. You feel you have to publish crap to make money to live and let live.
In a sentiment which Marina Abramovic would echo many decades later in reflecting on turning trauma into raw material for art, Hemingway cautions against self-pity and urges Fitzgerald to instead transmute his pain into creative power:
Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to 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… You see, Bo, you’re not a tragic character. Neither am I. All we are is writers and what we should do is write.
Midway through this comes another sweetly self-aware interjection:
About this time I wouldn’t blame you if you gave me a burst. Jesus it’s marvellous to tell other people how to write, live, die etc.
After a brief diatribe about how Fitzgerald’s troubled relationship with Zelda is causing his creative and spiritual downspiral, Hemingway offers a final pep:
Scott, good writers always come back. Always. You are twice as good now as you were at the time you think you were so marvellous. You know I never thought so much of Gatsby at the time. You can write twice as well now as you ever could. All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is.
Go on and write.
Anyway I’m damned fond of you and I’d like to have a chance to talk sometimes.
Always your friend
Complement this particular fragment of the wholly terrific Letters of Note with Hemingway on how to be a writer, the essential books every aspiring writer should read, knowledge and the dangers of ego, and his short, spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech, then see Fitzgerald’s own advice on the secret to great writing. Both writers have committed to words wisdom that belongs among history’s most notable and abiding advice on the craft.
Published July 21, 2016