When you read the private journals and miscellany of famous authors and artists, you feel embarrassed, humbled, and surprised all at once. It can come as a shock that the mythic minds behind great literature and art would be preoccupied with the same mundane concerns as the rest of us mortals. Take, for instance, the ledger F. Scott Fitzgerald kept from 1919 to 1938. The several dozen pages’ worth of publishing and financial records are a clear window into Fitzgerald’s grumpily hard-fought struggle to make his mark on American literature.
In his ledger, Fitzgerald keeps track of various financial worries such as “Money Earned by Writing since Leaving Army” as well as how much his publishers were cheating him on payment for his stories and reviews. But while these detailed records confirm that writing is as tough a business as any other, it’s the “Outline Chart of my Life” that is truly revealing. First, he prefigures mumblecore:
Feb. 1897: The child laughed for the first time.
May. 1897: He crawled–and had his first tooth and a cold in his head.
Jan. 1903: He begins to remember many things, a filthy vacant lot, the haunt of dead cats, a hair-raising buck-board, the little girl whose father was in prison for telling lies, a Rabelaisian incident with Jack Butler, a blow with a baseball bat from the same boy – son of an army officer—which left a scar that will shine always in the middle of my his forehead, a history of the United States which father brought me; he became a child of the American Revolution. Also he boxed with Edgar Miller the grocery man’s son, egged on by his father. His nurse pierced her ear for rings and he howled.
In 1918, Fitzgerald declares age 22 to be:
The most important year of life. Every emotion and my life work decided. Miserable and exstatic but a great success.
… while at age 27, in the year he would write The Great Gatsby, he claims it’s
The most miserable year since I was nineteen, full of terrible failures and accute miseries. Full of hard work fairly well rewarded in the latter half and attempts to do better.
With all the spectacle and visual magic in the upcoming Baz Luhrmann adaptation of Gatsby, it’ll be tempting to forget the rather unsexy obstacles through which Fitzgerald fought to complete his greatest novel. I suppose the lesson for us writers is that, in even the direst of circumstances, the imagination can sprout and blossom into something truly magical. Even if it takes about 90 years.