Just returned from an academic conference in Montgomery, hosted by the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society. I was there with my documentary partner, Deej, to film and present our Westport Fitzgerald thesis to scholars from around the world.
About 175 Fitzgerald fanatics attended the four-day event, comprised mostly of academics who have dedicated their life to the study and teaching of one America’s greatest novelists.
Our objective was to interview experts on Scott’s early years and The Great Gatsby to ask about Westport’s impact on the Fitzgerald’s writing (Zelda wrote a novel called Save Me the Waltz.
The society and the folks from Troy University in Montgomery were very helpful. In the thirty-six hours we were down there, we got to speak to several leading scholars including the noteworthy German professor, Herr Docktor Horst Kruse of the University of Muenster, who has dedicated the better part of sixty years to the study of Fitzgerald and his writing.
I won’t spoil the narrative as to what we learned, but I can tell you that these people know the Fitzgeralds and the world they inhabited and it was inspiring to be around such passionate people. We came to the right event for our film!
Although our depth of knowledge of Fitzgerald’s work, friends and that era pale in comparison, we knew enough to feel at home.
Saturday night we took a riverboat down the Alabama River with the Fitzgerald devotees. The boat was packed and we ended up at a table with a couple celebrating their 41st wedding anniversary. Besides being Fitzgerald aficionados, Aileen and Elkin Thomas were in Leonard Cohen’s band when he played that famous Isle of White concert (also on the bill: Jimi Hendrix, The Who). Over the years the Thomas’s had their own musical career as well playing with such greats as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs and Waylon Jennings.
Deej and I continue to be amazed at where this Fitzgerald documentary takes us.
More on Montgomery later this week.
In 1920 Zelda told Scott she was homesick and had a serious hankering for biscuits and peaches. At the time they were living in Westport, CT. Scott suggested they drive down and surprise her parents. Not an easy jaunt even today, but imagine what the roads were like back in those days. No AAA to bail you out when the car conked out. Few service stations along the way either. Scott wrote about the adventure in a short story called The Cruise of the Rolling Junk.
My partner in crime and I are making the same trip, albiet by airplane for the Fitzgerald Society Conference. We’re presenting our thesis about Westport’s role in Scott’s writing. Should be lots of fun, but we’re both a bit antsy given that the conference is attended by academics, folks that have dedicated their lives to the study of Fitzgerald. We’ve hired a film crew and we’ll be capturing all the thrills and chills along the way.
Last week I obtained a copy of ‘One Hundred False Starts,’ an essay written by F. Scott Fitzgerald that ran in the March, 1933 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. The essay captures what appears to be real ‘false starts’ Fitzgerald had experienced as a writer.
Snippets, phrases, names, scenarios, often unintelligible scraps of thought, all captured on paper to jog his memory to flush out the idea at a later date. As a writer who has dropped the ball on countless sparks of so-called brilliance, it was comforting to feel the struggle, the joy, and the confusion over bubbles of inspiration that felt flat upon later inspection.
Fitzgerald concluded that the key to avoiding a future filled with false starts is to begin with an emotion, one that’s close to you, one that you can understand. He was talking about himself, but his words resonated because I’ve grappled with false starts for years. My output is not nearly as prolific as others. I often lose interest in an idea that at first glance appears to be the mother lode.
This fool’s gold typically lacks an emotional connection, it’s one of the reasons I struggle to co-write songs, all too often the team is writing about things that have no meaning for me. I might intellectually get the concept, but I’m not feeling it, it doesn’t pump through my veins with urgency.
Fitzgerald also said in the essay:
Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves—that’s the truth. We have two or three great and moving experiences in our lives—experiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has been so caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before.
People often ask why I didn’t write a memoir about my divorce. They wrongly believe that My Year as a Clown is a thinly disguised novel for what actually happened in my marriage. My Year as a Clown works because I understood the underlying emotions that were in play during those difficult days. Perhaps more important, I put enough distance between the writing and the events to create a narrative that harnessed those emotions in ways that made my characters feel real even though most of the facts are fictitious.
When I set out with my partner, Richard Webb, to do this Fitzgerald film for the Westport Historical Society, I had no idea what I was really getting into. I got chills holding letters from Scott and Zelda when we were in Princeton reviewing personal correspondence. And now, as an added bonus, I’m learning about Fitzgerald’s process. This is like taking an MFA in Fitzgerald at a University without all the hassle or tuition.
The adventure continues . . .