The Price of Admission

I write. I write for classes. I write for me. Or at least I used to. Recently I haven’t been able to do it–to produce what I want, to say things the way I used to be able to. I’ve been stuck for awhile, and I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s because I used to know exactly what to write about, exactly where to delve to scoop out emotion, meaning, even pain to make a point because life was like that–orderly, compartmentalized. But I don’t do that anymore. I don’t write anymore, and I don’t write well–which does not bode well for a semester full of advanced writing workshops. But I think, maybe, that I know why now. Life gets unorderly no matter what you do, and in the course of compiling discord of all kinds I’ve been avoiding the only topics that really have any weight to them in my current life. I’ve avoided anything messy that directly involves me, that involves me  being humiliated or hurt or sad. I skip the parts that show me in love, that show me frightened or doubtful or doing something(s) that I later really, really regret. In essence, I’ve been avoiding writing about being 21. There is a cost to being a writer—something (really many somethings) you must be willing to pay in order to do this–this thing, writing. You have to figure out what yours is—and if you want to pay it.

I’m still searching for mine, though I think I’m close to it. See, I’ve never been a private person per say, but I have always avoided writing about my actual feelings of vulnerability. I’ve written about my doubt in writing, my anxiety over my damaged brother, the solace found in running that cannot be brought about by anything else. Sure. Great. How personal and touching. But I’ve never written about relationships, about –I shudder as I type this–romance mostly because I don’t care for the concept. I also don’t care for keeping track of real feelings because they’re confusing and hard to balance, or perhaps it’s rationale I always seek; they don’t make sense enough to write about. Real feelings take up time and often –in my mind–are a tawdry page filler in workshop classes. Though of course, I say this in a scoff from the seat of my high horse. But after reading a post linked to us by one of my professors, I’ve been unseated, unsaddled, thrown to the ground by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He writes in a letter to his daughter:

“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.

The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming — the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.

That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is ‘nice’ is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’ You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.”

Fitzgerald is right. For every second I haughtily deem that writing about heartbreak (or love, for that matter) is too low for me to even consider, I know that it isn’t true. I know that it’s the only thing–however superficial it may seem later–that has emotional, true resonance now. And I think he makes a hugely important point for all writers, any writer. We cannot rule out any topic, any feeling just because it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable. That’s where the power lays, where your words lay–and you’re lying to yourself and everyone else if you’re writing about something that isn’t in the forefront of your mind, about something that is less important, less palpable than what is really preoccupying you. If you hide yourself from the reader, the act will be ironically transparent and the reader, uninterested.

Until we possess the skill of the craft–which takes time, mistakes, and extreme determination–we must write the things we know to be  true. You don’t have to publish sloppy, emotional drivel, but you shouldn’t be afraid to write what you really feel to help the reader sort through what they’re feeling, what they’ve ever felt. That’s what writers are for, right? Take the time to develop a way to sort through the raw emotion of the feeling and transform it–no matter how ugly– into something beautiful. Because that, I think, is the price of admission: writing about the ugliest you there ever was, doing the ugliest, worst thing you could do–and making it worth reading and, ultimately, worth fighting for.

Check out the full letter (and accompanying post, written by Maria Popova) here:



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