Monday, January 14

F. Scott Fitzgerald On The Price Of Being A Great Writer

F. Scott Fitzgerald On The Price Of Being A Great Writer

Can writing be taught?

Yes, but there's a price.

Here's how F. Scott Fitzgerald put it:
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. (F. Scott Fitzgerald on the Secret of Great Writing)
Of course that's not to suggest we don't need to study to become better writers, or that we don't need to write, write, write and practice the craft.

For instance, no one is born with a writing 'voice'; that takes time to develop.

Lately I've written about the goal of writing: to evoke emotion in our readers, and about how we can do that, techniques we can use. And I think things like that are helpful. At least, they help me!

One of the reasons we need to read is because we need to see how others have done what we want to do, how they achieved a certain effect within us; or how they failed to do so.

Writing Can Be Taught

Recently Chuck Wendig wrote in defense of the idea that writing can be taught, and I agree. Just as math, and cooking, and skill at sports can be taught, writing can be taught. Chuck sums it up:
Writing and storytelling can be taught. If you want it bad enough, you can learn it.
And I think that's the key: if you want it bad enough.

Certain things can't be taught, they must simply be done. (As Yoda might say, "Do or do not, there is no try.") But anyone can do them--writers aren't foreordained--it's just a matter of whether we will.

There is a certain kind of brutal, searing, honesty great writers have; the ability to relentlessly tunnel down within themselves to the truth--their nakedness, their pain--and wrench it up into the daylight exposing it on the page for all to see.

No wonder many artists are basket cases!

But I'm not suggesting that if this emotional exhibitionism isn't present in your work then you're not now, nor will you ever be, a great writer. Far from it.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to Frances Turnbull, there is a price of admission.
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.
It's up to each of us, every time we sit down to write, to decide whether we're going to pay the price.

If you haven't read F. Scott Fitzgerald's letter to Frances Turnbull, I highly recommend it. Also, Chuck Wendig's short rant on the "You can't teach writing meme," is well worth the read.

What do you think? Can writing be taught?

Other articles you might like:

- Using Public Domain Characters In Your Stories
- Link Mashup: The Million Follower Fallacy, Showing Not Telling, Goals Not Dreams
- Connect With Readers' Emotions: How To Make People Cry

Photo credit: "Alone" by Bhumika.B under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. This is a very thought provoking post. I think you can teach writing to a degree; but to write well you must have a natural talent. Maybe that's something your readers decide

    1. Thanks Claudette!

      Personally, I don't believe in natural talent. Sure, some folks are better at some things than others. For example, Stephen Hawking. Margaret Atwood. If that's what folks mean by natural talent, okay. But anyone can be a good writer just like anyone can be a physicist. It just takes a lot of work.

      But, granted, there's only one Stephen Hawking.

      I think that anyone can be a decent writer, perhaps even a good writer, but not everyone can be a great writer.

      But that's okay! Good is fine with me. ;)

  2. Writing definitely can be taught, but that's not the same as being understood. The pupil needs to understand what each tactic does, and in what context that particular tactic is suited for. My plastic arts professor, Bogdan Iacob, told us a super line one day. He asked one of us, "Why do you go to school?" The guy said, "I come to school to learn." The professor told him, "No. You come to school to learn to learn." To me, at least, that was an uber revelation. The true goal, the true important thing is to understand how to understand, learn to learn, to identify the way in which that knowledge was attained. Recreating the creative process of discovery in one's own mind is the true secret to education. That's what Erasmus de Rotterdam said as well, and what he was striving for - in opposition to the scholastic method.
    That being said, while a person may be taught or self-taught to write, that doesn't mean he/she can write something good. For that you need soil, seed, water, sweat, tears, and blood. For that you need a garden. In order to have healthy and beautiful plants, you must have two things: the gardening kit and the actual garden - The writing method/style and the story.

    1. "You come to school to learn to learn."

      Yes, that's brilliant! Life is our teacher, if we can but learn from it.

      "That being said, while a person may be taught or self-taught to write, that doesn't mean he/she can write something good."

      But what is good? Is 'goodness', like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?

  3. I didn't hit the semantics well on that last one. What I meant was, that one may have all the writing skill in the world, but if he/she doesn't have a story behind it, characters, universe, something to say... then that particular person is not going to be a good writer or author, simply because of what that person writes, not how the person writes it.

    1. Excellent point!

      This is a little unrelated to your point, but I find it interesting that I can love a writer's style and yet not care for her stories.

      I'm talking about wonderful stories that have won awards, written my masters of the craft. I LOVE the prose! But the story doesn't always grab me.

  4. This is excellent Karen! I love how you brought Fitzgerald in to cement your hook! I am in complete agreement with your premise. Great post!

  5. As difficult as it is to put that kind of honesty out there, that is certainly what I want to connect to when I'm reading.

    Excellent post. Good reminder to us all.

  6. Great post, Karen. I definitely think writing can be taught, but only to those who understand that the learning process will probably be painful. :)

    1. Thanks Sarah! That's a great way of summing it up. :-)

  7. Writing is a craft as well as an art. It has to be learned. But the art must sing. A writer's task is to evoke the emotions of his reader, and to do this he must first evoke them in himself, however painful. A true writer can never hide himself from his reader, and nor should he want to. A good blog!

    1. Thanks Jerold!

      "But the art must sing." Well said. You've summed up exactly what I was trying to express, more eloquently than I could have. Thank you.

  8. Aha - got here via @CarlDietrich - great blog, great post, and I love the Fitzgerald quote!

    Writing can be taught - or rather, writers can be helped to learn, by teachers. We can be helped to learn craft, technique, and ways to get at that fierce, important stuff that must underpin the writing ... and ways to go out and find more of it, and to observe and imagine the clothes to dress it in.

    We can be helped to find confidence in ourselves, in understanding where we're better than we know, and where we're worse than we know, and we can be helped to read our work as others read it. (One of the prime functions of a teacher is simply - only it's not simple - to be a mirror, reflecting the work back to the writer.)

    What no one can teach you is how all those come together inside you, and result in a piece of work...

    1. "What no one can teach you is how all those come together inside you, and result in a piece of work..."


      I agree, that can't be taught, but I think practice helps one acquire the skill.


Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies. I do appreciate each and every comment.