In the past I've wondered on this blog if writers can ever be trusted, since many of them depend on life experience to limn their prose. As Philip Roth said in a recent interview with the New York Times: "I needed my life as a springboard for my fiction. I have to have something solid under my feet when I write. I’m not a fantasist. I bounce up and down on the diving board and I go into the water of fiction. But I’ve got to begin in life so I can pump life into it throughout.”
A few days ago a friend sent me a link to this dazzling little gem from F. Scott Fitzgerald (courtesy of The Atlantic) which contains advice Fitzgerald gave to a family friend on how to be a writer. As any writer will tell you, writing can be very hard. And particularly pressing are questions of where imagination meets experience and fiction meets reality, and if, and how, to blend the two.
I admit I'm rather partial to Fitzgerald's 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.
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.