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.


I’d like to thank Juliet and Deborah for their contributions to my campaign.

There are only twelve days left, and still a lot of funds to raise. As stated here and here the situation is critical. And the special offer still stands: if you contribute at least $50 to the campaign, you will get two blog posts reblogged on my website and be featured as sponsor on the blog for three months. That’s on top of any other perks you select from the campaign page.

Time is running out. And any help counts, bringing me closer to reaching my goal.

If you enjoy my posts and my writing, please consider leaving a donation here.


17 comments on “You’ve got to sell your heart

  1. SiriusOryon says:

    I have been battling the thought of giving you some advice for quite a while Cristian, but I always decide against it, thinking you may never take heed. However, the ‘advice’ you chose to open this post with, I take as a sign that it is meant for you to hear my advice to you, from one writer to another:

    You can write, yes. You can form coherent sentences that make others think. But you put yourself forth to the world as a sort of ‘victim’ writer; always down trodden, always miserable, always on the brink of giving up, thus the world should pity you and ‘donate’ to your ‘artistic martyrdom’.

    Yet you write about your writing, in a tone of utter ‘poor me’ the poor writer. We, the artists and writers, all would like to do what we love for a living, but most of us understand that we must still pay our own bills while we pursue our talent and that no one owes us anything for our choices.

    I would truly like to see your writing talent Cristian, because I know it is there. Please, stop with the pity party and just write already! Either that, or get a job so that you can really write something that might be more than you crying about how pitiful you are….geez…and stop writing about your writing process.

    Write a story that is not about you, or your writing process, or your self pity, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find the writer inside you buried beneath all of your dejected self-pity….it is not attractive or productive or artistic.

    I say this in Love (tough Love) because I believe you can do better, much better than what you have been doing, and that is what I hope to see from you in the near future.

  2. crissynf says:

    “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Beautiful statement.

  3. Hi Cristian
    Here’s a quote for you, from Michael Ondaatje’s ‘The English Patient’, by way of thanks for your post!

    “Every night I cut out my heart. But in the morning it was full again”

    Hatty x

  4. Very very sound advice….

  5. rubyr8 says:

    This just proves the true aim of art, the ability to dip into another man’s soul with your expressions.

  6. ellepoet says:

    Thank you for your post, I love F. Scott Fitzgerald and the quote that you posted. It was just what I needed to read today. I’ve spent the better part of five years being too afraid to feel and too comfortable not creating.

  7. megadx1 says:

    The last few paragraphs of this post strongly reminds me about the Harlem Renaissance times; where art was used as propaganda, blues ‘n jazz, poems, and other types of visual protests to combat against a once unjust society. I remembered the graphical incidents that occurred and took place throughout about that historical time, and still do.

  8. Kevin Tuazon says:

    This post is too powerful. I believe this is what us writers go through every time we write. in the end, we can’t help but heed our calling. Thank you for putting this experience we all go through into words.

  9. Agree – art must generate an emotion – awe, love, hate, repulsion – to create a discussion, to highlight an issue. Art should never just be ‘nice’.

  10. thortonjakes says:

    Nicely written, and speaks to the passions that drive many of us to write.

  11. bgbgbgbg says:

    Dance as if no one is watching! Thank you for this article. I really enjoyed it and helped me get my “head on straight”!

  12. You’ve said, in an utterly wonderful way, the reason that I write: because I HAVE TO express myself if only for me. And hopefully, what is said, provides some food for thought for others to make lives more than “empty writing.” thank you.

  13. ieugc says:

    We really love your writing what amazing idea you write. This time i visited your blog after a long time, after reading this post i really feel good in me.

    Amazing Blog Christian. I am thankful to you that your blog gave me inspiration to start up blogging :)

    Thanks Again

  14. YES!!! Sell your pound of flesh every time until there is nothing left and you feel empty. And do it all over again the next day. And the next one. And the next one. Until writing becomes your blood and you can’t live without it. I get you. Great piece. Great writing. Keep going. Lack of funds will never stop a writer and you know it. You write because you have to. Because your sanity depends on it. Because it’s in your blood and nothing else matters. Because you are a Writer damn it!! And a bloody good one too. So just keep writing!!!

  15. The Gospel of Barney says:

    All you have is your heart!

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