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In a discussion about “selling out” versus “remaining true” in art, I questioned the very idea of selling out. I don’t know what that means. Not really.

Implied in those words is the idea that by monetizing your art, you’re somehow polluting it, diluting it, lessening it somehow.

But this is capitalism! We live in this system. We may not like the game, but as the old joke goes, it’s the only game in town.

So I half-jokingly suggested that there’s no secret society harboring “true” yet commercially unsuccessful works of art. There’s no Knights Templar or Freemasons of writing unpolluted by the poison of marketing.

But what if there is? And what does that writing look like? What is the difference between what people want versus what they’ll pay for?

11255170_1430153200638984_1878013264_nIs truth any less truthy if it also makes a buck and allows its author to buy food and shelter and smart phones? Is the Venn diagram of true art and commercial art to separate circles or is there an overlap?

I can already see people gearing up their arguments, something about how this is why genre writers make more money than literary writers and so forth. About who the gatekeepers are, who decides what’s good art and what’s commercially viable art. About the Literati and the Illiterati.

These are dumb questions. These are procrastination questions.

I should get back to work.

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My empty office, which will be torn down this summer.

Reading my short story,

Reading my short story, “Those Peculiar Galaxies” for UNH’s Graduate Research Conference

My second year of my MFA is over (in case you weren’t able to pick that up from context clues in the title of this post.) There’s one more semester left, another writing workshop, a form & technique class focusing on putting together a story collection through the lens of recent successful collections, like Kyle Minor’s Praying Drunk and Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn, among others, as well as teaching another section of freshman composition.

This summer will be spent, between feminist science fiction conventions (Wiscon!) and Quaker-Marxist weddings, putting together my thesis, that collection of short stories that’s supposed to prove I learned something here, or that, at the least, I was productive at putting words on a page. It’s actually pretty close to done already—125 pages of the required 150, so my main goal is to get everything in order and write another two stories.

One, I already know and have started. The other, I know what story I want to write. The question is, can I figure it out, make it compelling, and not feel contrived—it needs to do a lot of things, first and foremost, fulfill all that was promised by the opening story and echo and illuminate everything that was built in the subsequent stories. Tall order for a story of whose shape I only have the fuzziest shadow.

Dorm life is caput.

Dorm life is caput.

And so I look forward to a new semester in the fall in a new office, teaching a new batch of freaked-out freshmen, in a new apartment somewhere around seacoast New Hampshire with a whole new host of weird issues to contend with. It’s almost as if two years isn’t really long enough for an MFA, but simultaneously, I can’t wait to be done. Some chapters are short, some are not?

Ultimately, it’s that odd combination of end-of-a-good-book sad and end-of-a-good-book excitement, and I’m trying to savor the end of said good book, but I’m already starting to think about what book to read next.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Treatment of Zelda and the Appropriation of Her Writing

To say that F. Scott Fitzgerald had a complicated relationship with women is an understatement. Scott was fond of saying that he “married the heroine of [his] stories!” By this admission, Scott welds his personal life to his fiction, blurring the line that the biographical fallacy intends to separate. The Fitzgeralds actively encouraged the conflation between Scott’s heroines and Zelda herself and openly used their biographies as advertising. By conflating his life with his texts, Scott opens his biography to similar levels of attention that his texts receive from critics. Therefore, one can attend Scott’s treatment of Zelda in a similar manner that one would attend his treatment of a particular female character in his fiction, pressing for insights into Fitzgerald’s changing attitude toward gender roles.

Zelda & Scott

Zelda & Scott

Scott was praised for his well-written female characters, and is credited with inventing the flapper, that “virtual emblem of American modernity.” Scott claimed that he wrote such good female characters because his mind was half female. However, those insights and those characters were almost exclusively based upon his wife, Zelda, and often come directly from Zelda.  Later, as his marriage declined, Scott regretted the flapper, claiming that “if [he] had anything to do with creating . . . the contemporary American girl [he] certainly made a botch of the job.” (Anderson, 143). When we consider his later ambivalence toward the flapper, as embodied by Zelda, what views of women and his wife remain? A clue can be found in Chapter xii of Book I of Tender is the Night, where Scott described what the three main female characters in the novel had in common—that “they were all happy to exist in a man’s world—they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them. They would all three have made alternatively good courtesans or good wives not by the accident of birth but through the greater accident of finding their man” (53). That he wrote this during the decline of his marriage, during a time when Zelda was challenging Scott with a novel of her own, is particularly poignant. In that scene, our narrator is explaining what makes these three women ‘good’ in opposition to most American women, a description of how a woman should ideally express herself.

This is not Zelda

The Invention of the Flapper

This could be easily chalked up to storytelling and character, that this statement was merely the description of of these three women and should not be read as indicative of Fitzgerald’s views of women’s place in the world. However, when coupled with the level of autobiography that Scott embedded in his writing, his treatment of his wife, and his appropriation of her own writing, those two sentences from Tender is the Night take on a much weightier significance. What can we say about the nature of authorship and originality in a case where so much of the material has been co-opted from another person? At what point does the shared experience of two people pass into co-authorship, or further, into plagiarism? If we read these two sentences as Fitzgerald’s view of how a good woman expresses herself in a man’s world—through her husband instead of in opposition to it—can we then be surprised about Scott’s appropriation of Zelda’s experiences and her creative works? Apparently not, since Scott was also fond of saying “It’s a man’s world; a smart woman’ll always follow a man’s lead.” (Tavernier-Courbin, 24). As his disillusionment with the flapper and his wife increases, Scott falls back on a more misogynistic paradigm in his treatment of women and his wife.

That Fitzgerald used much of Zelda’s writing, passing it off as his own, has been well-documented. Zelda herself—in an interview in the New York Tribune at the release of Scott’s The Beautiful and Damned—said that, “Mr. Fitzgerald . . . seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.” She then went on to describe portions of The Beautiful and Damned as being from “an old diary of [hers] which mysteriously disappeared shortly after [her] marriage and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound . . . vaguely familiar” (Petry, 20). Additionally, Fitzgerald rewrote much of This Side of Paradise after meeting Zelda, reshaping the character of Rosalind after her, even quoting Zelda verbatim for much of Rosalind’s dialogue (Auerbach). This was not an uncommon habit of Fitzgerald’s.

Lawton Campbell, a friend of the Fitzgerald’s recounts that “[Scott] would hang on her words and applaud her actions, often repeating them for future reference, often writing them down as they came from the fountainhead. I have seen Scott jot down Zelda’s remarks on odd pieces of paper or on the back of envelopes and stuff them in his pockets. At times, his pockets were fairly bulging with her bon-mots and bits of spontaneous observations” (Talley). Much of Daisy’s dialog in The Great Gatsby has also been attributed to Zelda as well, particularly the line, “I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” (Keats).

Perhaps the most gross example of Scott’s appropriation is the case of Zelda’s semi-autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz. While Scott was struggling for years with Tender is the Night, Zelda wrote Save me the Waltz in six weeks, then sent it directly to Scott’s editor Maxwell Perkins.

Save Me the Waltz

Save Me the Waltz

When Perkins showed Scott the novel, all hell broke loose. On March 14, 1932, he wrote to Zelda’s psychiatrist, Dr. Squires, in a fury of resentment which dumbfounded the clinic’s doctors. They found it necessary to apologize to Scott for having let Zelda send her manuscript to Scribner’s without first securing Scott’s approval. Scott was outraged to be submitted to the same sort of psychological and literary dissection which he had performed on Zelda in his first three novels. Moreover, as he himself said, she had used material that he had “bought” by keeping her.

Scott absolutely forbade publication until it had been revised to his satisfaction. In another letter to Dr. Squires, he wrote that he could not assent to “see her build this dubitable career of hers with morsels of living matter chipped out of [his]mind, [his] belly, [his] nervous system and [his] loins.” Of course, he had built his own career on such morsels. In May 1933, he spelled it out to Zelda during a session with her psychologist: “Everything we have done is . . . [mine]. I am the professional novelist, and I am supporting you. This is all my material. None of it is your material.” When asked by Zelda what she should do to please him, he answered: “I want you to stop writing fiction.” (Tavernier-Courbin, 27).

Sociologist Heather Laine Talley, in an essay concerning gaslighting and so-called “crazy” women, further described how “Scott offered to edit the manuscript and promptly pilfered passages for his novel Tender Is the Night.” He also removed unflattering passages and “ironically, though he was then supposedly helping to edit it for Zelda’s sake, he . . . let it go to press unpruned of tangled metaphors and misspellings, of grammatical and typographical errors which obviously weaken it” (Tavernier-Courbin, 24). For further examples, Kendall Taylor’s biography of the couple, Sometimes Madness is Wisdom, contains an exhaustive study of Scott’s plagiarism of Zelda’s writing and ultimately declared that “in effect Zelda was Scott’s co-author.”

Scott did not only co-opt Zelda’s words, but also argued that he and Zelda’s shared experiences were solely his. Regarding Zelda’s affair with a French aviator Edouard Jozan, Scott realized that “watching his wife’s behavior toward her French lover, he could depict Daisy’s affair with Gatsby with greater veracity” and encouraged the affair until it “became a serious matter when Zelda informed her husband that she’d fallen in love and wished for a divorce” (Keats). In response to this, Scott put Zelda on house-arrest until her will broke in a suicide attempt after a month (Tavernier-Courbin, 28).

Again, the more notable example regards the previously mentioned Tender Is the Night and Zelda’s Save Me the Waltz, that contentious novel which “galled” Scott and “presented him as a pale figure, and in a rather humiliating light” (Long, 40). However, it is not just that time and those aspects of their marriage that Scott appropriated. In a parallel of Dick Diver’s affair with Rosemary Hoyt in Tender Is the Night, Scott carried on an affair with Lois Moran, a 17-year-old silent film actress. Zelda’s reaction to this affair is further paralleled in Tender Is the Night’s mysterious bathroom scene—once, when Scott went out with Lois, “Zelda filled a bathtub with her own clothing designs and set them on fire.” (Talley). In Chapter v of Book I of Tender is the Night, Scott states that “If her person was property, she could exercise whatever advantage was inherent in its ownership.” In these cases, Scott behaved as if Zelda were indeed property, though he was the one who exercised the advantage of his ownership.

Scott, their daughter Scottie, and Zelda

Scott, their daughter Scottie, and Zelda

Despite everything Zelda contributed to Scott’s career and the success of his writing, he blamed Zelda for the perceived failure of his career. In a letter to Oscar Forel, the head psychiatrist where Zelda was being treated at the time, Scott blamed her for instigating his drinking habit and eventual alcoholism, then went on to criticize Zelda’s requests that he stop drinking as “childish stubbornness and ingratitude” (Letters, 197). In his letters to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, Scott casts Zelda as a spendthrift whose hospitalizations are to blame for Scott’s constant need for money and failure to meet deadlines. This echos Franz Gregorovius’ warnings to Dick Diver that marrying Nicole would be like “half [his] life being a doctor and nurse all together” (140). Carrying this further, the narrator of Tender Is the Night describes Dick’s downfall partially because “his work became confused with Nicole’s problems,” that “it seemed to belittle his work,” and because of this, “Dick could no longer play what he wanted to play on the piano.” (171). It would be more accurate to say that Scott quite enjoyed playing Zelda’s song when it was fresh, and jazzy, when, “in his earliest writings [he] enthusiastically portrayed [Zelda] as the embodiment of . . . a new era of romantic individualism, rebellion, and liberation” (Sanderson, 143). But later, he was ill-equipped and unenthused to play Zelda’s new, melancholy tune. In his letters to Zelda while she was in treatment, he routinely downplayed her symptoms, stating that her “feelings of gloom” hadn’t the “slightest legitimacy.” (Letters, 257). Additionally, in Tender Is the Night, it is speculated that “Nicole is less sick than anyone thinks—she only cherishes her illness as an instrument of power.” (239). Again, her illness is belittled and used as an excuse for Dick’s loss of vitality. However, the clearest and most blatant blame is leveled when Dick says to Nicole, “You ruined me . . . then we’re both ruined.” (273). Dick’s failed career parallels Scott’s own—Dick “writes pop-psychology for the lay audience rather than serious scientific studies for experts” mirroring Scott’s frequent complaints in his letters (Sanderson, 158). Rather than novels “for experts,” Scott often claimed he only wrote “hack-work” (short stories and for the cinema—the lay audience) for the money, money that he resented earning, feeling that he was “exploited,” wondering why he continued to pay the bills for a domestic life with Zelda he described as a “despicable menage” (Letters, 188).

Most Fitzgerald critics are apt to dismiss Zelda’s part, ignoring the level of her involvement in Scott’s writing. There is much surface discussion of her role as muse, but little mention of her literary achievement. In an article regarding Save Me the Waltz and Zelda’s literary talent, Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin, quotes preeminent Fitzgerald expert Matthew J. Bruccoli who said that “Save Me the Waltz is worth reading because anything that illuminates the career of F. Scott Fitzgerald is worth reading . . . The blunt fact is that Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald’s work is interesting today mainly because she was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife.” Tavernier-Courbin echoes Scott’s own description of those three women from Tender Is the Night when she points out that “Such an attitude . . . is sharply illustrative of what Zelda was trying to fight in her marriage, that which might be seen as the very raison d’être of her novel: the fact that she was merely expected to be, to use Scott’s own words, ‘a complementary intelligence,’ a wife concerned exclusively with the interests of her husband” (23). In a review, James H. Meredith dismissed two biographies of the Fitzgeralds, arguing that it is “inappropriate . . . for literary critics to take sides in their marriage” and declares them “wrong-headed” for trying to parse this complicated subject (212). In an article directly addressing the claims of plagiarism, Jonathon Keats declared that “it makes no difference,” claiming that although what Scott did was technically plagiarism, arguments in favor of Zelda’s contributions are the equivalent of asking “the Mona Lisa be reattributed to the young wife of Francesco del Giocondo who sat, with that famous smile, as its model.” These arguments continue the status quo of erasing Zelda’s authorship and denying the proper attribution from where the jewels of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing were mined.

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald

In a time period where women who bucked the status quo were routinely locked up in sanitariums, it should be unsurprising that Scott Fitzgerald acted in such a way. He routinely carried on affairs, denied them, gaslit his wife, and then plundered her creativity for his own work. And yet Scott is regarded as “a major male author [with] a particular insight into female psychology.” Even Zelda posthumously praised him in 1941, admitting that he “seized the essence of a girl . . . in that troubled epoch between world wars.” (Sanderson, 144). Even here, Zelda is sure to clarify a time frame for her husband’s insight into female psychology. Scott remains insightful about his flapper heroine and that new zeitgeist of the contemporary young woman, but as that woman aged, we can see Scott fall back into older, more misogynistic paradigms regarding the role of women in the world. When his insight into women began to fail him (if it could be said to have existed in the first place, outside of Zelda), he continued to mine his wife for that insight, often against her will. Zelda was not happy to exist in a man’s world and she attempted to preserve her individuality not through men but by opposition to them.

Works Cited
Auerbach, Nina. “Vampire to Victim.” Rev. of Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise by Sally Cline. London Review of Books 19 June 2003. Web.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Tender Is the Night. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995. Print.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott, Matthew J. Bruccoli, and Judith Baughman. A Life in Letters. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Print.
Keats, Jonathon. “For the Love of Literature.” Salon.com, 25 Aug. 2001. Web.
Long, Robert Emmet. “After the Ball.” Rev. of Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald.The North American Review July 1967: 40. Web.
Meredith, James H. “Marriage Tales.” Rev. of Sometimes Madness Is Wisdom: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald: A Marriage by Kendall Taylor and Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald by Jackson R. Bryer; Cathy W. Barks. The F. Scott Fitzgerald Review 2002: 212-19. Web.
Petry, Alice Hall. Fitzgerald’s Craft of Short Fiction: The Collected Stories, 1920-1935. Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1989. Web.
Sanderson, Rena. “Women in Fitzgerald’s Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald. N.p.: Cambridge UP, 2002. 143-63. Print.
Tavernier-Courbin, Jacqueline. “Art as Woman’s Response and Search: Zelda Fitzgerald’s “Save Me the Waltz”” The Southern Literary Journal 11.2 (Spring 1979): 22-42. Web.
Talley, Heather Laine. “Zelda Wasn’t ‘Crazy’: How What You Don’t Know About Fitzgerald Tells Us Something About ‘Crazy’ Women, Then and Now.” The Huffington Post. N.p., 20 May 2013. Web.
Taylor, Kendall. Sometimes Madness Is Wisdom: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald : A Marriage. New York: Ballantine, 2001. Print.

I helped staff the Barnstorm table at this year’s AWP conference in Minneapolis this past week. It was my first professional conference.

Whew.

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Let me judge you over the top of my glasses.

I think the main takeaway isn’t what anyone told me it would be. Yes, I “networked,” whatever the fuck that means. Yes, I discovered the sweet spot in the rhetorical triangle between sleep, booze, and panels. Yes, I attended panels about publishing and rejection and craft. And sure, I learned some things, but nothing revolutionary, nothing that left me with this surge of creative inspiration propelling me home in a whirlwind of story ideas and renewed dedication to my craft.

No, it was just being in a place with a lot of people who love the things I love that did that. It wasn’t anything anyone said or anything I saw. It was just this unspoken vibe of community. I imagine this is what families feel when they get together or class reunions or Sunday church-goers. This sense of shared experience, this collectivism, for lack of a better word. We spend so much time, or at least I do, in this very solitary pursuit, writing at strange hours alone, fielding submissions and rejections through impersonal guidelines and cryptic dismissals, and it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole world of people out there doing the same things, loving the same things, trying to connect us all together.

Not that I’m also not discouraged as well, spending four days surrounded by 12000 people who are also trying to do what I do, who hunger for triumph and success as much as I do.

Trust me, there were a lot of Highlander—there can be only one—jokes bandied about. Luckily none of the writers brought swords.

You didn’t think a post about AWP was going to be all hugs and snuggles, did you?

My first story, “Punchline Number Nine” is now up in the latest issue of decomP magazinE. Read it. Or listen to an oddly, extra-bassy me read it to you. It takes eighteen minutes. It took hours and hours to write and revise. Think of the time compression. Think of how dense an experience it is that you’re digesting. Reading a story is, by this analogy, one of the richest experiences. Like the difference between a thousand calories of kale versus a thousand calories of cake. Same calories, but cake is the dense story of the two. Have some cake. You deserve it.

I’m excited to announce my story, “Punchline Number Nine” will appear in the February edition of decomP magazinE. I’ll also be recording an audio version of the story for them this week as well.

This is my first official publication since I started down this path in earnest and not too shabby for the third story I ever wrote, though it’s been heavily revised since that first rough draft tumbled its way out of me back in the spring of 2012.

"Transam Bird" by Russ Pekkonen

“Transam Bird” by Russ Pekkonen

Who knew, back then, that my little faux-noir story of a recovering alcoholic subpoena process server driving around in a beast of a TransAM looking for his artist ex-girlfriend would be my first publication?

I’ll update later when it’s live and you can see the beaut. Right now, I have to go update my CV and publications page and my Submittable bio.

As my son said, I’m playing on the pro courts now.

I did not win the 2014 Missouri Review’s Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. Nope. Lost! DID NOT WIN. But I was so excited about the results I told everyone, jumped around (figuratively), and had such a goddamn big smile on my face, that four more rejections that week did little to scuff my shine because I was a semifinalist. Which means I was in the top 25, that elite 1% of stories that made it to the final rounds. Holy hell.

Early in your writing career, the reward system of your brain gets rewired. We face so much rejection that even the tiniest wins seem monstrous achievements. We might break our legs over and over trying to ascend Everest and almost die of exposure, but you should see us dance when we actually step up a curb without falling on our asses.

We check RejectionWiki for the slightest chance that we got a higher-tier form rejection letter, something our published advisors have said is like trying to read fortunes in tea leaves. We brag to our fellow writers about that Raiders of the Lost Ark golden idol of a personal rejection—sure we lost to some pompous prick and were almost killed by Amazonians, but by golly, someone fucking noticed us.

So sure, I lost the contest and had stories rejected almost 40 times last year, but this time, this time, that Pavlovian response of dopamine is mine and I’m going to savor that son of a bitch.

Primarily my summer writing projects have been editing and submitting stories from earlier this year and last year. Most of the markets for literary fiction are closed during the summer, so my options for submission are limited until September. Which is good if I’m trying to avoid rejection letters, like yesterday’s Paris Review form letter. I send out to these long shots, knowing it’s unlikely I’ll get picked out of the slush pile, but it still hurts a little when the rejection comes through. I’m also making the decision to only submit to venues that pay. For some reason, literary fiction writers are expected to publish for free, for exposure, for the publishing credit, rather than get paid early in their career. Having spent enough time in the graphic design/art world, where this is also a prevalent expectation, I can assure you it’s also some bullshit.

For Throwback Thursday, I’m posting an in-class assignment from my sophomore year of high school creative writing class. It’s about the last box of candy canes left on the shelf after Christmas, narrated by a broken candy cane.

Sitting here, strapped into a cardboard cell, I suffer. I sit alone, waiting for my destiny. My pride and self are broken, similarly with my cellmates. My captors hold me for ransom just to make a buck, constantly marking me down, as iftumblr_n85dcx1caB1qhyj0po1_1280 my life is worthless the more I suffer.

I lie here, unable to communicate, longing for an escape back to freedom. Many other cells of my companions have been rescued in what appeared to be a raid. I sit and wonder why my friends haven’t come back for me. I wonder of their fate, and pray that mine is a long-lived one.

Weeks, I sit and wait. Many times, people have the chance to rescue me, but they don’t. I wonder what harsh evilness is hidden in their heart that would make them turn away in disgust, and not help and injured being and his friends.

Finally my cell is moved one day. We are placed in a dark pit. Many hours pass. I wonder if I am being rescued or if this is an execution. The pit closes. The air runs low. I pray that this is not my destiny, to suffocate in a large bag. I wonder if this was the fate of the many other cells of my companions who were “rescued.”

But as I take my last final breath, I realize I will never know.

Apparently ten years ago, I wrote an acrostic?

 A Message From God

Attention Inhabitants of Earth!

My message to you must be heard
Earnestly spread from this day forth!
Say I to you that you must go!
Sunday shall be the last day,
As you pack and you pray,
Groveling won’t help because
Evicted from Earth you are today!

Fail to heed this warning you may,
Rot in hellish flames on Monday,
Or delay your timely excursion, do not!
My vengeance is powerful and you are not!

Good tidings I bless and send to you,
On your new planet, the home you must move,
Deliver to me your keys and your deposit you recoup.

I have no memory of writing this. Weird.