Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Writing Lesson: Fitzgerald's The Crack-Up

"All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath." 
--F. Scott Fitzgerald

This past month I listened to a set of lectures from the Great Courses series on the subject Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft. This is a seriously good set of lectures that I believe can help anyone serious about their writing. (EdNote: If money is a barrier, you might try your local library, or wait for this set to go on sale.)

The course description begins like this:
Great writing begins—and ends—with the sentence. Whether two words ("Jesus wept.") or 1,287 words (a sentence in William Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom!), sentences have the power to captivate, entertain, motivate, educate, and, most importantly, delight.

In an early lecture by University of Iowa Professor Brooks Landon he dares to kick over one of the sacred cows of nearly every writers conference, the venerable Elements of Style by Strunk & White. Nearly every serious writer I know has a copy of this little volume by their writing desks. It's ideas have nearly Biblical authority in the writer's world, drumming home at least one fallacy that Prof Brooks deplores, that shorter is always better.

We think of Hemingway as a prime example of powerful short sentences, but Professor Brooks cited Hemingway sentences of more than 100 and 200 words, putting the kibosh on this fallacious notion. Alas.

Since listening to this lecture series I've been paying closer attention to sentences again -- their composition, the relationships between words and ideas --- with renewed enthusiasm. For this reason, while reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Crack-Up this week I decided to make use of this essay as an example of a central point of Professor Brooks' lectures, that sentences can be really interesting, and cool. Here's the opening paragraph of Fitzgerald's essay:

Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within—that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick—the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.

Look how that first sentence, which says so much, is followed by a contrast, with the third summing up what has just been set before us. In paragraph two, Fitzgerald then makes it clear that this story of a breakdown is going to be his story. The subject matter has been studied at length under the lens of a high-powered microscope, to be solemnly shared by this man who has spent a lifetime honing his craft. Note the variety of sentences, and even though none are exceedingly short, the manner in which the sentences have been constructed is worth examining.

Now to paragraph two:

Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation – the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the “impossible,” come true. Life was something you dominated if you were any good. Life yielded easily to intelligence and effort, or to what proportion could be mustered of both. It seemed a romantic business to be a successful literary man – you were not ever going to be as famous as a movie star but what note you had was probably longer-lived – you were never going to have the power of a man of strong political or religious convictions but you were certainly more independent. Of course within the practice of your trade you were forever unsatisfied-but I, for one, would not have chosen any other.

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In the follow-up essay, titled Pasting It Together, Fitzgerald dives deeper into some of the causes of his malaise. Here's are some additional sentences with heft and nuance, artistic beauty and unveiled truth intimately woven together.

In this silence there was a vast irresponsibility towards every obligation, a deflation of all my values. A passionate belief in order, a disregard of motives or consequences in favor of guess work and prophecy, a feeling that craft and industry would have a place in any world—one by one, these and other convictions were swept away. I saw that the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art that, whether in the hands of Hollywood merchants or Russian idealists, was capable of reflecting only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion. It was an art in which words were subordinate to images, where personality was worn down to the inevitable low gear of collaboration. ...there was a rankling indignity, that to me had become almost an obsession, in seeing the power of the written word subordinate to another power, a more glittering, a grosser power…

I can so identify with these sentiments, as did David Foster Wallace, whose life was also cut short by his own undoing. What he's saying is the in Hollywood, special effects (SFX) have taken over. Character development and storyline have become marginalized. How many times have you heard people complain about movies with action and no substance? (Fortunately, the Pixar leadership team held fast to their vision that Toy Story had to be, above all, a good story, not just a new kind of SFX animation process.)

The same shift has been happening in other aspects of our culture as well. Instead of character being the most important feature of a political candidate or business leader, the culture values charisma. Do they look good on camera? Do they make good sound bytes? This values shift, Fitzgerald laments, helped contribute to his breakdown.

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Lest we drift too far, let's get back to the point. Writing is a craft. If you're a writer, learning how to build great sentences is invaluable. Words and sentences are the tools of our trade.

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Read The Crack-Up in its entirety herePasting It Together, can be found here.
The three essays which appeared in Esquire have since been compiled in a book along with material from his notebooks as well as letters. You can find the book here on Amazon.

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