Ralph Gardner Jr: F. Scott Fitzgerald's Advice

Jun 29, 2019

Since my wife Debbie, daughter Lucy and my daughter’s fiancée Malcolm have done most of the heavy lifting when it comes to Lucy and Malcolm’s upcoming nuptials – it’s this evening as this commentary airs – the least I can do is offer a decent toast.

I’m fortunate that I write with a certain ease because I haven’t crafted the thing yet and don’t know what I’m going to say. Though I suspect it will involve our home, where the wedding is taking place and has now been in our family for three generations, nature and Lucy’s passion for it.

I’m not deep or tortured enough that I suffer from writer’s block. That’s what saved me in college. Or rather it’s what saved me to party. I was pretty much guaranteed a “B” just so long as the final exam came in the form of an essay question. Any discipline that required the acquisition or retention of empirical information, in other words knowledge, in subjects such as math or chemistry – not that I ever strayed anywhere in their vicinity – was not my friend.

One of my professors at Middlebury College saw through my ruse. His name was Murray Dry and he teaches there to this day. I took Mr. Dry’s feared Constitutional Law class, feared especially by those hoping to fake their way through college, which included a moot court.

I can’t remember the subject of the court at the moment, only my grade. Professor Dry gave me an “A” for presentation, a “C” for content. Unfortunately, it was only the latter grade that counted.

I graduated from college, the recipient of no awards or distinctions, but fully confident that whatever I accomplished in life, or just as likely failed to accomplish, probably wasn’t going to require an advanced degree.

While I’ve always admired those who did their homework because I think it shows – Barack Obama is an easily recognizable example, retiring to the White House living quarters in the evening with his briefing books – the real world also makes accommodation for those of us without the seriousness or stamina to apply ourselves in any concerted way.

Donald Trump readily comes to mind. Though his single-mindedness at promoting his brand, that being himself, is I suppose an extremely narrowly focused manifestation of genius.

I wouldn’t want to be grouped with our President under the category, dating back to the birth of the Republic and probably to the ancients, of con men or snake oil salesmen. If nothing else, my idea of bliss is a serviceable second draft that I get to fine tune; my impression is that our President doesn’t appear to have the attention span to tackle a second draft.

I’m also rather wedded to the truth. Indeed, that’s pretty much your calling when it comes to writing. Anything else – humor, pathos, the ability to string together pretty sentences – must be at its service.

And there’s really nothing harder. It takes courage to put yourself out there. I’ve occasionally taught writing and I always like to read students a letter F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter Francis in response to a story she’d written and asked his opinion.

In essence, he tells her that the only thing worth committing to paper -- certainly for the beginner when she or he has yet to develop the tricks of the trade -- is the stuff you jettison because you think it applies only to you. That’s where the gold is hidden and where the truth lies -- in the marrow of your own experience. And it’s something readers usually recognize instantly. I suppose you can call it our shared humanity.

Having said that I doubt the guests at Lucy and Malcolm’s wedding are looking forward to writing tips or the articulation of the human condition. They would probably prefer a brief, amusing, heartfelt toast followed as expeditiously as possible by dinner and dancing.

Come to think of it I better find out what the order of the evening is. I was once the best man at a wedding where I was informed, as everybody was taking their seats, that I was expected to make a toast. At that very moment.

I’d assumed I had the whole meal to come up with something witty to say.

I approached the podium and gazed down upon the groom, who I’d known since kindergarten.

“I’ve known Bill since I was five,” I said, uttering the first thing that came into my head and then recalling, but only to myself, the way Bill acted out in pre-primary by crawling around under the desks and barking like a dog. And then I added, “To me Bill will always be five.”

This got a knowing laugh, particular from the groom’s siblings, if not from his bride.

The marriage didn’t last very long. And I don’t believe I deserve any blame for its demise. But I might have inadvertently articulated one of its vulnerabilities.

From everything that I can tell, my daughter and her fiancé are both fully formed adults marrying for all the right reasons.

My job will simply be to celebrate their happiness and hand off the mic, perhaps even to my daughter, who gets better at telling her own story every day.

But one last tip that applies not only to writing but also to weddings and life. Have fun while you’re doing it. People can tell.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.