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
August 8, 1933
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:
(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,
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?
As suggested by my last couple of posts, I’ve been reading a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald. This, naturally, got me thinking about authors and alcohol. While Googling the subject, I came across a great post on a website called The Kitchn. It lists the the favorite cocktails of famous authors. This should be required reading for anyone who enjoys a good book and a strong libation (preferably at the same time). Here’s the list as it appears on The Kitchn (click here for the full article)—complete with nice literary quotes. Indeed, drinking should be educational.
Ernest Hemingway: The Mojito – Hemingway is associated with a number of cocktails (he was, after all, a heavy drinker), but none more so than the Mojito. According to Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide, the mojito was invented at La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, Cuba, where Hemingway drank them.
“My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daiquiri in the Floridita.” – Ernest Hemingway, a signed quote hung on the wall of La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, Cuba
William Faulkner: The Mint Julep – Faulkner’s Mint Julep recipe, as seen in Rowan Oak, the estate where William Faulkner lived from 1930 until his death in 1962, consisted of whiskey, 1 tsp sugar, ice, and a sprig or two of crushed mint, served in a metal cup.
“Isn’t anythin’ Ah got whiskey won’t cure.” – William Faulkner
Scott Fitzgerald: The Gin Rickey– It’s rumored that Fitzgerald’s passion for gin stemmed from his belief that you could not detect it on his breath. Traditionally a rickey is made with gin, but it can also be made with scotch or rum.
“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Raymond Chandler: The Gimlet – The gimlet didn’t catch on in America until Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe introduced it in The Long Goodbye.
“A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s lime juice and nothing else.” – Terry Lennox in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye
Ian Fleming: The Vesper Martini – In Fleming’s Bond series, the Vesper Martini is the first drink Bond ever orders – and the only time he orders it. The Vesper differs from Bond’s standard cocktail of choice, the martini, in that it uses both gin and vodka. Bond would later be known for ordering vodka martinis. (Interesting side note: in total, Bond orders 19 vodka martinis and 16 gin martinis throughout Fleming’s novels and short stories.)
“A dry martini… One. In a deep Champagne goblet…Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?” – James Bond
Truman Capote: The Screwdriver – Capote is said to have called the Screwdriver—made with vodka, orange juice, and orange slices—”my orange drink.”
“In this profession it’s a long walk between drinks.” – Truman Capote
Edna St. Vincent Millay: The “Between the Sheets” – The story goes that Edna St. Vincent Millay, while writing and drinking late one night with Edmund Wilson and the poet John Peale Bishop, asked the men to hold her in their arms, one holding her lower half, the other her upper. Thus, the seductive “Between the Sheets” cocktail, which is basically a Sidecar with rum.
“Ah, drink again
This river that is the taker-away of pain,
And the giver-back of beauty!” – Edna St. Vincent Millay
John Steinbeck: The Jack Rose – Also known as “Jersey Lightning,” the Jack Rose is for “the brandy drinker who also happen[s] to be a champion of the working class,” according to Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide. It was Steinbeck’s favorite drink.
“I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.” – John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley
Jack Kerouac: The Margarita – Kerouac is said to have developed a taste for margaritas during one of his many trips through Mexico, a country and culture he loved.
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” – Jack Kerouac
Tennessee Williams: The Ramos Gin Fizz – Are you from New Orleans? Apparently folks there still drink this famous Southern cocktail in honor of Williams. The drink was featured many times in his writings. The standard recipe contains egg, cream, lemon and lime juice, sugar, gin (of course), and a bit of orange flower soda water.
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 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!
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.
In 2001, the great Elmore Leonard wrote a piece for The New York Times in which he laid out his 10 rules for good writing. As he noted in the article’s lede: “These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.” Even though Elmore Leonard is no longer with us, his wonderful writing lives on–and so do his rules:
Never open a book with weather.
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely.
Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
I really like that last one.