c/o Random House
457 Madison Ave.
New York 22, New York
August 31, 1959
Miss Jackie Reading
103 Twin Lane North
Wantagh, Long Island
Dear Miss Reading:
In answer to your letter of July 21, I must tell you that I do not read unpublished manuscripts and cannot undertake the work of guiding young writers whom I do not know.
However, I can point out certain things to you on the basis of your letter. The first thing that a writer needs is to think, not to feel. Your letter shows that you are much more concerned with emotions than with thought. Yet language is the tool of reason. If you do not know fully and clearly what it is that you want to say, you will have no way of knowing whether you have said it or not, and neither will your readers.
You say: “I wish to write about reality—it doesn’t matter if it is crude, harsh, or ugly, as long as it is real.” What makes you think that reality is “crude, harsh or ugly”? That is certainly not the reality I write about. But if some parts of reality—some people—are crude, harsh and ugly, why write about them? Unless you have some specific idea to present or some moral lesson to illustrate, what is the point of writing—or reading—about crudeness and ugliness? They are not values in themselves, to be recorded and contemplated. The mere fact that something is real does not automatically make it a proper subject for literature. There is a difference between the job of a fiction writer and the job of a newspaper reporter.
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You ask: “Will you tell me how to get started?” The first thing that a young writer must do is to give himself a very firm, very clear answer to three questions, which nobody can answer for him: “Why do I want to be a writer? What do I want to write about? What do I want to say?” At eighteen, your answers to these questions will not be as full and specific as they will be at twenty-eight or forty-eight. Nevertheless, if you answer them as clearly as you can, in the context of your present knowledge, it will give you the right start and the means to expand your knowledge.
You say that you have tried to write about your own experiences. Experiences, as such, will not teach you anything. It is what you think about your experiences, what conclusions you draw from them, what estimates you place on them, that will be of value to you. A writer is not a dictaphone who records whatever an experience chooses to imprint upon him. A writer is a conscious being who does the choosing—and a conscious being has reasons for his choices.
You say: “But mostly, will you tell me if you believe in what I write? I need your help—I feel like Howard Roark going to Henry Cameron.” Did Howard Roark go to Henry Cameron for help? Did he need Cameron’s belief in his ability as an architect? I am sure that you did not intend to offend me, yet observe how offensive that statement of yours is to me. It shows that you have not understood Roark at all, that you have missed the essence of his character, that you did not give him enough thought to prevent you from writing to me, his author, a statement that represents the exact opposite of his principles. It is Peter Keating who needed Toohey’s belief in his ability. Roark did not need anyone’s belief. If you consider this, you will understand why, after a statement of that kind, your enthusiasm for THE FOUNTAINHEAD lost all meaning for me. Whatever it was that you were enthusiastic about, it was not what I had written.
I suggest that you read Richard Halley’s statements in Chapter II, Part III of ATLAS SHRUGGED.[*] He is my spokesman. He speaks about music, but the same principles apply to all art and, most particularly, to literature.
If this helps you to understand the importance of
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thinking, it will be the best and only help I can give you. But nobody can control or direct another person’s mind. It is up to you—and you alone.
*Richard Halley’s statements are reprinted in For the New Intellectual under the heading “The Nature of an Artist.”