Saturday, January 19, 2008

Guru and the Initiate

Guru and the Geek

Over winter break, I rediscovered an old favorite in John Gardner. Three decades after its publication, The Art of Fiction remains a staple in creative writing courses across the country. Let me say this from this outset, Gardner is a snob, and his elitism colors his works. What can you say about somebody who dismisses Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, one of the truly great American novels, as mere melodrama? Worse, Gardner often attacks female writers, dismissing Edith Wharton and Jean Rhys as “second class.” It’s no accident that he exclusively uses the pronoun “he” when referring to the “writer” in his work.

Prejudice aside, Gardner is also a genius and a wise guide for any initiate seeking to understand the art of storytelling. His tragic death in a motorcycle accident deprived the world of great teacher and writer. In preparation for the fiction workshop I’m teaching this semester at Silver Lake College, I reread Art of Fiction and also discovered one of Gardner’s lesser known works, On Becoming a Novelist. In this post, we’ll take a good look at the first section of this book. Later posts will cover parts II and III.

On Lyricism

“Though there are exceptions, as a rule the good novelist does not worry primarily about linguistic brilliance—at least not the showy, immediately obvious kind—but instead worries about telling his story in a moving way, making the reader laugh or cry or endure suspense, whatever it is that this particular story, told at its best, will incline the reader to do” (5).

Gardner is a big believer in what he calls the “vivid, continuous dream.” It is the creation of this dream, the shaping of a believable world, that he concerns himself with above all, and anything that interferes with the dream must be discarded.

But I wonder what Gardner would say about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road winning the Pulitzer Prize? McCarthy is a stylist and a poet. Language crackles within every sentence and the rules of semantics and syntax are suspended in the telling of his stories. For McCarthy “linguistic brilliance” walks hand-in-hand with suspense and story. When I consider The Road, I think what makes it McCarthy’s greatest work is that he tames his prose and instead hones in on an emotionally harrowing tale, the journey of one father and son trying to stay alive in a post-apocalyptic world. Linguistic fireworks take a backseat, and the result is every bit as “moving” as Gardner commands a story to be. “Shakespeare fits language to its speaker and occasion, as the best writers always do,” Gardner points out later, seeming to contradict himself, until he adds that “[in] the work of Shakespeare language always serves character and action” (10).

Exercises for the workshop

Throughout Becoming Gardner does provide exercises to dramatize his points. As an instructor of workshops, I was particularly struck with the idea to have students perform a “psychodrama” before the class. The actors play the parts of a psychologist, a harried mother, a druggie son. The rest of the class takes notes and describes what they witness. Afterwards, the workshop discusses what students noticed or failed to notice about non-verbal signals in the actors. It’s worth a shot. Some other ideas:

--Write an authentic sentence four pages long (do not cheat by using colons and semicolons that are really periods).
--Write a two-or three-page passage of successful prose (that is prose that
is not annoying or distracting) entirely in short sentences.
--Write a brief incident in five completely different styles—such an incident as: A man gets off a bus, stumbles, and looks over and sees a women, smiling. (16)

In this same section Gardner also advises a writer to work on improving word power by “systematically copying from your dictionary all the relatively short, relatively common words that you would not ordinarily think to use…and then making an effort to use them naturally.” I see echoes of the simplicity and minimalism of Raymond Carver (a disciple of Gardner) in this advice. Aside from the dictionary, Gardner also advises beginning writers to copy, by hand or word processor, great works like James Joyce’s "The Dead." I haven’t done this yet, but I know Francine Prose has similar advice in another book I’m reading right now, How to Read Like a Writer.

Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist is largely about “what makes a writer a writer.” The entire first section is dedicated to describing what Gardner terms the defining characteristics of a writer: “verbal sensitivity, accuracy of eye, intelligence,” and most of all “daemonic compulsiveness.”

There are no shortage of books on writing being published every year, but as a friend points out, many of those books quote from Gardner, or borrow indirectly from his work. Here’s his definition of a story, for example: “A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts) and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw” (54). I can’t recall how many times I’ve seen similar definitions in other works. If you are looking for a guide on writing, I suggest starting with Gardner. Shrug away his priggishness, as you would a ranting professor, who is a little touched. There is genius in his writing.