You’ve got to sell your heart

heartIn 1938 aspiring author Frances Turnbull sent a copy of one of her stories to Francisc Scott Fitzgerald. In the feedback he offers her there’s one great piece of advice: “You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.”

You can read the rest of the letter here. It’s really worth the time, and it’s the kind of advice writers give only to closest friends. It’s not something you can tell anyone about, because most people will think you’re crazy.

Now, about selling your heart…

One of my guilty pleasure are Faustian myths and legends. You know, Niccolo Paganini, Robert Johnson, and others. And the truth is that most such legends are about artists. Some of them didn’t even bother to deny the rumors. Maybe that was some sort of marketing trick, but it was also how they felt about their art.

It all feels like selling your soul. You write about things you’d never be brave enough to talk about, you write about your obsessions, about your passions, about everything that makes you human. Sometimes you feel as if words are bleeding out of your soul. It’s not an easy process, it’s painful as hell.

But I believe it’s the only way you can actually make good art. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman, the moment you feel you’re walking down the street naked, when you feel that people can see everything you are, when your heart is there, on the page, that’s when you’ll be able to make good art.

This is not about success, critical or commercial, this is not about gaining immortality, this is not about changing the world.

Because the most terrible truth about the world of art is that nothing can guarantee you any of those things. Not even selling your heart. I strenuously believe we’re all capable of greatness, but at the same time, that it’s unbelievably hard to make others see that greatness.

I’m sure most of you will discard the previous statement as nonsense. After all, why strive to be great if there are no immediate perks? Most people think greatness needs to be generally acknowledged.

It might seem that way, that you’re deluded to think of yourself as being great when you’re not able to sell your paintings for $50, when you sent out your novel to over 100 agents and they all said no. Stendhal had three people present at his funeral. Gauguin died alone. Van Gogh failed to become the artist he wanted to be. There are many more examples of artists who failed to achieve anything during their lives, died poor and alone, and then became incredibly famous.

But did they believe that what they were doing was right? Did they believe in their dream? Well, I’m sure they had their moments of doubt, like we all have, but they died making art, didn’t they? They didn’t give up. Maybe some of them died thinking they had failed, maybe some of them died thinking, “Well, at least I tried.”

And some of them died thinking that they were great. That the world didn’t owe them anything: there was nothing the world could give them, nothing that could make it worth the price.

Because this is another one of those things they don’t teach you in creative writing classes: that the moment you sell your heart nothing could ever make things right again. Because when you sell your heart, you’re not doing it for money, or fame, or glory. You’re doing it because it’s the only way to make something worthwhile.

I learned this the hard way. A couple of years ago I was just surviving. I didn’t feel alive anymore. Everything I wanted was for days to go by as fast as possible. I was alone, bitter, and disgusted by who I was. Simply put, I had close to nothing. And so I wrote.

At that particular point in time, when not only there was nothing to lose, but there was also nothing to gain from this life, I could afford to write everything I wanted. Also, because no one in my immediate world was willing to read what I wrote, I could write about anything.

The things you can write when you’re certain no one’s ever going to read them…

Maybe this was a good thing because it offered me a freedom few people ever experience. At a great price indeed, but it made me strong enough to write about a tragic love story as it was happening, to write when the wound was still bleeding.

I like the statement that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.

Art should make people feel. It should give hope to those who have lost it, comfort those who are alone, show the world to those who have yet to see it. Art should inspire, should make people cry, and laugh, and then cry again. It should make them fall in love with life, with what it means to be human. Art should show you a world you never dared imagine, a world you never thought possible.

Art should show you that everything is possible. That small people can build great things, that we’re all capable of rising above ourselves. And, of course, art should show you that the world is not as safe as you’d like it to be, that great people are not that great, that there is pain, there is suffering, there is death. Art should show you life exactly how it is: with the good, the bad, and the ugly. And it should also give you hope that it can be better.

So if you ever wondered why art should last forever, this is why: because only through art we are able to express what we all feel, but so few have the courage to say.

So, yeah, sell your heart and show us what only you can see. Show us all the things we’re too blind to see, make us feel what we’re too scared to feel…

Because the alternative is spending a lifetime writing empty stories. Just words and nothing more. The alternative is a lifetime spent with the sense that life is more than what you have, more than what you are doing right now. That, somehow, all of life’s answers are running away from you.


This post was sponsored by Melanie Borg, who blogs about “my day to day life with my new diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, and my already diagnosed conditions of anxiety and depression.  I hope to give people an insight into living with mental illness to bring awareness to it and help get rid the stigma around it.  Eventually I’d like it be a source of inspiration and understanding for people who need someone to know what they are going through, and for people to learn more about someone in their lives suffering with mental illness, it’s a new blog but I update daily, sometimes more so there’s much more content to come.”


54 thoughts on “You’ve got to sell your heart

  1. Reblogged this on HalfTangible's Story Desk and commented:
    The most terrifying truth of the world we live (imho) is that it’s a grimdark tale of constant, unending betrayal, corruption and theft. Because lies are the rule of law. Because propaganda is now called the truth. Because when I see a police car, I am more afraid than I was without it. Because the world is falling apart, and nobody cares enough to sacrifice anything. Because we think too much and feel too little. Because we are taught to follow, even when no one leads.
    But the best thing about this world is that it’s a very INCONSISTENT grimdark story: the writer put good everywhere. And every now and again, the reader thinks they’d like to live in that world.
    Because a man will pull another out of the way of a train, just in time. Because a crowd will help beached whales back into the sea with a bucket and a full day of work. Because a laundry buisness out there will clean a homeless man’s suit for free if he’s going to a job interview. Because even in a time of growing fascism and evil, there are good men and women reminding us of the ideals of freedom and good. Because the world is awakening to how terribly wrong it is.
    And this world is wonderful. Because every author knows that though you may guide your best-written characters, ultimately the CHARACTERS are the ones in control.


  2. Thank you for this. I’ve found myself reflecting on many of the same ideas lately, though I can never put them into such succinct and articulate words as yours. What is more admirable, more brave, than offering up your beating heart?


  3. Thanks for this. I read Scott Fitzgerald’s letter and found it said a great deal in a short space. I disagreed with him on just one thing – when he said one wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was just a little bit brave. I’d be very interested in that soldier, because he’d be a full human being, whereas the bravest soldier might just have part of his emotional apparatus switched off. Still, I don’t think that was his point.


  4. This is awesome, and it feels like you wrote this from the heart, from a view that you feel very strong and passionate about. Writing/drawing from the heart is something I strive to do — don’t accomplish it much of the time. But when it connects, the work really sings. Thank you for writing this powerful post to remind us the core of good art.


  5. Thanks for the thought-provoking post and for continuously sharing great sources of inspiration and advice for other writers. I especially like the concept that greatness, immortality, money, and fame shouldn’t be a writer’s (or any artist’s) aim. I think those goals are guaranteed to make a piece flat and stale. True art has to develop organically – and working from the heart lets that happen.


  6. I hope you won’t mind that I did this but I have been amazed by your blog for a while now. Recently another blogger nominated me for the Sunshine Award. As part of the nomination, I have to nominate ten others and when it comes to bloggers who brighten my day, I think of you. I’ve really enjoyed your style and content, So I nominate you. If you want to know more or take part take a look at my blog post:
    Thanks for writing such great stuff!


  7. I feel exactly like that when I write – kind of like an open wound. I may never be famous, but if something I write touches or helps even one person, and even if that person is only me, it’s worth every second of every minute of every hour.


  8. OMG, your words are so inspiring! I often struggle with the reason why I make art, and I feel like when it does not come from the soul, it feels useless, empty and I find no sense into making it. Your words are so powerful. I am happy I found your blog!


  9. I love this piece and Cristian’s writing but don’t really understand this part right now,

    “the moment you sell your heart nothing could ever make things right again.”

    Is Cristian implying there’s something wrong with selling your “(he)art”? As a professional songwriter I’ve sold my heart countless times. And it always grows backs, larger than before:))


  10. Great post! What a perfect definition of art. I totally agree what you say. It´s so so difficult to express your deepest feelings, it´s so scary… but it´s the only way to tell the truth and transform it into art. “Art should make people feel.It should make them fall in love with life, with what it means to be human. Art should show you a world you never dared imagine, a world you never thought possible.”


  11. So beautiful and courageous. We need art to show us how to be brave and vulnerable and true. And I would add that we need to sell our hearts, risk being vulnerable and being seen, and continuously choose to be in the world as our most authentic selves in all arenas.

    Thank you for following my blog.

    I’m so thrilled to have discovered yours and I look forward to reading more of your work.


  12. Re-blogged this, as it was truly touching. I’ve also sent the link in E-mail to a half a dozen other writing friends (or should that be fiends?)

    Keep writing!


  13. Hi Cristian.

    Thanks for this post which touched me much, and nice to know you have appreciated my last post.

    Infinite Love, Happiness, Harmony, Diversity, Prosperity, And Fun For Ever And For Now,


  14. Hey, really good post that gives readers some of your story, a sacred business.

    Your words: ” … art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable … ”

    I also like Raji Katri’s words: “Thanks for writing about writing.”

    The DX of Borderline Personality Disorder … this is your friend? Or is it you?

    That’s quite an ordeal to go through. I like your writing. Worth reading. You definitely have something to say. Great post. T


  15. Very true… Emotions… Feelings… They inspire and motivate us to write a masterpiece… There’s just something so liberating and fulfilling when we write from the heart even if it makes us feel vulnerable, naked, and exposed. We give and share a part of us out there for other people to dissect and analyse. That’s what makes great art…


  16. I wasn’t expecting to read such an inspiring post today. Honestly, I woke up not wanting to even start the day. It’s that time of year, and worst of all, I’m at that crisis period of choosing a major.

    I only just recently learned to write from my heart because more than being scared that I was laying my everything out on the table, I was worried about how people would technically criticize my writing. It sounds crazy, right? But I worried more about proper punctuation, proper organization, and all of those syntactic and logical elements to my papers rather than the pure emotion of it.

    Now I’m coming to the decision of whether I want a more secure major that will result in my finding a more secure job, or if I want to take a risk and major in something I really want to better myself in (English/Writing). It’s hard, but this has been a major mood booster.

    Thanks for writing this and expect me to follow many of your other posts.


  17. What a beautiful piece of writing! I’m inspired to keep going and I think I may take F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice too as I’m just starting out and all I have at the moment is my emotions because there’s not alot of skill! I’m going to follow you wise man!


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