In 1938 aspiring author Frances Turnbull sent a copy of one of her stories to Francisc Scott Fitzgerald. In the feedback he offers her there’s one great 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.”
You can read the rest of the letter here. It’s really worth the time, and it’s the kind of advice writers give only to closest friends. It’s not something you can tell anyone about, because most people will think you’re crazy.
Now, about selling your heart…
One of my guilty pleasure are Faustian myths and legends. You know, Niccolo Paganini, Robert Johnson, and others. And the truth is that most such legends 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.
But I believe it’s the only way you can actually 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.
I’m sure most of you will 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 failed to become the artist he wanted to be. There are many more examples of artists who failed to achieve anything during their lives, died poor and alone, and then became incredibly famous.
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.
I learned this the hard way. A couple of 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 everything I wanted. Also, because no one in my immediate world was willing to read what I wrote, I could write about anything.
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, that great people 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.
So 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.