My introduction to F. Scott Fitzgerald was The Great Gatsby. I read it in school like everyone who did their homework. My teacher, Mr. Meltzer (notice how I can recall his name), must’ve led discussions on this famous writer’s themes, style and narration— I remember nothing about them. But once I committed myself to a writer’s life, The Great Gatsby beckoned me, and I surrendered to a world of extraordinary beauty.
A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.
It’s impossible for me to read Fitzgerald’s third novel without pausing to covet that passage.
How does a writer achieve such visceral beauty? A writer is either born with a gift for magical storytelling or not, right? Oh, how I wish…If only I could…
I’ll Never Write a Great Gatsby.
Or any story that glimmers the way F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing glimmers.
I’ve coveted every single story of his I’ve read and never once compared any of them to Gatsby. Why would I? They glimmer with their own brilliance and linger in the pixie dust of my dreams, where I covet and covet and covet. Here’s the rub— my admiration never once led me to explore his final work. Because, well, it’s as simple as this— the title never grabbed me. The Last Tycoon. It didn’t sound romantic, nor did it tickle my curiosity.
Then along came Chuck Palahniuk— yes, him, again (double eye-roll). The Last Tycoon is on his Recommended Reading List. When the time is ripe, the teacher arrives, the information globs onto the brainstem, and your life spins anew. I found a hardcover copy at Inquiring Minds (my local Indie with curbside pickup), and plunged in.
First thoughts— A story about the golden age of Hollywood with protagonist Monroe Stahr as boy-genius Irving Thalberg; what’s not to like? And Fitzgerald is Fitzgerald because how could he write like anyone else. Once again, I long to capture a character’s essence with a sharper inner lens.
What did Father look like? I couldn’t describe him except for once in New York when I met him where I didn’t expect to; I was aware of a bulky, middle-aged man who looked a little ashamed of himself, and I wished he’d move on— and then I saw he was Father.
And blindside readers with emotional tsunamis.
Stahr’s eyes and Kathleen’s met and tangled. For an instant they made love as no one ever dares to do after. Their glance was slower than an embrace, more urgent than a call.
Yet, something was off. In between passages like the above, I found myself drifting whenever the focus wasn’t on Monroe Stahr. He’s a charmer with a broken heart, drawn to a woman who will break his heart, and I’m all in. Then I’d crash into— and that’s exactly how I experienced this phrase— This is Cecilia taking up the story— my eyes rolled and I wanted to hurl the book across the room. And I was forced to admit the truth.
The Last Tycoon is NOT The Great Gatsby.
Of course, because it’s only a first draft.
No first draft is The Great Gatsby.
Relief and freedom swam through me like salmon running. That’s when Writer-in-Progress me realized The Last Tycoon may be Fitzgerald’s greatest gift to writers.
His intention was to produce a novel as concentrated and as carefully constructed as The Great Gatsby had been, and he would unquestionably have sharpened the effect of most of these scenes as we have them by cutting and by heightening of color. He had originally planned that the novel should be about 60,000 words long, but he had written at the time of his death about 70,000 words without, as will be seen from his outline, having told much more than half his story.~ Edmund Wilson, 1941
Yes, I wish Fitzgerald had been given the time to carry out his vision, but reading this unfinished, unpolished manuscript allowed me to see him like any other writer in the trenches of a first draft— writing clunky transitions and offering up characters that didn’t engage me. Would he have axed Cecilia as the narrator in the revision process? I hope so. But maybe not. Maybe he would’ve found a way to “heighten the color” of her inner life in such a way to make her as likable as Nick Carraway.
If there was a way, he would’ve found it because while he wrote he remained open. His notes are proof. Fitzgerald appears to have been a compulsive notetaker. He captured whatever new ideas, insights, or messages he wished to incorporate as they came to him. They show how committed he was to writing from a place of discovery— the place where magic happens. He wrote notes to himself as if he were a teacher…
Rewrite from mood. Has become stilted with rewriting. Don’t look [at previous draft]. Rewrite from mood.
And delivered reminders as if he were a novice…
Always begin with a mannerism.
ACTION IS CHARACTER
Reading The Last Tycoon and reviewing his notes couldn’t have happened at a better time. And I can’t say for sure, because who knows what the future will bring, or how much more time I have to write— after all a heart attack robbed Fitzgerald of finishing what he hoped would be his next Gatsby— but my plan is to reread The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon every year to remind myself that each manuscript is a rough cut waiting for the tenderness of revision. And to remember that The Great Gatsby already exists.
Fitzgerald wrote it once…it’s…you know…And it can’t be duplicated.
But I can’t help wondering…
Did Fitzgerald drink excessively because he wasn’t writing the next Great Gatsby?
If so, I’m glad I haven’t written or published anything comparable. I don’t need any more pressure.
But, if The Great Gatsby is the reason Fitzgerald persisted, then it may the reason I do, too.
Perhaps, I persist with frustrated patience to achieve my own Great Gatsby— my own personal marker for excellence.
Thank you, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Thank you.