09/05/2012 06:17 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Bukowski, and Words for Young Writers to Live By

In 1938, F. Scott Fitzgerald received a story from family friend and aspiring writer Frances Turnball, who was looking for feedback on her writing. In response, Fitzgerald crafted a letter containing advice for young writers, thinkers, and dreamers worthy of marble etching. The letter begins:

Dear Frances:

I've read the story carefully and, Frances, I'm afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. 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.

As a young writer, I know no greater goal, or fear, than to be exposed. Despite the purity or truism with which ideas are expressed, the rawness of initial exposure is a fear that prevails far beyond the confines of the page. For this reason, Fitzgerald's criticism is so important to heed. To be heard, one must speak earnestly, almost excruciatingly so, as Fitzgerald himself admits to Turnball: "In 'This Side of Paradise' I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile [sic]."

Naturally, Fitzgerald was not alone in this notion. Two other 20th-century literary icons, Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski, wrote fervently about real-life occurrences and the personal beliefs that manifested from such. Bukowski, famous for writing straightforward tales about the gritty doldrums and desolation of day-to-day life in poems and novels like Ham on Rye and Post Office, was molded by his real-life struggles. Bukowski's early failures to get published allowed him to step back from writing during a decade often described as "lost years." Though the phrase conveys a sense of waste, it could be argued that it was Bukowski's sabbatical from writing that allowed him to develop a truer sense of voice and passion for words, the barest necessities to achieve self-understanding via writing. Following his "lost years," Bukowski wrote as much for himself as for anyone else. Fans and scholars regard him so highly not simply for plots and themes, but because of the bare-boned honesty in which they are approached. Bukowski's "So You Want to Be a Writer?" poem lends its own advice to young writers:

Don't be like so many writers. Don't be like so many thousands of people who call themselves writers. Don't be dull and boring and pretentious, don't be consumed with self-love. The libraries of the world have yawned themselves to sleep over your kind. Don't add to that. Don't do it. Unless it comes out of your soul like a rocket... don't do it.

Kerouac also wrote about the grittier side of society, but unlike Bukowski did so with a hopeless idealism that often bordered on rambling, as though his intent was simply to explain the rhythm of the world to himself. Also like Bukowski, Kerouac wrote about deeply personal beliefs and his "fictitious" protagonists conveyed thinly veiled story arcs from his own life. While many remember him for his Bebop prosody style, it is Kerouac's openly conflicted spirituality and heartbreaking quest for a peace he rarely achieved that make him relatable half a century later. In both pre- and post-On the Road material, Kerouac's thoughtful, wandering voice is unwavering, even in its questioning. After sharpening his style and crafting his "thirty rules to writing spontaneous prose," he conveyed that a bleeding heart should remain as prominent as a stylized diction:

"Something that you feel will find its own form"; "No fear or shame in the dignity of your experience, language, and knowledge"; and, most bluntly, "You're a genius all the time."

As writers, our greatest fear is that we'll say our piece, and nobody will care either way. So, we often attempt to build our wells before there is water to be extracted, which promises little reward for ourselves or our readers. Fitzgerald knew this too well, and explained to Turnball that when beginning to write, one must draw from experience, not solely observation:

"... the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see."

In a world where new authors, bloggers, critics, and journalists are arriving at an almost incomprehensibly compounding rate, where does everyone fit in? How can we? Streamlining the writing process has made the tunnel to success appear narrower, the light at the end almost impossible to detect for the cluster of people on the road. Oftentimes as young writers, we tend to concern ourselves too much with "making it" and miss the bigger picture. Rather than spilling our hearts, we're trying to outwit each other. As Fitzgerald concludes, though, the mind alone is not enough:

[Your heart/emotion] is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is 'nice' is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the 'works.' You wouldn't be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.

Therefore, we must write for ourselves first, so others have a genuine reason to listen. We must write to write, and do so truthfully to our own stories.

Letter source: F Scott Fitzgerald: A Life of Letters.