If Only Our Kids Could Write Like This…

Posted by jcmaziquemd on October 3, 2010


Great Scott! The Guy Could Write


In "The Lost Weekend," the alcoholic protagonist Don Birnam pretends to teach his favorite novel, "The Great Gatsby," to an audience of students, all agog: F. Scott Fitzgerald, he says, "has the one thing that a novelist needs: a truly seeing eye."

I’ve said as much to my own students, in the course of asking them, say, to describe a lawn. They shrug. Blink. "It’s green," one of them invariably says. "Grassy." Here’s how Fitzgerald describes one: "The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run."

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Portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda.


The lawn ran? The lawn jumped? Is it an ill-tended lawn? Obviously not, because it’s so sleek and swift, in such a well-groomed hurry to dash over every obstacle and splash itself festively against the bricks. Burning gardens? Why not be specific and tell us what flowers grow there, or vegetables perhaps, the colors and so forth? Well, because the lawn is moving too fast and can only glance—whoosh—as it passes: burning!

This is writing that makes us see the world afresh—the kind of writing that is better than actual living. Or rather it makes us want to live better, in every way. I cannot read about Gatsby’s parties without wanting to drop everything, go for a swim, get plastered and dance the Charleston.

Fitzgerald himself—as he imagines the caterers arranging the colored lights, the turkeys "bewitched to a dark gold," the portable bar "with a real brass rail"—gets so excited that he suddenly switches to the present tense: "By seven o’clock the orchestra has arrived….The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing upstairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive." Oh, the vanity of sitting in this dusty office, I think, writing this piece, while "the earth lurches away from the sun" and one might as well be relishing the scant dwindling hours of our tiny, poignant lives!

But Fitzgerald doesn’t say that, because (like his narrator, Nick Carraway) he is "simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life," and part of him deplores such dissipation, albeit with exquisite detachment. Nick later mentions "an old timetable" in which he once listed the names of Gatsby’s guests that summer: the fishy Whitebait, Beluga, Hammerhead and Catlip, for instance, or the equally evocative Ripley Snell, "Rot-Gut" Ferret, and Edgar Beaver, who (respectively) passed out in the driveway, gambled away his ill-gotten fortune, and became white-haired "one winter afternoon for no good reason at all." "All these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer," Nick concludes with marvelous understatement, and so much for the glamour of it all.

"Action is character," Fitzgerald wrote in his notes while working on his unfinished novel, "The Last Tycoon." Many times I’ve written the same motto on my chalkboard, in the same emphatic capitals, and said to my students: If one of our greatest writers had to exhort himself with that phrase, right up to the end, it must be pretty important.

Don’t, therefore, simply tell us that a character is "arrogant" or "blasé" or whatever; show her reclining on a divan "with her chin raised a little, as if she were balancing something on it which was quite likely to fall," as Fitzgerald gives us Jordan Baker in "Gatsby," or show her "revolving on a noisy, creaking pivot through the smoky air," as one will forever remember the vulgar Myrtle Wilson.

Action will suggest the most salient qualities, along with myriad ineffable others, until finally you’ve earned the right to pronounce explicit judgment—and thus the moral implications of "Action is Character": "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

I was 17 when I first read those words, and I knew such people existed without having met the more consummate examples. But I would meet them, in time, and then with horror I would find such tendencies in myself, and always I would think of "Gatsby" and resolve to be better, as both a writer and a human being, which after all amounts to much the same thing.

—Blake Bailey’s most recent book is "Cheever: A Life." This column features a new contributor each week on the art of writing and speaking.Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page C12

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