You’ve Got to Sell Your Heart

Enrique Simonet — La autopsia — 1890 | via Wikimedia Commons

In 1938, aspiring author Frances Turnbull sent a copy of one of her stories to Francis Scott Fitzgerald. 

The Great Gatsy’s author wrote back, and in the letter he sent her there’s a brilliant piece of advice: “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.”

One of my guilty pleasure are Faustian myths and legends. Niccolo Paganini, Robert Johnson, and others. And the truth is that the overwhelming majority of Faustian myths are about artists. Some of them didn’t even bother to deny the rumors. Maybe that was some sort of marketing trick, but it was also how they felt about their art.

It all feels like selling your soul. You write about things you’d never be brave enough to talk about, you write about your obsessions, about your passions, about everything that makes you human. Sometimes you feel as if words are bleeding out of your soul. It’s not an easy process, it’s painful as hell.

You write your truth, even when your fingers shake against the keyboard. You write your truth, even when you’re certain you’re going to aggravate people, or you’re going to lose friends and alienate family members.

But I believe it’s the only way you can make good art. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman, the moment you feel you’re walking down the street naked, when you feel that people can see everything you are, when your heart is there, on the page, that’s when you’ll be able to make good art.

This is not about success, critical or commercial, this is not about gaining immortality, this is not about changing the world.

Because the most terrible truth about the world of art is that nothing can guarantee you any of those things. Not even selling your heart. I strenuously believe we’re all capable of greatness, but at the same time, that it’s unbelievably hard to make others see that greatness.

You may discard the previous statement as nonsense. After all, why strive to be great if there are no immediate perks? Most people think greatness needs to be generally acknowledged.

It might seem that way, that you’re deluded to think of yourself as being great when you’re not able to sell your paintings for $50, when you sent out your novel to over 100 agents and they all said no. Stendhal had three people present at his funeral. Gauguin died alone. Van Gogh may have sold only one painting during his life

There are countless more examples of artists who failed to achieve financial or critical success during their lives, died poor and alone, only to become famous decades or centuries after their deaths.

But did they believe that what they were doing was right? Did they believe in their dream? Well, I’m sure they had their moments of doubt, like we all have, but they died making art, didn’t they? They didn’t give up. Maybe some of them died thinking they had failed, maybe some of them died thinking, “Well, at least I tried.”

And some of them died thinking that they were great. That the world didn’t owe them anything: there was nothing the world could give them, nothing that could make it worth the price.

Because this is another one of those things they don’t teach you in creative writing classes: that the moment you sell your heart nothing could ever make things right again. Because when you sell your heart, you’re not doing it for money, or fame, or glory. You’re doing it because it’s the only way to make something worthwhile.

Bleeding in the Name of Art

Ten years ago I was just surviving. I didn’t feel alive anymore. Everything I wanted was for days to go by as fast as possible. I was alone, bitter, and disgusted by who I was. Simply put, I had close to nothing. And so I wrote.

At that particular point in time, when not only there was nothing to lose, but there was also nothing to gain from this life, I could afford to write anything I wanted. Also, because no one in my immediate world was willing to read what I wrote, I could write about everything, from life to death, to love, to depression, to anxiety, to the inner workings of a creative.

The things you can write when you’re certain no one’s ever going to read them…

Maybe this was a good thing because it offered me a freedom few people ever experience. At a great price indeed, but it made me strong enough to write about a tragic love story as it was happening, to write when the wound was still bleeding.

I like the statement that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.

Art should make people feel. It should give hope to those who have lost it, comfort those who are alone, show the world to those who have yet to see it. Art should inspire, should make people cry, and laugh, and then cry again. It should make them fall in love with life, with what it means to be human. Art should show you a world you never dared imagine, a world you never thought possible.

Art should show you that everything is possible, that small people can build great things, that we’re all capable of rising above ourselves. And, of course, art should show you that the world is not as safe as you’d like it to be, those great people we so often become enamored with are not that great, that there is pain, there is suffering, there is death.

Art should show you life exactly how it is: with the good, the bad, and the ugly. And it should also give you hope that it can be better.

If you ever wondered why art should last forever, this is why: because only through art we are able to express what we all feel, but so few have the courage to say.

So, yeah, sell your heart and show us what only you can see. Show us all the things we’re too blind to see, make us feel what we’re too scared to feel…

Because the alternative is spending a lifetime writing empty stories. Just words and nothing more. The alternative is a lifetime spent with the sense that life is more than what you have, more than what you are doing right now. That, somehow, all of life’s answers are running away from you.

22 thoughts on “You’ve Got to Sell Your Heart

  1. You put into words what so many of us writers feel. I’m about to launch book 13 with Amazon. I #LOVE writing. And I try NOT to get caught up in a bad review and instead I keep a list of the positive, motivating and inspiring words I receive by direct mail or reviews. It’s for the broken, the lonely, the beautiful, and the damaged hearts that I write. And if even one person feels the emotions behind my thrillers, poetry and passionate memoir, it’s perfect for me. Thanks Cristian.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Lynda, you shouldn’t give a damn about any negative reviews. You know what Aristotle said what you should do in order to avoid criticism: “say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

      Don’t give a damn what people think or say or do. About your art or anything related to you. Just do your thing. You are writing for your own soul, not everyone else’s.

      If it makes you happy, then it doesn’t matter what others think.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very beautiful post.It resonates so deeply with the artist that the only time the piece you are creating will come out to be great if it’s bleeding from your soul and taking shape in form of words on paper. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t see the ray of light or even if a single soul appreciates it. All that matters is that you have poured your heart and soul into it and have given it life.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a truly moving and emotional piece which has discovered a treasure for me. It is not selling your heart and soul but you having the courage to give or expose your heart and soul by sharing a painful experience. In today’s world, where commodification and exploitation of feelings is commonplace, you have touched on the unique place that only art and true artists inhabit. You brought to me, a moment, of where many of us have been facing the abyss of worthlessness but you have also shown the transcendence beyond by sharing your painful experience through your art. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This was a very inspiring read, not only for writers but for any artist using any medium. Thank you for sharing such personal experiences and insight with your readers.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Sell your heart
    Sell yourself
    Sell your soul

    Buy low
    Sell high

    Market to market to buy a fat pig
    Home again, home again…
    No. You can never go home.

    The product sells itself
    I, however, am not for sale.

    (I do enjoy your blogging 🙂 Highlight of my days lately—thanks so much!)

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I can’t find the words to describe how this writing made me feel. And I think that was your purpose, to make your readers see that the only way to create something great is to dare to bare your soul. To dig deep enough. To find the words to describe your anguish, your joy, your raw emotions. Then to be bold enough to show them to the world. Because that’s what you do when you hit that publish button.
    Thank you for sharing what I needed to hear.

    Liked by 1 person

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