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The Message–in the Bottle or the Book?

30 July, 2015
English: Black-and-white photographic portrait...

Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a letter to his editor, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) once described the detrimental effect of alcohol on a writer’s processing. He wasn’t against drinking while writing a short story. But he thought that writing a novel while imbibing created problems. In his words:

The very excellent organization of a long book or the finest perceptions and judgment in time of revision do not go well with liquor. For a novel you need the mental speed that enables you to keep the whole pattern in your head and ruthlessly sacrifice the sideshows. If a mind is slowed up ever so little it lives in the individual part of a book rather than in a book as a whole.

What struck me about this quote is the idea of writers getting stuck on one part of a book. The cause is not always alcohol. Some novelists simply get caught up with a difficult section and cannot move on.

There’s something to be said for just pushing on to complete what writer Anne Lamott called the ‘crappy first draft’. Even if writers hate their first book-length draft, they have something substantial and complete to work with. Having the big picture–no matter how sketchy it is–enables a writer to assess emphasis and pace, and decide whether some characters, scenes, or plot issues should be revised or deleted.

Pushing to achieve a complete first draft keeps writers from undertaking rounds of microlevel revision before

they have sufficiently explored  and decided what their story is about.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 August, 2015 6:35 pm

    He probably was, given that he was an alcoholic, but he also said one of his novels could have been better if he hadn’t been drinking while drafting it. And you’re right. There are many influences and conflicting activities that negatively affect the kind of concentration needed for major projects. I admire writers who seem to be able to free up their time and also write anywhere and at any time.


  2. 1 August, 2015 2:09 pm

    Is he being hypocritical saying he can write a story when drinking but not a novel? I don’t drink when I’m working – whether I’m cooking, cleaning, writing or volunteering. He would have had a lot of peer pressure on him to drink, and hard stuff too. But like everyone else he had to buckle under, make a plan and stick to it! Alcohol is not an excuse for writer’s block, it is much more a case of family and/or work pressure which drives away your inspiration!


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