Angry White Guy in Chicago, Don Hall, recently re-printed a letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald to an aspiring writer. It made me think a bit about the definition of the professional vs. amateur both in 1938 and today.
Quoth Fitzgerald: (my emphasis)
“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….
The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming — the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But 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.
That, anyhow, 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.
P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent — which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.
One of my first thoughts was to wonder how Fitzgerald might react if he were alive today when it seems that the public will accept and reward the work of artists who haven’t paid the price and have really only committed to half measures. While people won’t become invested in the soldier who is only a little brave, flash can be substituted for substance.
I am sure Fitzgerald would have said the same about some people during his time and maybe we would like to think that back in his day, even the worst would possess better qualities of some of the most highly acclaimed today. We don’t know if that is true or not.
I do think that regardless of the time, we can all agree like Fitzgerald that a professional has honed his skill that she makes everything look easy because they have internalized their skill. Amateurs are left trying to replicate the outer appearance of what professionals do.
But if the audience can’t discern between the two or aren’t bothered by the difference enough not to reward the lesser quality? Does the difference matter?
I am not just referring to what is produced by experienced and inexperienced individuals. Music played over an iPod loses a lot of the qualities that can be experienced with a bigger sound system but people are willing to sacrifice quality for portability. Now we have music being intentionally recorded so it sounds good on iPod that is bereft of the subtleties that made past compositions intriguing and exciting.
Fitzgerald’s post script gave me a little chuckle. Being a little talented and charming like being in good physical condition is rare enough to be recognized. But not so rare that like those admitted to West Point, there aren’t 1000 or so others possessing the exact same qualifications.
But as we know, diligence and talent isn’t enough to set you apart, nor does the lack guarantee obscurity.
Still, Fitzgerald’s letter reminds us there is a difference even if it isn’t recognized and so a reason to remain a little humble and continue to hone our skills.