Part 2: The Art of Writing
It’s sad but true: you can craft grammatically perfect prose, turn a nice phrase, and even come up with an insightful metaphor or two—and still write forgettable fiction. How many books feature the same stock characters and predictable plots? Or worse: unbelievable characters and clunky, hole-ridden plots? So, if you’re going to write, if you’re going to pour your time, your energy, your life into a world that doesn’t even actually exist—if you’re willing to do all that—why not make your writing the best it can possibly be?
In my last post, I featured a wonderful little book on the craft of writing, The Elements of Eloquence. It drills down deep into phrases, sentences, and rhetoric. Today, we look at the second kind of book that should be a part of every writer’s reading diet: a book on the art of writing, because writing is more than craft.
That’s right: as writers, we need to do more than just study the craft, we need to catch a vision of what great writing can be. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner gives us exactly that.
Now it’s true, the subtitle is “Notes on Craft for Young Writers.” Any book that aims to teach anything at all about writing will touch on technical elements, and his is no exception. He addresses basic issues like sentence construction and the inappropriate use of introductory phrases containing infinitive verbs (talk about technical!), as well as more literary issues such as handling point of view and avoiding unintended shifts in psychic distance. It’s helpful stuff. But it’s not why I keep coming back to this book.
I keep coming back because Gardner blows my doors off. Simply put, he challenges me not to settle. Not to settle for the first idea that comes to mind. Not to settle for the most obvious approach to a scene or the most obvious descriptions. Not to settle for a plot that may work, but lacks depth. Not to settle for characters that walk and talk and do what the story needs them to do but don’t come alive. In other words, he inspires me to write a story that’s deeply and profoundly true.
“Telling the truth in fiction can mean one of three things: saying that which is factually correct, a trivial kind of truth, though a kind central to the works of verisimilitude; saying that which, by virtue of tone and coherence, does not feel like lying, a more important kind of truth; and discovering and affirming moral truth about human existence—the highest truth of art. This highest kind of truth, we’ve said, is never something the artist takes as a given. It’s not his point of departure but his goal. Though the artist has beliefs, like other people, he realizes that a salient characteristic of art is its radical openness to persuasion. Even those beliefs he’s surest of, the artist puts under pressure to see if they will stand” (p. 129).
Well then. We’re not just talking about nouns and verbs anymore! When I read this, I’m led to critically, seriously, unceasingly contemplate the story I’m telling:
Is it true in that second sense—does what I’m writing feel true (or as he puts it, “does not feel like lying”)? Do the characters say and do things that have the ring of truth, as if real people could say and do those things? Or have I settled for characters that blather out plot exposition, or all sound the same, or come off as mere parodies of real people? Do I resolve conflicts too easily? Or perhaps worse, resort to false conflict? Have I plumbed the depths of how the characters respond to the events they are caught up in? Are their reactions legitimate—or forced? Do they react at all?
Is what I’m writing true in that third sense—does it reach out to touch the “moral truth of human existence”? Have I come to organic discoveries within the story about life the universe and everything (or even simply about how two people relate to each other in a significant way)—or have I let my beliefs about what is true slip in untested? I can’t help coming to a story with my beliefs, but have I put them through the crucible of critical examination?
This is big stuff. And it should be—because writing is a big deal. Stories shape who we are and how we see the world. Sure, sometimes they serve simply to entertain, but sometimes they give us words for what deeply matters, help us make sense of our lives, and open us up to worlds we might never experience ourselves.
Be warned, Gardner’s book is shot through with his firmly held, forcefully expressed opinions, and he takes aim at some sacred cows (like third person limited POV). He draws examples extensively from mythology (especially the story of Helen of Troy). He spends time extolling the virtues of an academic writing education. All of which I’ve seen bemoaned in the more negative reviews of his book on Goodreads. But there’s a virtue to learning from someone you might disagree with, to learning from unfamiliar literature, even to simply not letting mention of college writing courses shake you into paralyzing self-doubt.
Maybe you aren’t going to run out and sign up for a writing course anytime soon (I’m not); maybe you don’t like doing writing exercises (I don’t); still, you can learn a lot from Gardner and the exercises he includes, even if you only apply the ideas to what you’re already working on. Exercises like these:
Describe a landscape as seen by an old woman whose disgusting and detestable old husband has just died. Do not mention the husband or death.
Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, war, death, or the old man doing the seeing; then describe the same building, in the same weather and at the same time of day, as seen by a happy lover. Do not mention love or the loved one (p. 203).
Does that stretch you? It does me.
Gardner also devotes space to the matter of plotting. Since I’m revising the plot of my current work in progress, I’ve once again come back to see what he has to say.
Some advice out there might lead you to think that constructing a plot is just a matter of lining up a series of beats—inciting incident, first plot point, midpoint, low point, a pinch point (or two), the climax, the resolution—and you’ve got a plot. Now, truth be told, I actually groove on all of that. I find such structural tools and terminology useful in understanding the dynamics of how a plot works. But Gardner takes a different tack. He doesn’t downplay the importance of structure by any means; in fact, he describes plotting as “the hardest job a writer ever does” (p. 165). And in discussing how it all comes together in the end, he says:
“The novel’s denouement… is not simply the end of the story, but the story’s fulfillment. Here at last, emotionally if not intellectually, the reader understands everything and everything is symbolic. This understanding, which the writer must reach before he can make it available to the reader, is impossible to anticipate in the planning of the novel. It is the novelist’s reward for thinking carefully about reality, brooding on every image, every action, every word, both those things he planned from the beginning and those that crept in in the service of convincingness.”
And his advice on pulling off such a denouement?
“Read the story over and over, at least a hundred times—literally—watching for subtle meanings, connections, accidental repetitions, psychological significance. Leave nothing—no slightest detail—unexamined; and when you discover implications in some image or event, oonch those implications toward the surface…” (p. 194).
Now, you may be thinking: Read it a hundred times? You’ve got to be kidding!
This reminds me of when my piano professor exhorted me to “choreograph” the playing of every note in the piece I was learning. Choreograph? Really? This is what he meant: determine a specific motion for striking each and every note in the piece, including precisely which finger to use for each note, the shape and position of each hand at every moment, and the movement of the arms as well as the body. Finally, breathe with the musical phrases. Then practice until the choreography becomes consistent. I knew what he meant, but I didn’t want to do it. I was happy to get the right notes played, even if my “choreography” was more than a bit haphazard. I didn’t want to put out that kind of effort. Which is why I’m not a great pianist.
But my piano professor wasn’t wrong. And neither is Gardner. He’s calling us to treat writing fiction like it really matters. Like it’s worth doing well. Like it’s a worthy calling.
I believe it is. Do you?
Matt Randles is spending a year living in Paris, working on his first novel (actually his third, but you’ll never read read the first two), and is currently in the midst of seemingly endless revisions—that is, pretty much rewriting the whole thing from top to bottom. He plays bass in a cover band, speaks enough French to order coffee, and blogs about writing and living overseas at https://ayearwithmona.wordpress.com.
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