F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Winter Dreams

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This is a difficult story for me to read. It always has been, it always will be. Fitzgerald understands and expresses the nature of love and loss better than any other writer I’ve encountered, and “Winter Dreams,” along with Gatsby, is the apex of that understanding and expression. It’s both beautiful and heartbreaking.

Just as Daisy doesn’t deserve Gatsby, Judy doesn’t deserve Dexter. But he still loves her – wholly, deeply, and with utter and passionate abandon. When she throws him over for the last time, he slowly recovers, converting his memories of her into what Fitzgerald, to quote from Gatsby, describes as “a melancholy beauty.”

It is hard enough to lose the person you love. But Dexter can somehow live with that pain, as long as his image of her – his dream of her – is not shattered. It is only when he realizes that the dream of her is dead, killed by time, by circumstance, by life…her spirit oppressed, her beauty faded, her existence rendered mundane…that the foundation of his youthful exuberance and ambition is destroyed, and he is broken.

It is only when our dreams die that we truly grow old.

Favorite Quotes:

“Often he reached out for the best without knowing why he wanted it – and sometimes he ran up against the mysterious denials and prohibitions in which life indulges.”

“…because the sound of a piano over a stretch of water had always seemed beautiful to Dexter he lay perfectly quiet and listened….The sound of the tune precipitated in him a sort of ecstasy and it was with that ecstasy he viewed what happened to him now. It was a mood of intense appreciation, a sense that, for once, he was magnificently attuned to life and that everything about him was radiating a brightness and a glamour he might never know again.”

“She was not a girl who could be ‘won’ in the kinetic sense – she was proof against cleverness, she was proof against charm; if any of these assailed her too strongly she would immediately resolve the affair to a physical basis, and under the magic of her physical splendor the strong as well as the brilliant played her game and not their own.”

“May at last. Dexter walked the streets at night when the darkness was damp as rain, wondering that so soon, with so little done, so much of ecstasy had gone from him….fire and loveliness were gone, the magic of nights and the wonder of the varying hours and seasons.”

“She was watching him closely and the silence was embarrassing, yet in this crisis he could find no casual word with which to profane the hour.”

“A million phrases of anger, pride, passion, hatred, tenderness fought on his lips. Then a perfect wave of emotion washed over him, carrying off with it a sediment of wisdom, of convention, of doubt, of honor. This was his girl who was speaking, his own, his beautiful, his pride.”

“…she communicated her excitement to him, lavishly, deeply, with kisses that were not a promise but a fulfillment….kisses that were like charity, creating want by holding back nothing at all.” 

“Dexter was at bottom hard-minded. The attitude of the city on his action was of no importance to him, not because he was going to leave the city, but because any outside attitude on the situation seemed superficial. He was completely indifferent to popular opinion.”

“…he had tasted the deep pain that is reserved only for the strong, just as he had tasted for a little while the deep happiness.”

“He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished.”

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night

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Tender is the Night had a troubled creation and publication. After the financial disappointment of The Great Gatsby in 1925, Fitzgerald was convinced it would be his “comeback” novel – a tour de force that would re-establish his literary reputation and financial security.

He needed it. Between the start of its composition in 1926 and its publication in 1934, The Great Depression struck, Zelda Fitzgerald’s mental illness developed into a schizophrenia from which she never fully recovered, Fitzgerald’s income dwindled significantly, and his popularity declined. His alcoholism also began to take a much greater toll on him. On top of that, he borrowed a great deal of money from his publisher, Scribner’s, against future book sales, and Tender… took far longer to complete than he expected.

In short, he really needed it to be a success in every way.

It wasn’t. Sales were poor and reviews were tepid. The general consensus seemed to be that although the world had moved on from the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald hadn’t, and was therefore out of touch with the current plight of the average American…when, considering his personal life, nothing could have been further from the truth. Other critics slammed the structure of the novel, especially the integration and pacing of the flashbacks.

Fitzgerald was crushed. He considered Tender is the Night to be his greatest work, and was profoundly affected by its reception. For one of the first and only times in his life, he began to openly second-guess his instinct based on the critical response, and even prepared a reordered version of the novel sometime after its initial publication. Thankfully that version was never published in his lifetime…only years after his death, and as something of a curiosity — kind of like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road scroll, or Thomas Wolfe’s O Lost (the unedited version of Look Homeward, Angel). Ray Bradbury once lent me his copy of the reordered Tender is the Night and asked for my thoughts on it. I was honest…I felt it destroyed the carefully-structured flow, not only of the plot, but of the character development. Imagine if all the flashbacks in The Great Gatsby, so perfectly placed exactly where they needed to be, were belatedly moved to the front of the book, before Nick even states, “In my younger and more vulnerable years…,” and you get the idea.

Ray agreed. “It’s terrible, isn’t it?” he told me. “You must never second-guess yourself.”

Thankfully, the originally published version is still the accepted one, and in the long decades since its first appearance, Tender is the Night has been reassessed in a far more positive light. It is now considered a classic, although in my opinion it is still under-appreciated compared to Fitzgerald’s other major works.

The story of Dick and Nicole Diver, Rosemary Hoyt, and Tommy Barban is a beautifully-written but painful examination of how pity, lust, pride, mental illness, the “Florence Nightingale effect,” and betrayal can destroy careers, reputations, relationships, and self-worth. At the beginning of the novel, Dick Diver seems to have everything. By the end, he has lost it all. Fitzgerald, who once wrote, “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy,” excelled at this type of rise-and-fall story, but rarely, if ever, did he craft one so intricately, or with such harrowing candor. For example, all the details of Nicole’s mental illness, her treatment, and Dick’s reaction to them came from Fitzgerald’s own experience with Zelda’s deteriorating mental health, and the things he had to learn while dealing with it, her doctors, and her care…They are unflinching, accurate, and honest. This, mixed with Fitzgerald’s exquisite prose, makes Tender is the Night both devastating and brilliant.

Favorite Quotes:

“Actually that’s my secret – I can’t even talk about you to anybody because I don’t want any more people to know how wonderful you are.”

“Wanting above all to be brave and kind, he had wanted, even more than that, to be loved. So it had been. So it would forever be…”

“When she saw him face to face their eyes met and brushed like birds’ wings. After that everything was all right, everything was wonderful, she knew that he was beginning to fall in love with her.”

“Somewhere inside me there’ll always be the person I am tonight.”

“Either you think – or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize and sterilize you.”

“For him time stood still and then every few years accelerated in a rush, like the quick re-wind of a film, but for Nicole the years slipped away by clock and calendar and birthday, with the added poignance of her perishable beauty.”

“He sometimes looked back with awe at the carnivals of affection he had given, as a general might gaze upon a massacre he had ordered to satisfy an impersonal blood lust.”

“When people are taken out of their depths they lose their heads, no matter how charming a bluff they put up.”

“They looked at each other at last, murmuring names that were a spell. Softly the two names lingered on the air, died away more slowly than other words, other names, slower than music in the mind.”

“One writes of scars healed, a loose parallel to the pathology of the skin, but there is no such thing in the life of an individual. There are opens wounds, shrunk sometimes to the size of a pin-prick but wounds still. The marks of suffering are more comparable to the loss of a finger, or of the sight of an eye. We may not miss them, either, for one minute in a year, but if we should there is nothing to be done about it.”

“In any case you musn’t confuse a single failure with a final defeat.”

“She did not know yet that splendor is something in the heart; at the moment when she realized that and melted into the passion of the universe he could take her without question or regret.”

“Later she remembered all the hours of the afternoon as happy – one of those uneventful times that seem at the moment only a link between past and future pleasure, but turn out to have been the pleasure itself.”

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It’s Personal

This morning I wrote a new short story.

It’s been a long time since the last one…at least six months. During the school year I devote most of my time and energy to teaching, so I usually wait until mid-June to really settle in to a full, summer-long writing schedule. But the idea had been percolating for a few days, so I decided to write the thing down now rather than later. Ever since I began recovering from my bout of depression (and even before, when I was still in the thick of it), I’ve been working hard to do as much and as many things as I can. Lying around helps nothing. Instead, you start something, you keep at it, and you get the job done, no matter how hard it is or how long it takes. Setbacks don’t equal defeat. Delays don’t equal defeat. Only giving up does…either far down the line, or before you even start. Knowing that, and living by it, is one of the major foundations for a good life.

So rather than just continuing to think about it, I found a table at my local Panera, where I do all my morning writing (yeah, yeah, but I like the noise and the people…usually), got myself situated, and an hour and a half later, the story was done. I don’t often complete a short story all in one sitting, but this one flowed. It’s a personal story based on something that recently happened to me, but it’s also tinged with the supernatural, so will find a home in the next Uncanny Valley book.

I realize I just wrote that it’s “personal.” Of course it is. They all are.

I always feel good looking over a new story right after I finish writing it, because what I see, for better or worse, is a prismed reflection of myself. When you open one of my books, that’s me you’re looking at, and me who’s talking to you…It doesn’t matter if you’re reading it now, or a century from now, long after I’m dead. If you really want to know what I care about the most, what moves me and inspires me and angers me and thrills me, I’m there in those pages to show you. It’s an amazing connection, and I should take the time to consciously appreciate it more often.

For example, when you open up Beowulf and start to read, at that moment the nameless author who wrote it down, and the nameless scops who told it verbally for generations before that, are all calling across oceans of time to you – and you, by listening, are responding. In this way, they are alive again. It’s as close to time travel as any of us will ever get: a conversation taking place over a gulf of a dozen centuries, which somehow, despite all the distance, connects people through the common threads of humanity that never change.

The same is true every single time we open a book. As readers, by turning to the first page we are entering into a relationship with the author. And like all relationships, we don’t know where it will lead…but we hope it will be someplace good.

Finally, thank you again for all the feedback about my other recent posts. I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by it (in a good way), and remain deeply grateful. I’m happy to report that I’m still much better, both mentally and physically. Also, I just finished re-reading Tender is the Night, so I’ll post about that in a few more days, as I continue working my way through five of Fitzgerald’s major works.

But I’ll end this post with two quotes, neither by Fitzgerald.

The first is from an almost-contemporary of his, William Saroyan. It comes from the preface to his 1934 collection of short stories, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze:

“Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

Yes, indeed, we will be. But sometimes we can also be brought back, even by people who have yet to live.

As Terry Pratchett once wrote, “No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…”

Read to give life. And write to live. Because it’s personal.

Beautifully personal.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon

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Just recently I took a trip to Washington D.C. for an award ceremony, but instead of spending the night there, I decided to stay in Rockville, Maryland – about 30 miles away. So I attended the ceremony, drove back to Rockville after midnight, then woke up early the next morning so I could visit St. Mary’s Church Cemetery, where F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are buried.

And at dawn, just as the sun was rising, that’s what I did. I’d always wanted to, and it was perfect. I spent about half an hour by their grave, all by myself, thinking about those two triumphant-tragic lives, and how their legacy – deservedly — has lived on far beyond even their wildest expectations.

The end of Fitzgerald’s life dramatically reflects that blend of triumph and tragedy. By 1940, age 44, he was living in debt in Los Angeles, trying to support himself, pay for his daughter’s college tuition, and finance Zelda’s medical bills. MGM had cancelled his screenwriter’s contract the previous year, so he made most of his income writing the short “Pat Hobby” stories for Esquire, which paid just a tenth of the price his earlier stories had brought in. All of his books, including Gatsby, were out of print. He was also still struggling with alcoholism, and on top of that had suffered two heart attacks the previous year. Based on his letters from the period, he knew – or at least highly suspected – that he didn’t have long to live.

But at the same time, Fitzgerald also became enthusiastically dedicated to writing a new novel, his first since the extremely tortuous process of completing Tender is the Night. He planned for this one to be leaner and tighter, much like The Great Gatsby. The story of the doomed movie producer Monroe Stahr (modeled after Irving Thalberg) in the final weeks of his life, Fitzgerald intended it to be a penetrating look into the inner workings of Hollywood, as well as a tragic love story.

Stahr, like Fitzgerald, knew he was suffering from terminal heart disease. And Fitzgerald, like Stahr, seemed determined to push on with his work, no matter how little time he had left. And what a work it is. The Love of the Last Tycoon tackles the topics of mortality, the hope and despair that come with love gained and lost, the sundering of power that comes with the passage of time, and the wild, rapidly-evolving cultures of Hollywood and Los Angeles. What’s extraordinary is that even though he only lived long enough to complete half of the novel (and that in various drafts, none of them final), Fitzgerald succeeded in addressing all of those things with elegance and wisdom. Some critics feel that even in its incomplete state, The Love of the Last Tycoon is one of the greatest novels about Hollywood ever written. To me, it is also one of the finest requiems for a life and career — his own.

Fitzgerald died of a heart attack on December 21, 1940. Zelda died in a fire on March 10, 1948.

Favorite Quotes:

“Stahr’s eyes and Kathleen’s met and tangled. For an instant they made love as no one ever dares to do after. Their glance was slower than an embrace, more urgent than a call.”

“There’s no substitute for will. Sometimes you have to fake will when you don’t feel it at all.”

“He wanted the pattern of his life broken. If he was going to die soon, like the two doctors said, he wanted to stop being Stahr for a while and hunt for love like men who had no gifts to give, like young nameless men who looked along the streets in the dark.”

“These lights, this brightness, these clusters of human hope, of wild desire – I shall take these lights in my fingers. I shall make them bright, and whether they shine or not, it is in these fingers that they shall succeed or fail.”

“They were smiling at each other as if this was the beginning of the world.”

“Under the moon the back lot was thirty acres of fairyland – not because the locations really looked like African jungles and French chateaux and schooners at anchor and Broadway at night, but because they looked like the torn picture books of childhood, like fragments of stories dancing in an open fire. I never lived in a house with an attic, but a back lot must be something like that, and at night of course in an enchanted distorted way, it all comes true.”

“People fall in and out of love all the time. I wonder how they manage it.”

“Now they were different people as they started back. Four times they had driven along the shore road today, each time a different pair. Curiosity, sadness, and desire were behind them now; this was a true returning – to themselves and all their past and future and the encroaching presence of tomorrow.”

“There was a midsummer restlessness abroad – early August with imprudent loves and impulsive crimes. With little more to expect from summer one tried anxiously to live in the present – or, if there was no present, to invent one.”

“In its way the little trip they made was one of the best times he had ever had in life. It was certainly one of the times when, if he knew he was going to die, it was not tonight.”

“We all have one story.”

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Re-Reading F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Lately my motivation to read and write has rebounded along with my mood…Doing both feels really good again. So I’ve decided to start re-reading the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one per week, and posting about them here (for the first time in several years, this blog has gotten a bit of a new lease on life due to my renewed motivation too). I can’t do a ton of writing until summer, so nothing heavy…I’m going to take the easy way out, and use most of each week’s post to list my favorite quotes from whatever work I just finished reading, then maybe add a summary or a couple of personal thoughts at the beginning or end. But it still seems like a great excuse to dig back in, enjoy his work again, and share some of it, so here we are.

This time, I’ve decided to read them chronologically backward, starting with the unfinished The Love of the Last Tycoon, which Fitzgerald was writing when he died in 1940, and ending with This Side of Paradise, published 20 years earlier.

That said, I’m going to make an exception and skip Gatsby altogether. I re-read it every year and teach it twice a year, so I’m already on VERY familiar ground with it. Also, the whole damn book is quotable, every single word. So I’m going to replace Gatsby with “Winter Dreams” –one of the “Gatsby-cluster” stories Fitzgerald wrote as he began exploring the themes, plots, and characters that would eventually see their finest realization in the novel…and also one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking short stories I’ve ever read.

So in the next five posts I’ll cover:

The Love of the Last Tycoon (1941),

Tender is the Night (1934),

“Winter Dreams” (1922),

The Beautiful and Damned (1922), and

This Side of Paradise (1920).

I’ve almost finished re-reading The Love of the Last Tycoon, including Fitzgerald’s outlines and notes, so I’ll have that post up in a few more days to start things off.

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“If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?”

Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors, used to love talking about his favorite uncle, who, during any small moment of enjoyment, would stop, look around, and say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?” What a great habit – to stop and appreciate your life as it is unfolding; to really live in the moment, and feel grateful when the moment is beautiful.

And this afternoon, after work, I stepped outside, looked around, breathed in deeply, and thought, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

And it was then, as I walked out into the light and warmth of a late-spring day, that I consciously realized what that meant: while there is still some work to be done, my latest bout with clinical depression is now more or less over. In the last nine days or so I’ve experienced a slow but relatively consistent upswing, and I now feel on steady ground again. I’ve finally cast aside the veil.

I know the signs. My appetite is coming back. For the last week, starting right after posting my previous entry, I’ve been sleeping through the night, following months of insomnia. My emotions have largely stabilized. The “gray” feeling has slowly retreated, once again reduced to a small, contained shadow.

This is how it works for me. Since 1995, when I was 17, I’ve had, by my count, five major flare-ups of depression, and skirted a number of smaller ones. Each, after wreaking whatever havoc it could, eventually faded out of my life just as slowly and subtly as it arrived, leaving me feeling like me again. This bout, lasting roughly eight weeks (not counting the weeks it was ramping up), was briefer than some, but still major in its effects. I am, to put it mildly, glad it’s over.

Am I stronger for it? Sometimes, after going through a difficult period, it feels comforting to believe so. But I think the phrase “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” like so many other trite “inspirational” sayings, is misguided, and also kind of offensive. So, no. I don’t think I am. But I do think I gain a bit more perspective on the illness (and life) each time I go through it, and maybe a bit more wisdom, too. And perspective or not, wisdom or not, I am most definitely grateful – grateful to be here, grateful to all the good and caring friends and loved ones who have reached out, and grateful to be able to appreciate the world again.

On top of that, my physical health is also much improved. I feel like myself again on just about every level – better, in some ways, than I have in several years. But there is also the question that always lingers, like it does after so many harmful scenarios in life: “Will the darkness come back?”

The answer, in my case, is almost certainly “Yes.” When you have clinical depression, it is never really gone – only beaten back and held in check. The small, currently contained shadow will eventually grow in size again and break free, even if it isn’t for another year, another few years, another decade. But that’s fine. That, too, is life. When it returns, I’ll deal with it. The worst thing you can do is simply throw up your hands and admit defeat when things get tough. Never, ever give up on what truly matters, even when doing so may seem easiest – or even the only option. Because there is never just one option. Ever. To quit is to fail…and often that failure not only affects yourself, but those who are counting on you, who care about you, and who love you.

So, spring is here, and summer is on the horizon. Life continues. And I’m going to enjoy it, whatever other hardships may lie in store in the unpredictable, unnerving, and exciting future. They will surely be counter-balanced by a great deal worth celebrating.

It’s just like Kurt Vonnegut’s uncle said. He had it right.

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“Doing is Being”

I want to thank everyone for the responses to my previous blog entry — here, on Twitter, on Facebook, and through private messages and emails. I know I posted a brief follow-up on Facebook last week, but thought I would write a slightly longer one here, since it seems like a good outlet.

When I wrote that first entry, it seemed natural to post about this latest bout with Depression. It was only after I posted it, and feedback started coming in from all those places, that I realized I had never spoken so candidly about it before in such a public way.

I’m very glad I did. The kindness, care, and support I‘ve gotten in response has made a very positive difference during a difficult time. It helps to know you’re not alone. In the last few weeks, friends have stopped by, old friends I haven’t spoken with in years have reached out, people I hardly knew have become friends, and people I never would have thought to bother about any of this have gone above and beyond to check in on me – calling, writing, texting, and even mailing the old-fashioned way. I now find myself in an odd position, because words fail me here…I guess for now, a simple and heartfelt “Thank you” will have to be enough.

It’s also very meaningful to know that others are going through the same thing, and that some have found some small degree of comfort in my post. I’ve certainly found a great deal of comfort in your messages.

Also, below is an update on how I’m doing. My “status” is sometimes hard to articulate in person, so writing, as always, seems like the best method.

Depression is sneaky and insidious, and while I’ve been having more good periods than bad over the last week or so, it’s still flaring up at unexpected times. The fact that I can write this now means I’m in a decent spot at this particular moment, but that could fade in half an hour…I just never know. Sometimes in the morning I’ll be so flattened that even talking becomes difficult (and my apologies to anyone I’ve struck as “stand-offish” lately…I’m trying), but by lunch I’ll feel much better, like a vice has loosened its grip. Sometimes the opposite happens. Sometimes these “swings” last days, rather than hours. But I’ve come to expect the unexpected with this (as we should in life), and except at the very lowest times, I’m now self-aware enough to understand what’s happening, and to try and react accordingly. It’s a bit of a trick – one of Depression’s classic symptoms is simply a “gray” feeling, when nothing seems worth doing and simple tasks can feel enormous, but using rational thought to combat it can *sometimes* help stay the course.

As I mentioned in the previous entry, I’ve also lost my appetite. As of last week, I had dropped over 20 pounds in less than 25 days. Since then I’ve stopped losing weight, but I also haven’t put any back on. I continue to force myself to eat, and try to add a little more to my diet when I can. The insomnia, which I’ve had for over two months, is still here too…I don’t think I’ve gotten more than three hours of uninterrupted sleep since March. But I can also report that through all of this, I haven’t missed a single day of work due to it, haven’t skipped a single obligation, and am doing my best to exercise, get outside, be active, and be a part of the world, even when it’s sometimes the last thing I want to do.

Ray Bradbury, my dear friend whom I so often quote, once wrote, “Doing is being.” So I’m trying to do things I usually enjoy, even when they aren’t always enjoyable right now, because I know they will be again…Doing them will eventually make them so. I’m also thinking proactively about the future, even when the dark cloud tells me there’s no point. I’m planning –and already going on– trips and adventures with people. I’m outlining long-term projects. I’m figuring out long-term goals.

So, yes: “Doing is being.” Three words that can be applied to so many scenarios…including recovery.

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