Thursday, November 12, 2009

Locking Yourself Away to Focus On
Making Money as Quickly as Possible

A trove of F. Scott Fitzgerald's tax returns recently surfaced, and they contained a host of surprises, as this article in The American Scholar notes. The piece is full of delicious details about the ups and downs of his financial life. But veteran writers may especially appreciate this passage about how even such a prominent writer and relative money-making machine as Fitzgerald occasionally had to focus on factory-like productivity of material that, to him at least, was more about commercial than artistic success.
By November, Fitzgerald was out of cash—including Scribner’s $3,939 advance for Gatsby. The wolf was at the door. For the next five weeks he went to a large bare room over the garage and worked 12 hours a day “to rise from abject poverty back into the middle class.” Between November 1923 and April 1924 he produced 11 short stories, earning $17,000. Some of the early stories have lasted—“May Day,” “The Ice Palace,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”—but Fitzgerald viewed them as a waste of the time he wanted to spend on the novels. They were, however, an economic necessity. He wrote to Edmund Wilson, “I really worked hard as hell last winter—but it was all trash and it nearly broke my heart as well as my iron constitution.” He wrote that he was “far from satisfied with the whole affair.” A young man “can work at excessive speed with no ill effect but youth is unfortunately not a permanent condition of life.”

We'd love to hear your reactions about this passage or about the larger point, the eternal tension between making a living and making your art. You can also review earlier mentions of Gatsby's creator here.


At 7:18 AM, Blogger Kass said...

Locking yourself away to focus on producing art to make money brings to mind how Sylvester Stallone blacked out all his windows and sequestered himself away for 2 weeks to produce 'Rocky'. I envy writers who can chug out marketable material for moola. As long as you can keep your skills straight and not let those mercenary schoolyard children play too much with the creative nerds (in your head)- you should be all right.

At 7:23 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I like that Stallone story, which I'd never heard before. The unlikely way in which such a then-unheard-of guy got that movie made nicely parallels the story itself, of an unlikely mug boxer getting a shot at the heavyweight title. Anyway, it is all about focus, concentration and execution. The world is full of writing talent that goes to waste. Dedication and persistence generally gets you much further.

At 12:17 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

This dovetails with your Edison quote. Locking himself away in the lab was something he did regularly; it's part of the "perfecting the lightbulb" legend.

Certainly withdrawing to become a hermit is a really effective way of working. Some writers do it every time they approach a deadline; others only do it under extreme circumstances. I think it's a great way to get a project done, if you're on deadline, especially on deadline for cash. Jim Harrison in one of his memoirs talks about writing screenplays this way; and Chandler and Faulkner both did this when working on screenplays in their Hollyweird periods.

In my own version of retreating from the world, I once spent 5 months living in a trailer in the desert outside Taos, a sort of hermitage. I wrote journal entries every day (the early Road Journal on my website is what these are, in fact), but not too much else. It was a process of going within, and I think it helped me mature as a writer. But it was completely not about product, it was entirely about process. I doubt anything written from that time has any commercial value.

So it's a good process for a lot of writers, regardless of intention and/or eventual outcome.

In my case, though, I always need to be able to see the sky, to have a window open sunlight and the elements. The blacked-out window thing would have just made me go postal, probably. Ugh.

At 8:24 AM, Blogger Pat Washington said...

Yeah, I think the black out thing would make me go postal, too.

Yesterday I had blocked to write and it turned out to be, ugh, a really hard day for me. I finally finished my work while the kids were gone in the evening for a couple hours.

I think I need to be with people more. Even when I go to my office job, I'm rather isolated. (But at least tonight I'm going out to a winery to celebrate my birthday. My brother is even driving up from Cincinnati, so ... whoo hoo! Fun on Friday the 13th.)

At 8:58 PM, Blogger Rita Writer said...

So speaking of living and making your art, couldn't help but notice you posted this at 4:08 AM.

I too am I night owl, but even I blush at this excess, unless, of course, you just got up to write, but why do I doubt this?

So back to that "youth is unfortunately not a permanent condition of life." Indeed.

At 9:14 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

4:08 is unusually early, but yes, I'm generally an early riser. That time in the morning is a much better time when it's early rather than late, as in not going to bed till then. The mind tends to be fresher after sleep than at the end of the day.


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