Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Writing, Striving, and THE GREAT GATSBY

I've known some people who always seem to be content with life, who tend to think things are perfectly fine as they are.

I don't know any writers this way.

Not that writers have it so bad. Sure, there are stereotypes of the depressive and possibly alcoholic writer, the Edgar Alan Poes, the Charles Bukowskis, the Sylvia Plaths: the tortured artists and souls, a category that seems to loom larger in legend than in practice. Most writers I know aren't that bad off by any means, and in fact you could probably take most of them home to your mom.

But there has to be a pretty intense fire burning inside you to devote the amount of time to write a book that it takes to write one. Spending hundreds of hours engaged in a multi-month mental marathon is not usually an act for the perfectly content at heart.

And that's before you consider the odds.

Writing itself is a form of striving: of striving to be heard, striving for something more than the ordinary life, and, if the writer is honest, there's probably an element of material striving as well, whether for money or recognition or both.

Writing is an act of getting down on your hands and knees and pushing on the ground and hoping the world spins on a slightly different axis. It's the art of not taking life for granted and trying to make something, anything change.

That's partly why we love it, right?

And I don't know if any writer quite wrote and lived the art of writing and striving as F. Scott Fitzgerald did.

Fitzgerald lived the life of a striver. When Zelda Sayre refused to marry him because she was concerned he couldn't provide for her, he got back to work writing and the result was This Side of Paradise, a sensation published when he was just 23 years old. He was always trying to be something more.

Of course, Fitzgerald created perhaps the ultimate striver of them all, Jay Gatsby, someone whose entire life was built on fiction, from his name (nee James Gatz), to his always shifting and unknowable biography (he professed to be from the Midwestern city of San Francisco), to the narrative he constructed around his affair with Daisy Buchanan. His life rested on layer upon layer of fiction.

And like Gatsby, writing itself is built around striving and dreams and a world conjured from thin air in the hope that it's enough. It's that feeling that Gatsby had of being just a few sequences of events away from having those dreams coming true, as close as the green light on the dock, so close you can "hardly fail to grasp them."

But when those dreams recede before us, as Fitzgerald wrote in the greatest page of them all, "that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

And then we get back to work.

The Great Gatsby is published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, which is owned by CBS, which is the parent company of CNET, where I am employed. The opinions herein expressed are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of CBS.






72 comments:

Misha said...

You make a good point. I'm always striving for something. Even though it might not always be better, it might be something different.

Maybe that's why I enjoy writing so much. Never thought about it that way before.

:-)

crow productions said...

My next book should be "Striving of the Non Malcontent." It would be an autobiography.

Chuck H. said...

I know I read Gatsby but it's been so long ago that all I remember is a description of a mansion, devoid of furnishings with long curtains billowing in the breeze. At least I think that was Gatsby. I could be mistaken. After all, I am OLD!!

Personally, I'm not one of those tortured souls, looking for recognition or money (though I wouldn't turn either down if they came my way). I just enjoy the feeling of putting some words together that evokes an emotion or stirs a memory or just puts a smile on someone's face. That's why I write.

Mira said...

Beautifully written and very inspiring, Nathan.

Thank you.

Christopher S. Ledbetter said...

Awesome post.

Sophie said...

Much the same as Dick Driver, constantly striving, but not quite sure what for...

Lauren said...

mmmmmnn...Gatsby...Fitzgerald. I love that you made the connection between Gatsby's striving and the striving of writers. I wonder if the connection continues to Gatsby's hunger to go back and re-write the past. Could part of a writer's striving be to take control of the past via a fictionalized (but not entirely)world? Thanks for such a lovely idea to begin my day.

abc said...

The Great Gatsby has long been a favorite. I think it is a beautiful tale of two outsiders (Nick and Jay) looking in and the destruction that can stem from never feeling enough. I hope that didn't sound too Oprahish. I love Nick Carraway. I love the way he sees the world. I love the hope and sadness and beauty and ugliness combined. It is such an American novel, but you are right, it is also universal. We strive, we fail, we keep striving. We make meaning of the striving. It is the anti-Ayn Rand. Perhaps that is why I like it so much.

Sheila Lamb said...

And it's amazing Fitzgerald accomplished this so young. I'm only a little jealous ;-)

Maren said...

This post mirrors my ponderings of yesterday. I am forever striving for something beyond my normal life as a stay-at-home mom. Like Gatsby, it is not enough for me to be ordinary. I simply cannot live such a mundane life.

Liz Fichera said...

Now have burning urge to reread THE GREAT GATSBY. Classic!

puppy-sariel said...

I've never read it...probably won't. It's just...not my cup of genre.

The unfortunate thing about writing is and always will be that it isn't how hard you strive, how much you want it, or how many times you go back for the kicking.

It's who you are, who you know, and what you have going for you.

Oh, wait. That's how it is with everything. It's High School all over again. My bad...

Jenny said...

This is why they say that to be a writer you must enjoy the process--the process *is* the striving. Whether it's big like striving to tell a better story, or smaller like constructing a better paragraph...and hopefully we learn something about the world by going through it.

Cynthia Lee said...

Thank you, Nathan, for mentioning Gatsby because now I'm thinking of the novel and that's never a bad thing.

I'll never get that image out of my head. The image of Jay lifting his arms and the green light on the dock and his sad bright mansion behind him. *sigh* Thanks!

sheribomb said...

Awesome, inspirational post! Thanks for re-reading The Great Gatsby. ;) I re-read it about every year and, although I am inspired by it as a writer, I hadn't quite thought to be inspired by Gatsby's actions. F. Scott Fitzgerald truly was an big dreamer. It's sad that he died without knowing how great a legacy he would leave, which I hope would have satisfied him.

Incidentally, my Fitzgerald re-reads have inspired this t-shirt, which might give you a giggle: The "I Want To F. Scott Fitzgerald" t-shirt". :)

Charlie Pulsipher said...

Hammering the representations of sounds into meaningful ideas and stories, shoving them out into the world with the hope that people will like the clever combinations we created for them. Yes, we strive.
Funny Stuff I Write

Tana Adams said...

What a beautiful and inspirational post, Nathan! Some great truths about writers in there. Now time for me to try and convince the earth to move on a slightly different axis or otherwise known as #amwriting. ;)

Gretchen said...

There are people who are content with life? I wonder what that would be like. I long to know! This is a question I ponder often, why we seem to always have this need to strive for more as humans, no matter how good we have it.

I ran across this quote in Steinbeck's "The Pearl" the other day:

"For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have."

I can't say I feel very superior, but I do think being a striver is sort of an innate quality of being human. Satisfaction would be so nice though.

Nancy said...

That was amazing. You hit the nail right on the head! I never thought about the life of a writer before. And prior to a year ago, I was as happy as they come. Then I decided to write. And while the writing itself brings me great pleasure & joy, I've never felt so unhappy. I am striving for recognition, to have my accomplishment validated by an industry whose very nature seems to be exclusion. But I will strive on because anything else is unacceptable.

Holly LeCraw said...

I was just rereading "The Last Tycoon" the other night--Monroe Stahr being another striver, a saintly striver. He would have been Fitzgerald's most moving creation I think--such a tragedy that this book was never finished. And amazing that even as a fragment, it is so worth reading.

Maize said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barbara Kloss said...

Great post Nathan. Very insightful and encouraging.

See Elle Oh said...

I agree that striving is at the core of writing. And I think Lauren brings up a great point that some of it may be striving to control the past (or at least make sense of it, make it "fit"). I think a lot of writing is about striving for understanding and connection, with others, the world at large, and, ultimately ourselves.

February Grace said...

I don't even know if my daughter would want to risk bringing me home to meet her mother.

Anonymous said...

Gatsby is on my nightstand.

I've read it more times than I can count.

lora96 said...

Lovely.

Thank you for this.

Transparent Mama said...

I used to think I wasn't tortured enough to be a writer. But, I keep writing so I must be.

Lauren said...

Thanks See Elle Oh for articulating my idea better than I did.

Gretchen- What a lovely nod to Steinbeck. I wonder if this human need to strive is more intense right now, or maybe we’re acknowledging it more as innovation keeps hurling us faster and faster into technological progress. Perhaps this has given rise to the dystopia trend in YA lit.

Jenny- Have you seen notes from the recent keynote address at SCBWI by Sara Zarr on this topic? If not, you should google it and check it out. Really cool.

Sheribomb- Do you think I could I get away with wearing your shirt as a teacher at a public high school? 

Joanne Sher said...

LOVE this post. A lot. Absolutely.

Liana said...

the best parts of your blogs are the disclaimer

Akila said...

Gretchen, I love that Steinbeck quote. Wonderful!

Nathan, great post and very true. Striving is the great joy of writing.

v.n.rieker said...

Your post on striving has spurred us strivers to strive harder!

Very uplifting and motivating post. Ha... Lennon started playing in my head after reading it.

"You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one..."

Laura Campbell said...

I'm constantly reaching for more and trying harder. Sure I battle with bouts of doubt and frustration, but thanks to apropos posts like this one, I stay on track and avoid the destructive life of legends. Thanks, Nathan.

Matthew Rush said...

It's funny. I actually went to the same high school as Fitzgerald, Saint Paul Academy. They talk about him there all the time, as if his ghost still walks the halls, but he was expelled.

PJ Lincoln said...

Great post, Nathan. Writers are, by nature, a different breed. I think we are more in tune with the world around us than the average Joe. We look about the world and see possibilities, we take two or three totally separate ideas and meld them into a story.

There's a creative spark, a drive in every real writer that's not found in any other form of art.

D.G. Hudson said...

Isn't that what makes life enjoyable? The fact that we can change our life to some extent to better fit our desired state?

It requires a risk-taker to be the 'bug' and not the 'windshield'. There aren't any guarantees that you'll succeed, but you may find what you're looking for in places you didn't expect.

For some reason unexplained by human nature, writers angst feeds the creative spirit. It may be the emotion that the writer is feeling which is poured into their words. We as readers can feel it even after the writer is gone.

Dreams without foundation scatter to the wind, but dreams based on hard work and striving may just come true.

Great post, Nathan. BTW - did the responses from Wednesday answer your question?

MZMackay said...

This was a marvelous post, Nathan. Inspiring, and truth-laden. We are all striving to be something better.

Whirlochre said...

Writing is like reading the best book EVER — only when you pick it up there's no plot, no characters, no words.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Wonderful post. I really have to reread that book one of these days.

And, of course, keep striving. Which is half the fun, anyway. Easy is boring.

salima said...

Thanks Nathan! I think romanticizing the link between depression and creativity can be pretty destructive, and I'm glad you draw attention to that. :) Have you ever read "Winter Dreams," one of Fitzgerald's short stories? That and Benjamin Button are my faves, I think.

Mira said...

Liana - I have to agree. Those disclaimers are pretty funny. :)

the bow lady said...

I think Fitzgerald strives as much as Franzen examines, and as a writer I desire to do both. However, I feel “Doctor Eckleburg’s persistent stare” and wonder if I will ever be good enough.

TERI REES WANG said...

So, here I am straddling the sea between the twin islands of 'Striving' and 'Surviving'.

Cheers!..to getting there.

Jennifer Jackson said...

Nathan:
"Writing is an act of getting down on your hands and knees and pushing on the ground and hoping the world spins on a slightly different axis."
Incredible quote!

Teri Rees Wang: I definitely know what you're talking about but at least you're not sinking between the islands.

Naomi Canale said...

Thank you for this Nathan. Beautifully said. I like how Fitzgerald wouldn't take no for an answer and made sure he worked hard to win his woman. Even though I know I'm better than what I came out of as a child, I too feel the need to prove something on the inside. Adversity can definitely kick the curb!

Jordan McCollum said...

Thanks for this, Nathan. A great reminder why I love this book (and cannot fathom why people don't, especially if they're reading it outside of a high school lit class).

Although I find it interesting that Gatsby's longing seems to be a negative—because of what he's fixed his sights on: Daisy, who is worthless and empty in the first place. I think all the fictions in the world couldn't have fixed that.

(Wow, this is really sad, but I'm suddenly wishing this is what I did my HUM 262 paper on. Um, eight years ago.)

MJR said...

very true....and Fitzgerald was always striving to make his writing better. I read an editing book recently that showed early versions of GG and then later drafts...huge difference (and not just because he had a great editor).

Marilyn Peake said...

That is profound, Nathan. I hear the soul of a writer shining through. And I think there are other fields in which people strive in the same way, reaching into thin air to turn the stuff of dreams into reality: filmmakers, astronauts, all the dreamers and shakers who work hard to push the world forward and bring it to a better place. I found an amazing book (unfortunately, only available in paperback) that describes people who have certain types of personalities that compel them to strive for something bigger than themselves: Living With Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and the Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults. Reading this book , it became very clear to me that most driven people aren’t emotionally unstable, that drive can be a very healthy and productive quality, and that having a personality with certain types of “overexcitability” can be a very good thing.

I thought about giving up writing the other day, came very close ... Actually, found myself coming to the conclusion, “That’s it. I quit.” ... and then, suddenly, found myself flooded with ideas for how to proceed with the two novels I’ve been working on. I then wrote productively on both books for hours last night, into the wee hours of the morning, and I realize I’m not quitting writing after all. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

I once broke up with a girl because I told her she made me feel like The Great Gatsby. It's the only time I've used a literary reference in a break-up.

Mr. D said...

I remember reading The Great Gatsby in high school, and saw the movie too. Didn't think much of either one. Of course my mind was mostly on girls back then. Didn't get a lot accomplished, but I got to know a lot of girls.

As I think back on it now, I have to wonder what would have happened if I had been writing books instead. Might I now be an accomplished and celebrated author? Hhmmnn, but at the expense of having known a lot of girls?

Well, that explains the depressed alcoholic.

Raquel Byrnes said...

I'm so glad I found a profession in which my nit-picking inability to leave things alone actually pays off.

chriskellywriter said...

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

One of my favorite lines in literature.

And then F. Scott went to Hollywood. And hung out with Hemingway at the Ritz Bar in Paris.

Kristin Laughtin said...

You've written many beautiful things before, but just fyi, this post shows why you have become a published writer as well.

But I agree. You can't write unless there's some sort of yearning inside you, trying to claw its way out. You have to be reaching for something, even if it's just to form the words. Otherwise, there's no passion nor any devotion.

And that particular line of Fitzgerald's is one of the most gorgeous things he ever wrote.

Ariel Swan said...

So, I am a high school English teacher and I, just today, showed a bio of Fitzgerald. I have been teaching Fitzgerald since I started teaching. Sure he was a striver - and then is the great theme of all his novels - but so is the realization that it is false - this optimism - this belief in the greatest possibilites. You shrug off the miserably destructive writer archetyles at the beginning of your post, but Fitzgerald was destroyed by his habits. After Gatsby, it all went downhill for him and his wife, so far and so fast that the prior years seem just like the lost dreams of Jay Gatsby or Dexter Green. Overly optimistic, propelled by a bit of luck, and then sunk by the ancient truth that fate + choice + flaw = Tragedy. That is the reality Fitzgerald lived. And no - I don't pitch to my students that way. But as a writer - I can not and will not romanticize Fitzgerald. He was a Modernist and the Moderns are all about Disillusion baby.

Ashley said...

Great post! I just loved it!

Anonymous said...

Fitzgerald was a human-type person first, a writer second. He was a striver, also a struggler. He possessed all of the foibles and carried most of the crosses of your average humanoid. Early success and a crazy wife probably not the least of them. What he did differently, though, is write an incredible little book that is so perfectly compressed, as well as so magically beautiful, it can only serve as an inspiration to anyone who wants to write. (It's also written in the most difficult POV - first person interested bystander. Don't think so? Try it.)
Lovely post, Nathan.

Joanna Aislinn said...

Never thought of it as striving but I like the analogy and do agree with it. Just wish I'd strive a little less in some areas, like trying to keep the house clean in the midst of striving to get that next story together.

Thanks for another POV on this topic :)


Joanna Aislinn
Dream. Believe. Strive. Achieve!
NO MATTER WHY
The Wild Rose Press
www.joannaaislinn.com
www.joannaaislinn.wordpress.com

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Ah, Mr. Former Agent Man: it's posts like this that kept me hoping someday to impress you with a query.

And now, to find out you work for a company related to Scribners, the publishing house by which I always wanted to be published, specifically because of its glorious history as Charles Scribner's and then Charles Scribner's & Sons under editor Maxwell Perkins of publishing the "new voices" of its time, including Fitzgerald who, unfortunately, had financial aspirations far greater than earnings--am currently reading a bio on him and am stunned to hear after Paradise and before Gatsby, he couldn't possibly live on less than $36,000 a year which at the time was tantamount to something like $360,000, with a purchasing power especially in post-war France far greater...

I harken to a great tradition of striving. I truly believe the writer, as an artist, has to go way out, where no one can help him or her, trying to push the edges of understanding yet be able to come back and convey meaning.

I aim to write novels that will be read and understood and hopefully enjoyed 100 years or more from now.

How's that for striving?

Repeating the words of beloved former agent Ray Puechner to me when I was young and hungry and whined about it taking too long in my personal timeline to be published and lauded as he'd suggested I might: "who ever told you this was going to be easy?"

Heck. If it were easy, everybody'd be doing it, right? :-)

J. T. Shea said...

'Tomorrow we will run faster.' So THAT'S where your wife got the slogan for her blog!

I haven't read 'The Great Gatsby' for years, so I perhaps remember the movies more than the book, both the faithful Robert Redford version, and the truncated and less well-known Alan Ladd version.

I love observer/narrators. Nick Carraway is possibly the third most famous observer/narrator, after Dr. Johnson's Boswell and Sherlock Holmes' Watson. My WIP's young protagonist is an observer-narrator of others' adventures, along with his own.

Readers may be interested to know Nathan has started a thread about THE GREAT GATSBY in the ALL THINGS BOOKS section of the Forums.

BTW, Nathan, if you're going to continue in this philosophical vein you lack one important thing, which I have. A beard. Trust me on this this.

Vanessa K. Eccles said...

Enjoyed the post. Very inspiring and very true. Thanks.

maine character said...

A couple years ago American Masters did a very good documentary on Fitzgerald, "Winter Dreams," which you can watch on YouTube.

Anthony J Langford said...

Good article Nathan, however I was hugely disappointed by The Great Gatsby. I think it's one of the most over-rated novels in literature.
Americans seem to love it, because it reveals the falsehoods of the Great American Dream but the rest of us already know that life is disappointing and utopia is but a pipe dream.
Give me Tolstoy or Kerouac or Bukowksi anyday. Therein lies the actual truth.

Tricia said...

Writing is an act of getting down on your hands and knees and pushing on the ground and hoping the world spins on a slightly different axis. It's the art of not taking life for granted and trying to make something, anything change.

Great quote!

Kathryn Magendie said...

beautiful post . . .

Ben said...

YES

It is right that we strive for something and I might add that it's something shapeless, but absolute that carries dreams of a better life.

Sir, you understand the struggle of the writing life very well. Better than I.

Pamala Owldreamer said...

Writers are always writing,even if only in the constant barrage of words,phrases and story ideas bombarding their minds,awake or asleep.The ideas never stop.
We are always striving for that one perfect idea,the concept that will get us published and propel us into the A list of authors. Maybe it never happens,but do we give up.A true writer can't not write and will continue to write ,hopefully, better stories in the hopes of catching and agent or a publishers attention.
But until that dream is realized,or even if it doesn't a true writer will continue to write and strive for that one great story.

Cartoonatic said...

Good point, worth mulling over.

Jourdan Alexandra said...

AMAZING post Nathan! I just finished rereading The Great Gatsby for class, so it was great to read this post with the novel still fresh in my mind. I love how you quoted the closing lines of the novel in reference to writing... very inspiring! So inspiring that I'm going to get back to work, right now.

Fred said...

I've stopped commenting on blogs to save my energy for my WIP, over which I'm currently obesessing. But this post was too cool for me not to reply. Bravo. Now I'm off to strive to craft the perfect sentence.

Fred

bendouwsma said...

I came to this post from Five Star Friday and you really nailed how I feel about writing. Beautiful post.

jane ayres said...

I really loved this post! Very timely - have never read the book but saw the film last night. Beautifully expressed thoughts and after leaving the cinema feeling emotionally "cold" it made me think about the story in a different way. The comparison with writers and striving and the human condition also thought-provoking. Thank you!

Sarah Hipple said...

You made a great point. And thank you for helping me see this book in this light . . . I dislike it a little less b/c of you today.

(But I still don't really like it. I prefer striving for better while actually seeing the world you really live in.)

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