On Becoming a Novelist

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This is not a review as much as a collection of impressions.

“We read five words on the first page of a really good novel and we begin to forget that we are reading printed words on a page; we begin to see images.”

I’m not going to pretend to contextualize John Gardner’s seminal book on writing into any kind of philosophical school. This book is not meant to be an entry in any theories of writing or craft. Just as Teju Cole’s Eight Letters to a Young Writer is directed to the novice, so Gardner’s audience is the young (or inexperienced novelist) just beginning her journey on the path toward novel writing.

However, unlike Cole, Gardner comes from a place of great experience. By the time he wrote On Becoming a Novelist, he had already published the majority of his body of work.  A creative writing teacher as well as writer, he ran workshops and was renowned for being obsessed with craft and maintaining what he calls the “fictive dream,” the state of entering into the world of a novel or story from beginning to end.  He is didactic, even pedantic at times, as befits a man who has spent most of his life teaching and guiding other writers of the likes of Raymond Carver.

“Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or ‘way,’ an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world.”

If you are the type of person who thinks writing is all about cozy book corners, antique typewriters, the persistent smell of coffee and paper, and book signings where readers declare your genius for all the ages to come, this book warns you that you are in for a rude awakening.  Gardner is ruthless in pointing out the obstacles, dispositions and disillusions of a person’s choice to become a writer. To him, being a writer is not just a job or an activity but a way of life, a way of seeing and interacting with the world. Those who wish to create something that is not just commercial or genre fiction must commit to not only writing a lot, but also resign themselves to the reality that they may never live from their work, never sleep right again and never quite have their minds to themselves. They will always share their existence with the stories that lie just beneath the subconscious, often frustratingly out of our reach.

“One has to be just a little crazy to write a great novel. One must be capable of allowing the darkest, most ancient and shrewd parts of one’s being to take over the work from time to time. Or be capable of cracking the door now and then to the deep craziness of life itself—as when in Anna Karenina, Levin proposes to Kitty in the same weird way Tolstoy himself proposed to his wife. Strangeness is the one quality in fiction that cannot be faked.”

That is not to say that there aren’t practical tidbits in this book. He discusses writer’s block, and argues why he believes writer’s block really isn’t a thing. He goes into some detail about planning a novel as well as strategies for revision. He even suggests ways to maximize the time dedicated to the apprenticeship of learning to write – by pursuing careers that do not demand so much commitment from the writer and even going so far as to recommend marrying a spouse willing to subsidize the writing habit. All such advice is dispensed in such a way that the reader cannot be sure exactly how serious he is when he makes such comments, fearing that he is not being flippant at all.

“The best way in the world for breaking up a writer’s block is to write a lot.”

The truth is, On Becoming a Novelist is not a how-to manual for becoming a writer or getting published. It is a book that describes the disposition of the writer – what kind of person do you have to become to truly consider yourself a writer. He rules out success as an objective – so few will achieve it. Instead, he describes writing as something you do because you have no other choice. It is the way you interact with life in the same way others talk or sing or paint. And when you come from such a place of powerful imperative, when you write because you simply can’t do otherwise, then maybe you will reach that elusive dream. The rewards he cites are those that cannot be measured by the number of books published or the size of the royalty checks received, but by a deep and abiding satisfaction of the soul.

Favorite Quotes:

“Writer’s block comes from the feeling that one is doing the wrong thing or doing the right thing badly.”

“The god of novelists will not be tyrannized by rules.”

“Because his art is such a difficult one, the writer is not likely to advance in the world as visibly as do his neighbors: while his best friends from high school or college are becoming junior partners in prestigious law firms, or opening their own mortuaries, the writer may be still sweating out his first novel.”

“What the best fiction does is make powerful affirmations of familiar truths…the trivial fiction which time filters out is that which either makes wrong affirmations or else makes affirmations in a squeaky little voice. Powerful affirmation comes from strong intellect and strong emotions supported by adequate technique.”

What was the strangest – or most interesting – advice you’ve ever received?  Please comment below.