Friday, October 30, 2009
A writer must take infinite pains—if he writes only one great story in his life, that is better than writing a hundred bad ones—and that finally the pains the writer takes must be his own.
In praise for John Gardner’s book, On Becoming A Novelist, my copy is underlined and annotated and always close at hand. I’ve read it and reread it, all the while wondering: do I have what it takes? And then self-doubt sets in, as it always does, especially when I awake in the middle of the night and all seems lost. Then, in the light of day this self-flagellation retreats like the bogeyman under the bed and off I happily go in search of the perfect word.
He explains better than any teacher I’ve ever had what writing teachers really mean when they say we should show and not tell. “One can feel sad or happy or bored or cross in a thousand ways,” he says. “The abstract adjectives mean almost nothing. The precise gesture nails down the one feeling right for the moment. This is what the writing teacher means by “show,” not “tell". And that is all they mean. You can tell a reader about almost anything in fiction except a character’s feelings. The characters’ feelings must be demonstrated, through an action (or gesture), dialogue or physical reaction to setting.”
If I would share any other thing from this generous book, it is his frequent reference to what he calls the vivid and continuous dream. A good writer, he says, evokes in a reader a vivid and continuous dream. This is the state of mind your reader falls into if you’ve done your job. Absorbed in the dream you’ve artfully weaved, they forget that they are reading printed words on a page. But be wary, for the dream can be abruptly interrupted. One misplaced word will jar them back to reality, one clumsy out-of-character action (why she would never do that!) will make them question the writer’s honesty, one grammatical error will make them page ahead looking for one more reason to stop or, worse, set the whole thing aside.
I think it relates back to the mysterious trancelike state all novelists experience when they’re writing a serious novel. We can’t explain it, even to ourselves, and certainly not to anyone who doesn’t write novels. The writer’s trance evokes the vivid dream in the reader. Good fiction requires it and the serious reader expects it.