Thursday, October 16, 2014

Dear Scotty- Letters from F. Scott Fitzgerald to his Daughter

F. Scott Fitzgerald With his Daughter, Scottiee

I was, of late, putting together an article on the letters of Francis Scott Fitzgerald or FSF. I have always been enamored by his writing. Fitzgerald had a daughter, Frances Scott Fitzgerald, whom he lovingly addressed as Scottie or Scottina. Scottie was borne in October, 1921, soon after Fitzgerald married Zelda, the daughter of a Judge, riding on the success of his first book, This Side of the Paradise.

Scott Fitzgerald’s later life was fraught with difficulties, financial and otherwise. He lived apart from Zelda who mostly lived out of hospitals, searching for the cure for her chronic depression. His later work could not replicate the early success of The Tales of the Jazz Age, and The Other Side of Paradise,  and his slip into abject poverty could not even be arrested by The Great Gatsby, which could get its due only after his sad death at the age of 44. He lived away Scottie, and wanted to teach her all that he could so that she may, in her own life be spared from all that pain. His letters to Scottie touched me especially, being a father of six years old, wanting to write similar letters, and failing to come around to do that. My “Notes to Nonu” stays a work in mind, not even in progress. I am very sure that while some of his letters are very stern, a worried fathers to his daughter, being raised with parenting in absentia, they still carry a great deal of timeless advice for kids today. While in some of his letters, he tries to part with his skills as a writer to Scottie, seemingly in the search of some kind of legacy; the letters are not about writing. The letters of Scott Fitzgerald to Scottie are letters of father to a daughter and have concerns and affectionate shades which are universal to any father. Let us look at some of the letters and his great advice to his loving daughter.

To Scottie Fitzgerald, Dated August 8th, 1933:  Scottie would have been twelve year when this very interesting letter written by her illustrious father first appears.  She is still little child to Fitzgerald who writes, “I think of you, and pleasantly always” before entering in a lovely banter threatening her that he will beat the white cat and beats its bottom every time she called him “Pappy”.  He then goes on to offer some great advise to her, telling her “Things to worry about:
Worry about Courage
Worry about Cleanliness
Worry about Efficiency

Worry about Horsemanship” (in today’s context, we may replace this with physical activity)
And then he tells her things not to worry about which is a long list, key things of relevance which we can tell our kids today as well not to worry about from his letter are:

Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t worry about past
Don’t worry about future
Don’t worry about anyone getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your faults.

There is a very interesting letter written on August 8th 1934 where he writes to Rosalind, Zelda’s sister, many things about Scottie with great objectivity and affection. He discusses the inevitability of putting Scottie under the supervision of a Governess, parenting in absentia, and is worried about the weight of a celebrity father that she has to carry when he writes, “It is much easier for Scottie to play being the daughter of a writer that to get down and write something herself.” He is worried about the possibility of Scottie turning into a useless socialite and fearfully writes that, “Scottie can always change from an artistic to a social career but the reverse is very difficult”.

In another letter written to Scottie in 1935, when Scottie was around 14, he refers to typical teenage flings and disappointments.  He writes that, “your popularity with two or three dazed adolescent boys would convince you that you were at least queen of Sheba” and then he advises her that “you can think of others as valuing themselves, possibly quite as much as you do yourself.” He doesn’t put himself on a pedestal, he is as honest as only a father can be to his daughter when he writes that, “I didn’t know till 15 that there was anyone in the world except me and it cost me plenty” confessing his own life as a self-centered young man. He wants her to be a writer, asking her to write a one act play. He seems to be a man who had some sense of losing out on life and wants to pass on all the wisdom he had about his art, about his craft, about life to his daughter, in a hurry.  In a letter dated October 20th 1936, He tells her not be “discouraged” about her story not coming on the tops, but also tells her that “I am not going to encourage you about it, because after all….you have to have your own fences to jump and learn from experience.”  He further adds, “Nobody ever became a writer by wanting to be one. If you have anything to say… have got to feel it so desperately that you will find a way to say it that nobody has ever found before, so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter.” He warns her, “It is an awfully lonesome business, ….I never wanted you to go into it, but if you are going into it all I want you to go into it knowing the sort of things that took me years to learn.”  Of all the hallowed reverence of the writer, he, at heart is nothing more than a father.  In another letter of November, 17th 1936, he strictly admonishes her not to overlook scientific knowledge, telling her that, “there is no question of you dropping mathematics…I want you to take physics and I want you to take chemistry”.  It was the Thirties and Fitzgerald, a man of literature is not looking for so-called ‘feminine’ subjects for his daughter. He even threatens her with all the sternness of a disciplinarian father when he says, “You are an only child, but that doesn’t give you any right to impose on that fact.”  In the letter, one year later, October, 8th, 1937, he gives the sense of a drowning man, with the hand of his daughter fast slipping away when he urges her to not to smoke and that, “You have got to devote the best and freshest part of your energies to things that will give you a happy and profitable life. There is no time but now.”

An year later, on 7h July, 1938, he writes to Scottie, “I don’t think I will be writing letters many more years..”. Further he writes, “I never wanted to see again in this world women who were brought up as idlers. And one of my chief desires in life was to keep you from being that kind of person, one who brings ruin to themselves and others. This is one very, very sad letter, a desperate plea seeking understanding from his daughter when he writes, “You don’t realize that what I am doing here is the last tired effort of a man who once did something finer and better.”  In the throes of abject sadness, he puts forward a very profound thought about adolescence which I believe, should be read by every adolescent (and their parents). He writes, “You have reached an age when one is of interest to an adult only insofar as one seems to have a future…The mind of child is fascinating, for it looks at the old with new eyes- but at about twelve this changes. The adolescent offers nothing, can do nothing, say nothing that the adult cannot do better.”  He is unsparing to his little Scottina, when he writes, “when I do not feel you are ‘going somewhere’, your company tends to depress me for silly waste and triviality involved. On the other hand, when occasionally I see signs of life and intention in you, there is no company in the world I prefer.  When Scottie is finally at Princeton, he writes to her, advising her to be unpretentious and friendly, writing, “Nothing is as obnoxious as other people’s luck..Everything you are and do from fifteen to eighteen is what you are and will do through your life.” There are several lists of recommended readings which pass from the father to the daughter, wise words on writing. But this is not about that. What I am writing here about how being a father overwhelms and dominates every aspects of your being. And about timeless advises which from a great father to his daughter and how it holds its shine even in today’s Sun, several decades later. In our own ways, aren’t we as father struggling to share our experiences with our daughters, trying to make them stand on their own, trying to pass on the wisdom we gained through our failures to them, so that they might not have to make them?

Note: F. Scott Fitzgerald, the acclaimed writer of The Other Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, The Beautiful and The Doomed and several stories was borne on September, 24th.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Joy of Writing and Running

Writing, I took to when very young. But I am sure, it was more as a solace, a way out, than a reason for joy. I need to commit myself to something to really belong to it. That is the way it is with me. I believe, it is the same was with most me. I cannot proceed with things half-measure. If I do undertake any venture in half-measures, I am sure it will die its own death very soon, and certainly not with a bang, possibly not even with a whimper.

When I took to running, I did try to slowly step on the peddle, but could never step beyond the frivolous slow peddling pace. Then one day, much to widespread condemnation, domestic furor, I went out and bought a pair of quite expensive running shoes. I still blush when I remember the embarrassment with which I obtained that for myself. Then went about buying clothes for running, shorts, for the first time anything above the knees. But then, having committed myself to running, I did run. Having reached eleven miles and working towards the goal of Half Marathon in the next two months, I can say, the plan has worked.

The same is with writing. I knew I had to take it beyond the doodles. I also knew I need to fit in the writing within my day job. That didn't leave much room for making stories. I worked with what I had- Ideas. So came out my first collection of essays. And then, I was committed. I wrote and even read with new set of eyes. I would swim deeper into the stories I read, analyzing them for style. I read memoirs (Anthony Trollop's, Stephen King's On Writing, Virginia Woolf, Hemingway), Letters (Kurt Vonnegut, Scott Fitzgerald) not for the voyeuristic pleasure of peeping into their lives, rather to learn their literary habit, how they approached the art. I read books analytically. I read what I wrote also analytically. I looked at the world from a writer's vantage point. 

The steps for writing to me have been similar to that for running.

1. Commit yourself: Get the necessary stuff, get the props to create the pretense. Notebook, books, pens, place to write, soon it will become reality. A notebook is a great thing, advances in the technology notwithstanding. You can open it and scribble whenever you want, even when the Air-hostess tells you to switch off all the electronic items. You will slide into it. 

2. Write a lot: Write regularly or as regularly as life would permit you. Don't be captive to the class or style. Write. On my bad days, sometime I run not more than three miles. But I need to run those three miles. It is better than not running. In writing, as well keep writing. Start a blog. While visitors on the blog is fun, don't hang by it. Write what comes to your mind (just as I am writing this post, or A sketch I wrote couple of weeks back). A sketch is a good way to stay on track, to quote David Ogilvy (in entirely different context) "to make sure that my fingers have not lost their cunning". 

3. Writing needs Discipline: Both Writing and running needs discipline. It is like running your own enterprise, where there is no one watching you except your own self. As in running, I need to plan the coming day, however vaguely to ensure the run in the morning or in the evening. Writing will need similar planning and scheduling, even more important if you have another day job (like me). I have in fact taken to commuting by public transport as much as possible, so as to be able to read on the way to the office, and if the time and crowd would permit, take some notes on the way. 

4. Read A lot: Read as much as you can. For running, I keep reading blogs and articles on running. It keep one motivated. For writers, it is even more necessary. It makes what Stephen Kings calls the tool box for the writer, the words, the rules, the grammar, the  perspective.

5. Announce to the World: Nothing keeps you motivated as much as a sense of personal vanity. By making public announcement (regarding finishing your book or running a marathon) you are committing yourself to your plan and thereby opening yourself for public ridicule. Should you fail to keep the commitment, you at least do not want to be a reason for it. Rest assured, you will not be able to find refuge in self-denials. Writers are brutal judges of themselves. If you have it in you for being a writer, you will be scathing in your self-judgment. Take pride in your writing.

Just as in running, it will seem like work in the beginning. Slowly and slowly, you will look forward for your daily writing and reading as much as look forward for your daily run. Write, by all means write, as Sean Connery, playing the writer William Forrester says in the movie, Finding Forrester - Punch the damn key.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Book Review - Savage Rose - Poems By Helle Gade

"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can ever warm me, I know that is Poetry" wrote Emily Dickinson. It that reflection of the world, that visual imagery were to be the sole definition of poetry, Savage Rose by Helle Gade, qualifies in flying colors. Helle is a great artisan of words and makes a great fabric of visual imagery.

She begins the book with 'Idun', her first poem. She writes,

"The Old elder tree blossoms
Herbs break free of the ground
Bright green beech unfolding
and the swallow is chasing bugs."

The sensory liveliness is so noticeable, the imagery, one can even breath the smell of the picture she draws. Edward Hirsch wrote in his book, "The words move ahead of thought in poetry. The imagination loves reverie, the day-dreaming, the capacity of mind set in motion by words, by images." That is what poetry is, that is what Savage Rose is all about, picturesque words, grand sensual pleasure of worthy literature. 

I had read this book some time back. Poetry you do not read once. Especially, good poetry you need to read twice, for the meanings to sink in and for letting your own self to sink into the magic of written words. That is when you stop interfering with the pleasure of being overwhelmed in the truthfulness of the words. I read it again today. I tasted the wholesomeness of the poetry. When you read it second time, the sublime beauty of the words do not interfere with the truth they tell. They are the vehicles on which emotions ride, they are the grand carriage of the passenger. In the second reading, you take note of the passenger, understand her. When you read her poem 'Mourning', the sadness, the poignancy touches you so that you feel your heart pulsating within with a new vigor. It suddenly finds echo in the words you are reading and you feel the presence of the read beast inside your breast, as if for the very first time. She writes in 'Mourning'

"My heart is bleeding
I cannot breathe
Tears burn in my eyes,
and my throat hurts."

It attains a rare physicality of emotions through simplicity and honesty of the words. Helle is not a poet in search of her seat in literary greatness, she comes across a soul troubled by her own emotions, pushed by surging feelings to write them down. She is not the one to be bothered by ornamental words, She does not stop to pluck a flower to adorn her verse. The inherent truth of her emotions render eternal beauty to her verses, is the soul of her songs. She even admits to the helplessness of the poet, which every poet blamed of vanity as a reason for writing will find resonance in when she writes

"The voices start
as silent whispers
rising in a crescendo
as more and more join in
they are all desperate
Now shouting to be heard."

She writes with noticeable sense of urgency
"My fingers are drumming
A tribal rhythm on the keyboard
words flashing across the screen
Faster and faster."

Her words chase the emotion and an enchanting race continues. The reader holds her hand, one moment we are walking, another running in the open fields, laughing, crying, like little children, basking in the bright sunlight of rare innocence. Then Helle turns philosophical, the mystic thought of dualism of the soul, the two people living in a body- the good and the evil. In her poem 'My Demon', she writes, 

"When I speak, he steal my words
when I am silent, He speaks for me,
When I walk, he trips me."

And as a reader, we read mesmerized, we recall our own demon with which we wrestle everyday. Then, there are some poems in the collection like 'Frozen Pictures', 'Enough' and 'Burn for You', which are too personal, hitting closer home, almost autobiographical. The pain is to private, and therefore too haunting. It lingers for long and one wants to embrace the writer for such brutal honesty. When she writes,

"Who is that woman?
The one that always look tired
with the blue circles around the eyes
and the pale, almost translucent skin"

You read those words in whispers, and notice the palpable pain, the longing, the moment of defeat and a defiant search for emancipation as she writes, 

"I do not deserve this,
and I will not accept it.
This stops now
before we break each other."

It is a rare book, an immensely pleasing collection of Poems which will ring into your conscious long after you have read it. And yes, you need to read it at least twice. Brilliant work by an exceptionally talented Poet. "Mere air, these words, but delicious to hear" I quote Sappho here. 

Amazon Link to Savage Rose
Author's Page:  Helle Gade

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Being A Father

Avval Avval ki dosti hai Abhi
Nonu is away to visit her paternal grandparents. She has left only couple of days back, but the gloomy silence that has descended seems to be century old. The days are old, gray and wrinkled with her thoughts, like dying, decaying sheets of moth-eaten pages. She calls me in the morning today and weeps for blocked nose. Nothing serious, change of weather, her mother tells me. She also tells me that Nonu told her that Baba would know what to do in such a situation. It was a leap of faith for the six year old, who also calls me Bhoolne waala Papu or forgetful father, on account of my absent-mindedness.

She knows that I would have no clue what to do. She also knows that I would have no way to reach out the treatment of common cold to her from Delhi, sitting hundreds of miles away. But she knew that she was calling her father. She wanted to share. A father is that not-so-good looking, not-so-smiling, angel who will have the cure to all our problems. The father is not only a moral compass for the child; it is a sense of reassurance. It is a roof which stretches over our heads. It is the first friend that the child has.

Wikipedia has an objective and absolutely absurd definition of the term ‘Father’. It reflects on the biological definition of the term, which is essentially based on an accident of nature. This is so thoroughly incorrect. Fatherhood, I had written once earlier, is no freak accident of nature. It is an act of wilfully accepted responsibility. It is the fact that from the first time those little palms cuddle around your finger, you let that little hear breath in your body and spirit. That is fatherhood, the song we fathers sing in unison with our kids, which is heard only by us. It is an difficult responsibility and overwhelming reality, a reality which overwhelms every other facets of your life. So many twitter profiles describe the person as Writer/ poets/Actor/ thinker and Father. Rarely have I seen a profile proclaiming being Son/Husband/brother with so much of sincerity.  Having had a child to me has always been a path-breaking event, something like the Birth of Christ or World war, splitting the life clearly into two identifiable Before and After segments.

I may not have all the answers for you. I may not be the wisest of all with all. I may not be the strongest man to protect, nor the richest one to provide for you. But I will be your father, and that is something which overwhelms me being an engineer, being a poet, a writer even a human being. I will always be there for you and will offer you hope if not resolution. I always be the one to whom you would always come to cuddle up and grieve when you need and smile when you are happy. Someday, you will grow up and will not need me anymore, or maybe, need me still but will be thrown into ignorance by all the education you will get. I will still be there unmoved like a lighthouse on the lonely shore, for the ships which may not visit it on some days. I will always be there for you. It is not me as a person, who will have answers to all the questions of your life. We all will face our own questions, but when you are tired by these long voyages, I, as a father will be the port of calling for you to rest and heal. It doesn’t matter if I am weak or stupid or do not know the cure for a blocked nose, I am the guardian of your hopes and custodian of your happiness, even when I am long gone. For the power and magic is not in the man who is called Father, it is in the term itself- Father or Baba, as you call me.

Cheeky Quotes