“On Becoming a Novelist” by John Gardner

The above title is a book that was recommended to me by my professor while in a Writing Fiction class last year. The list he gave to all of the students had several books on it, both from great authors of the past and present, as well as some “how-to-write” books, though he hesitated to call them that. Doesn’t like to in fact. And honestly, he doesn’t read or recommend “self-help” books, but prefers the books on solid concept and structure. Structure again and again I say. Without that, without solid scenes moving the plot along, character development, and three acts with a thematic metaphor somewhere in there, you have nothing.

I’ve learned to appreciate a good book that helps teach “methods,” not how to write a certain way, but rather how to think like a writer. How to live that life. How to massage your brain into filling the shoes of your character and how to make a piece flow and have all the peaks and valleys it needs. A good book on writing will do these things without dictating the genre in which to write. After you know these things, you have the rudiments, and then you can write anything on top of this structural skeleton.

“On Becoming a Novelist” does just that. It’s a book written by John Gardner in 1983, and Gardner is regarded as one of the great American writers of the 20th Century. Having written novels for decades in the middle of the century, including Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues and October Light, his modern classics are still poignant and sweeping. Within his lifetime of writing, there was a time where we was a teacher at Chico State in California. There, in 1958, he had the serendipitous luck of teaching Raymond Carver in his class, a man at the time who would learn to love writing under the stubborn tutelage of Gardner. Raymond Carver wrote The Big Sleep among other detective novels, thought The Big Sleep received the Hollywood treatment staring Humphry Bogart.

Gardner was a chain-smoker, a rebel in his own way, and a believer in rewriting, rewriting and rewriting. Draft upon draft upon draft to get it just right. And he stuck by his students and helped each to become their best–either that or he simply feared someone more stupid than he coming and filling the students heads with crap on down the road, and wanted to make sure there was no vacancy, for their heads would already be filled with the good stuff.

I have found this book to be particularly helpful, and unfortunately, unless someone else reads every “help” book for you, you never can really tell which ones are good and which ones are bad. People need help in different areas, and frankly, some people are idiots, not knowing what they are looking for and think all help is good.

However, a warning: it is possible to fill your head with so much advice and be influenced by so many other writers or people who think they know all about writing that your head will simply pop. And if it doesn’t pop, it will become goop, suitable for nothing but regurgitating someone elses thoughts and ideas because you inhaled so much work from others you forgot to write and think for yourself.

Here is a particularly humourous and clever passage. Some of these–not all–I found to fit my bill:

I. The Writer’s Nature

“Like other kinds of intelligence, the storyteller is partly natural, partly trained. It is composed of several qualities, most of which, in normal people, are signs of either immaturity or incivility: wit (a tendency to make irreverent connections); obstinacy and a tendency toward churlishness (a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true); childishness (an apparent lack of mental focus and serious purpose, a fondness for daydreaming and telling pointless lies, a lack of proper respect, mischievousness, an unseemly propensity for crying over nothing); a marked tendency toward oral or anal fixation or both (the oral manifested by excessive eating, drinking, smoking, or chattering; the anal by nervous cleanliness and neatness coupled with a weird fascination with dirty jokes); remarkable powers of eidetic recall, or a visual memory (a usual feature of early adolescence and mental retardation); a strange admixture of shameless playfulness and embarrassing earnestness, the latter often heightened by irrationally intense feelings for or against religion; patience like a cat’s; recklessness, impulsiveness, and improvidence; and finally, an inexplicable and incurable addiction to stories, written or oral, bad or good. Not all writers have exactly these same virtues, of course. Occasionally one finds one who is not abnormally improvident.”

A bit of humor in the end there. Long one, ain’t it? Well, the whole book is not like this, but I loved the rediculousness of it’s delivery, filling three-quarters of a page, and truly being not far off from most screenwriters, fiction writers, poets, and critics of the arts I have met or seen interviewed. If you have any of these things, maybe you should grab a pen.

Coming soon: movie reviews, excerpts from my upcoming release, and I will be answering your questions as they come. Simply click on the “Question” bar at the top of the page!

Matthew Hughston

Quote from:

On Becoming a Novelist, Gardner, John.

pp. 34 W.W. Norton & Company, INC., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110 www.wwnorton.com

1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews

One response to ““On Becoming a Novelist” by John Gardner

  1. W. Kennedy

    Raymond Carver did not write The Big Sleep. You are thinking of Raymond Chandler. Raymond Carver is famous as a writer of short stories: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love; and Cathedral are great collections.

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