F. Scott Fitzgerald: Don’t call him ‘Pappy’

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Fitzgerald

 

I love reading the personal letters of my favorite authors. Here’s one penned by F. Scott Fitzgerald to his 11-year-old daughter, Scottie, while she was away at summer camp. Among the many things evident is his absolute hatred for being called “Pappy”:

La Paix, Rodgers’ Forge
Towson, Maryland

August 8, 1933

Dear Pie:

I feel very strongly about you doing duty. Would you give me a little more documentation about your reading in French? I am glad you are happy — but I never believe much in happiness. I never believe in misery either. Those are things you see on the stage or the screen or the printed pages, they never really happen to you in life.

All I believe in in life is the rewards for virtue (according to your talents) and the punishments for not fulfilling your duties, which are doubly costly. If there is such a volume in the camp library, will you ask Mrs. Tyson to let you look up a sonnet of Shakespeare’s in which the line occurs “Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

Have had no thoughts today, life seems composed of getting up a Saturday Evening Post story. I think of you, and always pleasantly; but if you call me “Pappy” again I am going to take the White Cat out and beat his bottom hard, six times for every time you are impertinent. Do you react to that?

I will arrange the camp bill.

Halfwit, I will conclude.

Things to worry about:

Worry about courage
Worry about Cleanliness
Worry about efficiency
Worry about horsemanship
Worry about. . .

Things not to worry about:

Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t worry about dolls
Don’t worry about the past
Don’t worry about the future
Don’t worry about growing up
Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don’t worry about mosquitoes
Don’t worry about flies
Don’t worry about insects in general
Don’t worry about parents
Don’t worry about boys
Don’t worry about disappointments
Don’t worry about pleasures
Don’t worry about satisfactions

Things to think about:

What am I really aiming at?
How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:

(a) Scholarship
(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?

With dearest love,

Daddy

P.S. My come-back to your calling me Pappy is christening you by the word Egg, which implies that you belong to a very rudimentary state of life and that I could break you up and crack you open at my will and I think it would be a word that would hang on if I ever told it to your contemporaries. “Egg Fitzgerald.” How would you like that to go through life with — “Eggie Fitzgerald” or “Bad Egg Fitzgerald” or any form that might occur to fertile minds? Try it once more and I swear to God I will hang it on you and it will be up to you to shake it off. Why borrow trouble?

Love anyhow.

This letter appears in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters and Letters of Note.

Legend of the Fall: Jim Harrison on Writing

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JIM HARRISON

Jim Harrison (Legends of the Fall) has, in recent years, become one of my favorite authors. His books are populated by lovable misfits and loners, and generally focus on man’s relationship with nature. This is never done in a preachy way, but in bold tales of drinking, sex, and love-gone-wrong. He’s been compared to Hemingway—but whereas both have a bare-boned style of writing, Harrison’s work exudes much more warmth. Indeed, Harrison himself once summarized Hemingway’s work as a “woodstove that didn’t give off much heat.” His output includes an amazing number of novels, novella collections, and volumes of poetry. This is good news for me; although I’ve read a half-dozen of his books, I have plenty more to go.

Earlier this year, in a piece for The Atlantic, he described his approach to writing prose and poetry. You can read the article here in its entirety, but I’ve excerpted my favorite part:

I think about my novels for a long time before I start to write them—a year or more, sometimes many years. I’m half Swede, and Swedes are brooders. I just sit around brooding about it. A lot of this happens when I’m walking or driving. I’ll take long, directionless car trips to try and see where my mind is. Usually, the story begins with a collection of images. I’ll make a few notes in my journal, but not very much. Often not much more than a vague outline. A tracery, a silhouette.
That’s how the story “Brown Dog” came to me—from an image. I had visited the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Sault Ste. Marie. They had photos of the cook in the galley of a sunken ship that went down in the 1890s. The lakes up there are so cold that the cook looked perfectly preserved, floating around in the galley—except he didn’t have any eyes. That’s how the story started.
Once I start, I very rarely change my mind about the nature of the story. And when I begin writing, it’s sound that guides me—language, not plot. Plot can be overrated. What I strive for more is rhythm. When you have the rhythm of a character, the novel becomes almost like a musical composition. It’s like taking dictation, when you’re really attuned to the rhythm of that voice.
You can’t go to it. It has to come to you. You have to find the voice of the character. Your own voice should be irrelevant in a novel. Bad novels are full of opinions, and the writer intruding, when you should leave it to your character.
When you’re not writing in the first person as the speaking character, the danger is there’s too much temptation to show off. And many writers do. They hit what they think is a high note, then keeping shooting for that. I like what Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker says: She has to have a story, she can’t just have effect. There must be more than writerly effect. And it’s true. Nobody likes a showoff.

Stephen King On Writing a Good Opening Sentence

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stephenking

Stephen King is one of two authors—Ian Fleming being the other—who made me, when I was thirteen, want to become a professional scribe. While cruising around online the other night, I found a piece King wrote last year for The Atlantic, in which he details the importance of a good opening line. You can read the article here in its entirety—but here’s a glimpse at what he had to say:

There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line. It’s a tricky thing, and tough to talk about because I don’t think conceptually while I work on a first draft — I just write. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar.
But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.
How can a writer extend an appealing invitation — one that’s difficult, even, to refuse?
We’ve all heard the advice writing teachers give: Open a book in the middle of a dramatic or compelling situation, because right away you engage the reader’s interest. This is what we call a “hook,” and it’s true, to a point. This sentence from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice certainly plunges you into a specific time and place, just as something is happening:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

Suddenly, you’re right inside the story — the speaker takes a lift on a hay truck and gets found out. But Cain pulls off so much more than a loaded setting — and the best writers do. This sentence tells you more than you think it tells you. Nobody’s riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket. He’s a basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who’s going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious.
This opening accomplishes something else: It’s a quick introduction to the writer’s style, another thing good first sentences tend to do. In “They threw me off the hay truck about noon,” we can see right away that we’re not going to indulge in a lot of foofaraw. There’s not going to be much floridity in the language, no persiflage. The narrative vehicle is simple, lean (not to mention that the book you’re holding is just 128 pages long). What a beautiful thing — fast, clean, and deadly, like a bullet. We’re intrigued by the promise that we’re just going to zoom.

The rest of the article is worth checking out, so stop hanging around here!

Henry Miller’s advice for writers

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Miller

To be perfectly honest, I only read Henry Miller in high school for the sex. I remember tearing through Under the Roofs of Paris, quite shocked—yet enthralled—by what was on the page. In his book Henry Miller on Writing, he lists his eleven commandments for getting the job done. I think he offers great advice; commandments five and eight are most noteworthy, in my humble opinion. Don’t waste your time, initially, on searching for that golden phrase. Just get the words down . . . and be sure you enjoy the process. If it’s not making you happy in some regard, it’s probably not worth it.

1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.

2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”

3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.

4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!

5. When you can’t create you can work.

6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.

7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.

8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.

9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.

10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.

11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Notes on the origins of a book

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Fabian

Author’s Note: The Case That Foiled Fabian is the first book to examine one of Britain’s most infamous unsolved murders. It distills the facts from the many rumors and wild stories that are today accepted as the truth.

Several years ago, while visiting family in the Cotswolds, I had a drink in a pub outside Evesham. A friendly gentleman at the bar, upon learning I write books on crime and history, suggested I ‘do one on the Lower Quinton murder.’ He summarized the case for me: On Valentine’s Day 1945, 74-year-old farm labourer Charles Walton was found on the lower slopes of Meon Hill with a pitchfork plunged through his chest and a trouncing hook buried in his throat. Numerous crosses were carved into his flesh. Scotland Yard dispatched their best man, Chief Inspector Robert Fabian, who was stymied by superstitious villagers: they claimed Walton was a warlock who could converse with animals. Out of fear, they refused to cooperate with police. The case was never solved.

This immediately piqued my interest. I read numerous articles, all of which played up the witchcraft angle: Walton was found beneath a willow tree, he was killed in the middle of a stone circle once used for Black Magic rituals, he bred large toads he used to curse local crops, he was clairvoyant, he could communicate with birds, as a boy he was haunted by a headless woman and a black spectral hound. I paid several visits to Lower Quinton, but was warned villagers did not take kindly to questions about the ‘Pitchfork Murder’.

A section of the Rollright Stones, which feature prominently in the murder. Some accounts claim that Walton was killed in the middle of the ancient stone circle--but the stones are 12 miles away from the actual murder site.

A section of the Rollright Stones, which feature prominently in the murder. Some accounts claim that Walton was killed in the middle of the ancient stone circle–but the stones are 12 miles away from the actual murder site.

For research, I went straight to the source: the Scotland Yard case files and the detailed reports and notes kept by Fabian. What I found intrigued me. Rumour and myth had overshadowed the facts of the case and, because of retellings in books and newspapers over the years, had been accepted as the truth. Charles Walton’s murder was bloody and grotesque—but there were no crosses carved into his flesh. He was not murdered in the middle of a stone circle, nor did villagers—who spoke with investigators—believe the man to be a practitioner of Black Magic. Indeed, the witchcraft angle seems to be a device hatched by reporters and authors—including Fabian, himself, who references the case in two volumes of memoirs.

That’s not to say the case isn’t strange, for it very much is. The residents of Lower Quinton did not seem at all alarmed by the vicious murder in their backyard. In a village of 493 people, not one person could shed any light on the subject. Although locals answered Fabian’s questions, they never volunteered information. The seasoned detective thought they were hiding something and believed ‘some local history’ unknown to the police played a part in the murder. There is a definite element of the creepy in Charles Walton’s killing.

As to the murderer, the circumstantial evidence points heavily to one man—a man Fabian believed for the rest of his life to be the killer and whose family operates a successful Cotswolds pub to this day. But any concrete solution to the case has forever been lost to history. Perhaps this is why the story of what many believe to be Britain’s last ritual witchcraft killing continues to fascinate.

The book, released by UK publisher The History Press, is available now.

John Steinbeck on writing

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Steinbeck

Never have I loathed a character more than Cathy Ames in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden—and I mean that in a good way. With the book on my lap, I hurled invective at the page and found myself enraged by her two-faced, back-stabbing ways. That a character could elicit such a visceral response is testament to the author’s skill. Needless to say, I’ve long been a devoted Steinbeck fan.

What I love about his work–in addition to the characters and writing–is its deceptive simplicity. There are complex issues at play beneath the surface of his stories, yet he presents them in a way that never clouds the human drama. Cannery Row, with its themes of spirituality, happiness, and being close to nature—among others—appears on the surface to be a charming tale of down-and-outs in Monterey’s sardine-canning district.

As previous posts here suggest, I’m fascinated by the working habits of my favorite authors and the way they approach writing. Here, from a 1975 article in the Paris Review, are six writing tips from Steinbeck.

It is usual that the moment you write for publication—I mean one of course—one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed. The simplest way to overcome this is to write it to someone, like me. Write it as a letter aimed at one person. This removes the vague terror of addressing the large and faceless audience and it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness.

Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.

1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.