In 1938, aspiring author Frances Turnbull sent a copy of one of her stories to Francis Scott Fitzgerald.
The reply she received from the author of The Great Gatsby contained the following piece of advice:
“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.”
It all feels like selling your heart. You write the truth you'd never even dare speak out lout, you write about your obsessions, about your passions, about everything that makes you human. Sometimes you feel as if words are bleeding out of your soul.
You write your truth, even when your fingers shake against the keyboard. You write your truth, even when you’re certain you’re going to aggravate people, or you’re going to lose friends and alienate family members.
But I believe it’s the only way you can make good art. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman, the moment you feel you’re walking down the street naked, when you feel that people can see everything you are, when what you've kept locked away inside the most hidden drawers of your soul is there, on the page, that’s when you’ll be able to make good art.
So, You Want to Be a Writer…
“Don’t be a writer. Be writing.” —William Faulkner
Ten steps to being a writer. Five rules to writing a great novel. Or seven rules. Or fifteen. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how many rules, how many steps, how many lessons, who gives the advice or their intentions, because most of you don’t even see the staircase.
You want to know the truth?
No one ever sees it. No even gets to see the end of the staircase. No one knows what they’re doing either.
A part of me wants to tell you that you do not become a writer. You are a writer. If you are searching for the right kind of information to point you in a certain direction, so you may one day become a writer, then you are not a writer. If you are not writing your heart out each and every day, you are not a writer. If you do not dream about stories and characters, if you do not play them inside your mind, day in and day out, then you’re not a writer.
If you do not obsess about writing the perfect phrase, force yourself to imagine it into existence, only to delete it a few hours later, then you're not a writer.
If you pour your heart and soul into your stories, your readers will fall in love with your words, so much so that they'll actually wish that your stories would, somehow, someday come true.
Trust this simple process.
The mechanics are not that difficult to master. But selling your heart? Writing your truth, the one you'd like to ignore? That takes courage and a willingness to suffer for your art.
Bleeding in the Name of Art
Ten years ago, I didn’t feel alive anymore. Everything I wanted was for days to go by as fast as possible. I was alone, bitter, and disgusted by who I was. Simply put, I had close to nothing. And so I wrote.
At that particular point in time, when not only there was nothing to lose, but there was also nothing to gain from this life, I could afford to write anything I wanted. Also, because no one around me was willing to read my stories, I could write about everything, even about them.
The things you can write when you’re certain no one’s ever going to read them…
Maybe this was a good thing because it granted me the kind of freedom few people ever experience. At a great price indeed, but it made me strong enough to write about a tragic love story as it was happening, to write when the wound was still bleeding.
I like the statement that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.
Art should make people feel. It should give hope to those who have lost it, comfort those who are alone, show the world to those who have yet to see it.
Art should show you that everything is possible, that small people can build great things, that we’re all capable of rising above ourselves. And, of course, art should show you that the world is not as safe as you’d like it to be, those great people we so often become enamored with are not that great, that there is pain, there is suffering, there is death.
Art should show you life exactly how it is: with the good, the bad, and the ugly. And it should also give you hope that it can be better.
From a Place of Truth
“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."
I’m an ardent believer in the fact that all great writing comes from a place of truth, from a place well hidden inside our soul. I believe that those elements that are based on our own experiences, faults, and beliefs give substance to a story.
Being a writer is tough. It’s probably one of the most difficult jobs on the Planet. Because it’s the one job where, no matter how successful you become, you always have to start with a blank page. A page that doesn’t know and neither cares who you are. And that is frightening.
What makes matters worse is that even if you write something you feel strongly about, people will either love it or hate it, will either love you for it or hate you for it. Also, it means exposing yourself, it means that you have to be willing to let others dissect your most intimate thoughts.
Writing may be one of the most solitary of jobs, but it also means that you have to be willing to share your truth with the world, to let everyone know who you are and how you feel.
Strangers will feel like they've known you, and friends will feel like they've never truly understood who you are. Family will read your words as if written into existence by a stranger.
In a way, there’s this odd convention at work. Readers read fiction, knowing it’s just made believe, but they also know that every story holds a bit of truth, a bit of the artist. The empathy of it all, the parts that are to be hated or loved. To be understood, absorbed, discarded as fake, irrelevant, harmful.
Writing is about people. It’s not about characters or pretty phrases. It’s about being honest to yourself, about analyzing who you are as a person. In a work of fiction, just like in a dream, you’re each and everyone of the characters. And those parts, the parts based on the real world, are always the ones that shine the brightest.
Writing is about drawing a map of your own soul, venturing on this strange and perilous odyssey of figuring out exactly who you are, with the good and the bad.
Some might rightfully ask, “Why write? If it hurts, why even bother?”
It’s not masochism, it’s realizing that all great things require a sacrifice. There’s no way to avoid it.
When It Hurts So Much You Can’t Even Turn It Into a Story
I only ever experienced real writer’s block once in my life.
March 2014 was the worst month of my life. My grandfather died, my girlfriend broke up with me, my father decided to never speak with me again, and I had to struggle with quite a few serious health issues.
Not the end of the world, but the closest thing to my world ending I had ever experienced until then.
I once wrote that, “if done right, tears turn into gold.”
I was a self-defined, proudly self-made, struggling writer. I lived and breathed art and thought suffering and pain and heartbreak to be the secret ingredients to creating art that was just as beautiful as I could imagine.
There was a lot of pain, and thus I sat down to write. I couldn’t. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what to write, or that I didn’t feel like it. I just couldn’t. I’d open my computer, stare at the blank document, and cry.
For the rest of the year I republished old content on my blog over and over again. That was all I could do.
I tried to write about my heartbreak. I tried to write about the grief I felt over my grandfather’s passing, but I couldn't. I just didn’t want the solicitous solitude I felt creeping all around me whenever I sat down to write.
One way or another, the people I loved had left. I tried to turn them into art, but I couldn’t.
It’s a tired truism that writing about what hurts us is the most valuable kind of writing there is. I often offer this advice myself. It’s also said that writing can heal. To me, whenever I sat down to write, it felt like pressing a finger against an open wound.
Do you know what scar tissue is? It’s tissue that’s become impervious to heat or cold or touch. It feels nothing.
Our hearts can become scar tissue. Mine, unfortunately, was just broken.
The myth of the struggling artist has been propagated for centuries by folks who encourage one another to make use of their pain. We worship the brutal honesty of someone who’s been through hell and back, the same way we used to devour gladiatorial combats.
Hemingway advised us to “bleed on the page.” Gene Fowler told us to sit staring at a blank page until drops of blood would form on our forehead.
If you follow this advice, odds are you will end up with a heart so covered in scars it cannot feel anything at all.
The same way someone who sustains a massive injury goes into shock, so too can we overwhelm the heart.
It’s no surprise that writers have this love-hate relationship with writing. What reasonable person is willing to go through emotional trauma for the sake of writing some words on a piece of paper?
Like many other writers, I write in order to figure out who I am. I am trying to understand the way my inner narrative works. I’m always trying to figure out why and how I feel and think and do.
I don’t write to be understood. That’s not the point. I express myself differently when I try to be understood. I write because I want to understand. I use words like a sharp knife, cutting myself open, trying to figure out what does what and why.
I like to dissect my own feelings, emotions, and actions. I like to do the same to others as well, yet all throughout 2014, the act of sitting down to write required more courage than I could muster.
I tried to write about her, the one who couldn’t wait to leave. I kept picturing her, as she closed the door behind her, smiling, free at last from the unbearable burden of a love she no longer desired.
I tried to write about my grandfather, him who didn’t want to leave at all.
The books I read offered no comfort. That was it. There was no comfort, no clarity. There was only pain.
The Portuguese have a word for it. Saudade. The love that remains when nothing can be done anymore. The way we miss what can never be returned to us.
When it hurt so much that I couldn’t even turn my pain into words, I understood that there’s a fine line between being brave enough to write your truth, the uncomfortable truth, even though your heart hurts and your fingers shake against the keyboard, and writing about a pain so intimidate that words could only diminish it.
In those cases, bleeding on the page doesn’t make great art. It only leaves a big mess on your desk.
My grandfather died and I’m always sad about it, and I miss him all the time. That’s the story. That’s the most I’ll ever be able to write about it. That’s the heartbreaking truth.
The writing that truly inspires, the words that nudge the world a bit, are the words that describe a perilous and strange odyssey. Grief rarely transforms us. Pain seldom makes us better.
What doesn’t kill us makes us wish it did.
I didn’t write anything for almost an entire year because I hadn’t lived at all. I did travel to England, yet all I collected were memories I couldn’t share with the one person I’d always tell my memories to.
Looking back now, I realize I was trying to write about a lesson I hadn’t learned. The wound was fresh, the blood still moist against the skin. There was no map to draw, because I was utterly and completely lost.
The most painful stories are not the ones worth writing about. The stories that are worth writing about describe our victory against struggle, overcoming pain and adversity in order to heal.
If you ever wondered why art should last forever, this is why: because only through art we are able to express what we all feel, but so few have the courage to say.
So, yes, sell your heart and show us what only you can see. Show us all the things we’re too blind to see, make us feel what we’re too scared to feel…
Because the alternative is spending a lifetime writing empty stories. Just words and nothing more. The alternative is a lifetime spent with the sense that life is more than what you have, more than what you are doing right now. That, somehow, all of life’s answers are running away from you...