top of page

The Burden of the Artist

I think F. Scott Fitzgerald was a nail-biter. Or he cracked his knuckles, or he raked his fingers through his hair. I know he had some kind of nervous habit because all writers do. All of us—reconciling with what it takes to put our ideas to paper—fidget beneath the weight of that burden.  


And yet it doesn’t seem like Fitzgerald ever did. He’s nothing short of legendary: a man whose work has become a cornerstone of the American literary canon, his masterful command of language is everything an amateur writer aspires toward. As a teen, I read The Great Gatsby in awe of its eloquence, and I lamented the fact that most of us won’t ever write so lyrically. Most of us have to tussle with perfectionism or writer’s block—have to sweat or bleed a little—before creating anything we deem worthwhile. Fitzgerald, with his effortless perfection, is a distant, irreplicable entity.  


But I’m skeptical. Here is a man who wrote The Great Gatsby on pen and paper, over the course of two whole years. I wonder, could a process as meticulous as that really have been effortless? Gatsby was a draft once, one that might’ve been riddled with edits and bears the evidence of frustration. Of nail-biting.  


That is what drove me to the archive. The manuscript of Gatsby would convey the method and emotions of Fitzgerald’s creative process across the span of a century. It would prove whether or not the weight of his ideas burdened him—whether he struggled with the words, like the rest of us do. It was something I needed to see for myself, if only to prove that talent like Fitzgerald’s isn’t quite as unattainable as it seems.  


The Manuscript 

Figure 1: The cover of the facsimile

The UW-Madison Department of Special Collections is home to a vast collection of preserved documents that originate from across hundreds of years. One of these texts is The Great Gatsby: A Facsimile of the Manuscript. I remember buzzing with anticipation, heaving this mammoth book onto the table in front of me and cracking it open for the first time. Nearly a foot in height and an inch deep, this text contains lithographic copies of the original handwritten drafts of Gatsby. Its pages are thick and cottony, while the scans of the manuscript itself show rips and creases in the original sheets, suggesting those might’ve had a rather different texture than this facsimile. The pages snap when turned, rather than rustling, and smell of aged ink. By stimulating each of our senses, this document transmits the novel’s genesis across time.  


And then we arrive at its most crucial feature: these sheets feature scribbling, scratched-out phrases, and even entire pages of text that are obscured by a huge, scrawled “X.” In places, gray smudges indicate the use of an eraser. In other places, new thoughts are penciled in, annexed into the margins. Taking it all in, I noticed this manuscript doesn’t just contain the drafts of The Great Gatsby—it holds intimate snapshots of Fitzgerald’s editing process. In his meticulous and, at times, visibly frantic scribbling, we find traces of all the attempts it took to communicate an image in the perfect way. Suddenly, his prose started seeming a bit less effortless to me.  


Figure 2: Fitzgerald’s handwritten edits on page 13

Take a look at the most minute changes Fitzgerald makes. Figure 2 shows the bottom of page 13 of Facsimile. As I began deciphering his tight, cursive scrawl (and consulted a printed version of the novel, a 1925 first-edition of Gatsby), I discovered that this excerpt depicts the introduction of Daisy Buchanan. Here it appears that Fitzgerald has penciled two, thin lines over the word “dressed.” Now, the sentence reads, “They were both in white,” rather than, “they were both dressed in white.” The edited sentence delivers a more compelling introduction to Daisy: if we visualize her “dressed” in white, we might simply see a woman wearing white clothes. Just “in white,” however, is a slightly more figurative language choice, which could describe not only her clothes but also the billowing curtains, the movement of light through the room, or maybe cigarette smoke.  


These implied, ambient details are what make Daisy’s introductory scene so captivating—almost ethereal in nature. And with that, Fitzgerald designs a character introduction that befits all the things that Daisy represents in his story: beauty, money, and dreams. Gatsby, in many ways, is a story about dreams, and the extent that we’ll go to keep broken ones alive. This poignant theme is neatly, stirringly woven into the novel. But as it appears in this facsimile, Fitzgerald had to wrestle with his prose before he could capture it. The tiny edit to Daisy’s introduction was one among dozens I encountered as I turned the facsimile’s pages: there were stiff hatch-marks over some words, loopy scribbles over others. I imagined Fitzgerald leafing through these sheets, mouthing the words as he read them, pursing his lips at phrases he no longer liked. His own criticism is carved into this manuscript, as much as the words themselves.  


It felt ironic, in hindsight, to label Fitzgerald’s prose as unattainable while reading his cautionary tale that warns against the pursuit of unattainable things. Just as Jay Gatsby is said to have been obsessed with the idea of Daisy, rather than who she was as a person, I realized I had been thinking of Fitzgerald not as a man, but a myth. So often, I’ve compared the most half-baked versions of my work to masterpieces like Gatsby, and thus, it was easy to feel discouraged and to decide that the level of skill I was chasing was unobtainable.  


Figure 3: An old draft of Chapter 3 of "The Great Gatsby"

Yet in Special Collections, I discovered Fitzgerald’s own half-baked version, and it bears changes on a scale I would’ve never imagined. Take Figure 3, which depicts a sizable edit to the chronological arrangement of the story. This excerpt narrates Nick Carraway’s visit into New York City, where the character describes “the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg” looming above him on an old billboard. At the top of this page, the phrase “Chapter III” is printed in Fitzgerald’s spidery scrawl, underlined twice in pencil before the narrative continues below. In contrast, chapter two begins by describing Jay Gatsby’s famously extravagant parties.  


However, in the published version of the novel, the order of these chapters is reversed. Before we learn anything about Gatsby’s enormous wealth or exorbitant parties, we encounter this vivid, eerie description of T. J. Eckleburg’s disembodied eyes. Literary scholars have discussed this detail for decades, asserting varying interpretations as to what the eyes might represent. Some suggest that the haunting image, stark against the gray backdrop of New York’s “valley of ashes,” represents the eyes of God. And thus, with this scene, Fitzgerald seems to convey that, just as the billboard peers down at the characters, God peers over the debauchery of the Jazz Age in reprehension. In the published version, we’re introduced to Gatsby an entire chapter after we see this unsettling symbol, and therefore we might start to view his luxurious mansion and parties through a more critical lens. With moments such as this, Fitzgerald crafts a poignant depiction of human nature: he illuminates the ugly truth that greed and excess are intrinsic to our society.  


This candid social commentary is one of the main reasons that Fitzgerald’s work has been canonized. Throughout the novel, his tightly-woven prose appears to capture such broad themes in what seems like perfectly neat storytelling. But as we’ve seen, that neatness didn’t spring out of nowhere: effort, self-evaluation, and correction underpin all the greatest facets of his work. With that, Gatsby goes from being “the great American novel” to something human. Something written by a man. And Fitzgerald himself goes from being a myth, to someone familiar.  


A Century Later 


In the end, I’m not sure why I’d forgotten this one, crucial aspect of being an artist: editing is obligatory. Editing means fidgeting beneath the weight of self-doubt; it means phases of writer’s block and moments where you must grapple with perfectionistic thoughts. But these moments aren’t the mark of a bad writer. They’re an intrinsic part of the creative process.  


Today, most young authors write on our computers, where we needn’t edit things out in ink. When we make a few word-level edits, we hit backspace a few times. When we want to get rid of pages of decidedly useless content, we hit “Ctrl+A” and press delete. In contrast Fitzgerald might’ve scratched a few lines over his pages, or ripped the useless ones to shreds. But even though he wrote on paper and I write on Google Docs, how much has really changed about the writing process? A century later, there is still revision—still frustration. There are still moments where we read our words back to ourselves, bite our nails, and decide we want to change them. At the end of the day, this commitment to our craft is what empowers us to create art. Worthwhile art. 


As I close the hefty cover of Facsimile, I hope to hand it to you next. And as you flip through its creamy pages, taking in the grayed, slightly torn lithographs of century-old paper, I wonder what imperfections you might notice. For I’ve come to realize that, just like people, no work of art is perfect. There are traces of humanity within everything we create: in the form of flaws and change. So if you ever find yourself struggling with your own ideas—fidgeting beneath their powerful, stifling weight—don’t think of it as a shortcoming. Lean into it, instead. Because the process of grappling with those ideas, of coming face-to-face with frustration, can yield something more beautiful than you ever imagined.  


About the author: Eashna Agarwal is a first-year at UW-Madison, double-majoring in Biology and English: Creative Writing. She’s always looking for ways to combine these divergent interests and often finds that the best way to do so is through her art. In her free time, she loves to draw, read, write, and discover new music to listen to.  

74 views1 comment

1 Comment

A wonderfully written piece that takes you to the world of novel writing! Makes you realize that materpieces take blood and sweat and don’t come in easy. Bravo!! Looking forward to more from this author.

bottom of page