Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Let's Celebrate The Great Gatsby!

As you may recall, I recently gave a reading as part of Washington, DC's celebration of the Big Read of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby...one of my favorite books. So, imagining that there may be one or two writers out there I haven't personally badgered into (re)reading the novel, I thought I'd post my comments in my effort to get every writer (and reader) to love this book as much as I do:

You might say I have a relationship with The Great Gatsby, both personal and professional. I first read the book on my own as a high school student, and then later, again, with more appreciation on my own as a college student (what a lame education I had that no teacher ever assigned the book!), and then even later, as an adult, gaining even more appreciation, and finally, as a writer, which is when I fully saw the book for the masterwork that I believe it is. Now, I’m happy to report that I’m the teacher assigning the book whenever I can to writing students…and certainly bringing it up as many times as possible to classes, some of which have nothing to do with novels at all.

I like to say that The Great Gatsby is the perfect novel—and though I know it’s not actually altogether perfect, its imperfections add to its perfection, if that makes sense; they’re quality imperfections, that help me see that you can make things work if you have to (how, exactly, did first-person narrator Nick find out what went on in Wilson’s garage when he wasn’t there? A report from an inquest…awfully convenient, Mr. Fitzgerald). But mostly, it’s a perfect book for a writer to study, When I assign the book to a novel workshop, I know that any question that anyone asks, I can find the answer in Gatsby: Dialogue issues, creating complex characters, evocative setting, point of view, internal and external story line, tension in plotting, where to begin—like the great and powerful Oz, The Great Gatsby holds all answers. “Let’s think about how Fitzgerald did that,” is one of my favorite comments to make in a classroom.

So I appreciate The Great Gatsby as a model for my novel workshops. But it’s outside the classroom where the book has really changed my writing life. Whatever I’ve learned about how to structure a novel comes directly from these 184 pages, these nine compact chapters. On my own, I took apart The Great Gatsby and wrote a chapter-by-chapter summary of each chapter. What were the plot points? What was established in the chapter’s scenes? What was foreshadowed? Sure, I could have read the Cliffs notes, but that wouldn’t be the same as actually going through the book MYSELF to figure out how he did it. So I wrote down on a piece of paper (that I still have) to see for myself exactly how Fitzgerald develops his story and themes, bit by bit, setting up information we need to know without seeming obvious, increasing the tension until we get to climactic trip to New York on the hottest day of the year and the car crash, which brings together all the characters and themes in a horrific climax, leading to Gatsby’s surprising yet inevitable death and Nick’s return to the middle west.

To chart it out in this detailed way is to see exactly what a classically structured novel is, to see for oneself the Fichtean curve that famed writing teacher John Gardner advocated, the triangle of rising action and obstacles, the climax, and falling action or denouement that every writing teacher and student has come across somewhere or another. To see that each of the nine chapters of Gatsby follows this pattern within the chapter itself; to see that the book as a whole follows the pattern. And, for me, as a writer it was the act of charting out this book that led me to see that my work-in-progress did NOT follow that pattern—that, indeed, there were chapters that seemed to have no tension at all, no climax. Or a climax that occurred in the first three pages out of 30. Or four major events occurring within six pages. As a writer, I am humbled and awed to learn from a master—long dead and afraid he’d been forgotten. There are a thousand different lessons for me in this single book—besides, oh, you know, simply being a vast and timeless great story—and I trust that I haven’t come close to learning them all. The Great Gatsby is truly my favorite writing teacher.

And you may remember that I said I also had a personal relationship with The Great Gatsby. Shortly after I first met my current husband, we were making arrangements to meet somewhere, and he said, “I’ll be the man on the corner smoking two cigarettes,” and I said, “Huh?” He said, “That’s from Gatsby.” I was pleased that he alluded to The Great Gatsby, of course, but showing my know-it-all tendencies that perhaps should have warned him away, I said, “No it’s not. Who said that? Where?” and so on. Within half an hour, he faxed an excerpt to me complete with citation: Page 132, during the discussion that leads the group to ending up at the Plaza Hotel on that fateful day, Daisy jokes, “We’ll meet you on some corner. I’ll be the man smoking two cigarettes.”

I never doubted him again…about Gatsby, at least, and together we’ve since watched the movie many times, watched various TV specials, forwarded links about Fitzgerald, examined Trimalchio—the published early draft of The Great Gatsby, driven to Rockville to look at Fitzgerald’s grave, stood in front of Fitzgerald’s childhood home in St. Paul, asked a friend to read the section where Nick talks about traveling through Chicago at our Chicago wedding, and, of course, endlessly debated and discussed the book, which we both read every year or so. Honestly, about the only thing we haven’t done is buy him a pink suit like Gatsby’s! But that might be a little obsessive.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.