An interesting , thought-provoking little book. It’s a quick read, so as not to distract (for too long) from your actual work, whatever your creative discipline may be. I especially liked the section on FINDING YOUR WORK. The authors say: “Look at your work and it tells you how it is when you hold back or when you embrace. When you are lazy, your art is lazy; when you hold back, it holds back; when you hesitate, it stands there staring, hands in its pockets. But when you commit, it comes on like blazes. “
This is the second post for John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist.
The Writer’s Nature – Indicators of Success:
Part 2 – The Writer’s Eye – The second indicator for achieving success as a writer, according to John Gardner, concerns the Writer’s Eye.
He says, “The good writer sees things sharply, vividly, accurately, and selectively (that is, he chooses what is important), not because his powers of observation are more acute than others, but because he cares about seeing things clearly and getting them down effectively.” He understands and is fascinated by people who are different from himself.
Gardner says that sometimes an inexperienced writer may imagine the fictional scene imprecisely, be tricked into developing a situation in some way that is unconvincing. He may not intend to manipulate; he simply doesn’t know what his characters would do because he hasn’t been watching them closely enough in his mind’s eye – has not been catching the subtle emotional signals that, for the more careful writer, show where the action must go next. The good writer is willing to stop writing, figure out precisely what some object or gesture looks like, and hunt down exactly the right words to describe it. He scrutinizes each scene with full concentration. He chooses a specific detail that subtly suggests others, a detail that tells us more than it says. Gardner offers the description of Della and Wilson Montgomery from David Rhodes Rock Island Line as an example of writing with a keen novelistic eye.
The writer’s accuracy of eye, Gardner says, has partly to do with his character. For the novelist who favors first-person narration, the main accuracy required by his art has to do with self-understanding. He specializes in private vision and needs to see clearly and document well his own feelings, experiences, and prejudices through the characters he writes about. What counts in this case is not that we believe the private vision to be right, but that we are so convinced by and interested in the person who does the seeing that we are willing to follow him around. Examples of these novelists: Beckett, Proust, and Waugh.
For the novelist who moves through many characters – a novelist Gardner deems of a “higher order” – rather than master the tics and oddities of his own being and learn how to present them in an appealing way, he must learn to step outside himself, see and feel things from every human – and inhuman – point of view. Gardner says, “He must be able to report, with convincing precision, how the world looks to a child, a young woman, an elderly murderer, or the governor of Utah. Insofar as he pretends not to private vision but to omniscience, he cannot, as a rule, love some of his characters and despise others.” Examples of these novelists: Faulkner, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky.
The writer with a truly accurate eye can tell his story in concrete terms, not just feeble abstractions. Gardner says, “Instead of writing, “She felt terrible,” he can show – by the precise gesture or look or by capturing the character’s exact turn of phrase – subtle nuances of the character’s feeling. The more abstract a piece of writing is, the less vivid the dream it sets off in the reader’s mind. One can feel sad or happy or bored or cross in a thousand ways: the abstract adjective says almost nothing. The precise gesture nails down the one feeling right for the moment.” This, he explains, is what is meant by “SHOW DON’T TELL.” Good writers may “tell” about almost anything in fiction, except the characters’ feelings. “One may tell the reader that the character went to a private school, or one may tell the reader the character hates spaghetti; but with rare exceptions the characters’ feelings must be demonstrated: fear, love, excitement, doubt, embarrassment, despair become real only when they take the form of events – action (or gesture), dialogue, or physical reaction to setting. Detail is the lifeblood of fiction.”
Ways to work on improving your writer’s eye: Gardner suggests checking out books on human character – psychological case studies, true-life stories, and doing exercises where you think of a person living or dead and list details about that person until you get a very clear sense of who he is. What one has to get, he says, is insight – not knowledge – into personalities unlike one’s own. What one needs is not the facts, but the “feel” of the person not oneself. What one needs is to see one’s characters in the light of their metaphoric (symbolic) equivalencies.
This little classic has quite a bit to offer a novelist or would-be novelist. I’m looking at my notes and highlighting, and remembering things I liked about it and things I didn’t. I’ll break this down into several posts. This first post will concern his comments about writers and the language.
Some good stuff:
The Writer’s Nature – Indicators of Success:
Part 1 – Verbal Sensitivity – Gardner says one sign of the born writer is his gift for finding or (sometimes) inventing authentically interesting language.” A writer who is sensitive to language “finds his own metaphors…is interested in discovering the secrets words carry.” His words make us forget we are reading printed words on a page, and instead, make us see the images associated with the words.
Gardner also mentions the writer who cares about nothing BUT language, how he gets in his own way when telling the story, how he “can’t tell the cart – and its cargo – from the horse.” There must be a balance where language brings us to the story, but does not interrupt it.
He recommends the writer avoid the use of linguistic rhetoric (labeled masks) such as:
The Pollyanna mask: bland optimisms and dead expressions that prevent the writer from “seeing accurately and communicating with any but those who see and feel in the same benevolently distorted way.” Some examples: “with a merry twinkle in her eye”; “she stifled a sob”; “a faint smile curving her lips”; “his broad shoulders”; “friendly lopsided smiles.” He calls this “the cranked-up zombie emotion of a writer who feels nothing in his daily life or nothing he trusts to find his own words for…” If the Pollyanna mask cannot be torn off, he says, it will spell ruin for the novelist.
The disPollyanna mask: ill-founded cynicisms, the use of crude jokes and images, slang phrases borrowed from foreign languages, all intended to shock and all creating the same stock depersonalization of human beings. Some (mild) examples: “Broad shoulders” (from above) give way to “gut-level things;” instead of people giving “friendly lopsided smiles, people “play cozy with you.” Most are not shocked by the use of this rhetoric, Gardner says, but only annoyed, because “the whole thing is phony, an imitation of things too often imitated before.”
He states, “If a writer cares more for his language than for any other element of fiction, if he continually calls our attention away from the story to himself, we call him “mannered” and eventually we tire of him. If the writer seems to have less feeling for his characters than we feel they deserve, insofar as they reflect actual humanity, we call the writer “frigid.” If he fakes feeling, or appears to do so – especially if he tries to achieve sentiment by cheap, dishonest means (for instance, by substituting language, “rhetoric,” for authentically moving events) – we call him “sentimental.””
Gardner says that, though language inevitably carries values with it (we associate certain words with certain meanings based on, among other things, our culture and beliefs), and though, to some extent, we are all “tricked” by our language through these associated values, the writer who is excessively tricked by language, that is, “stuck” in the norms and prejudices of some narrow community, will never be a writer of the first rank because he will never be able to see clearly for himself.
One way to address potential problems with verbal sensitivity? Gardner recommends paying careful attention to the language as you read. “Underline or highlight words and phrases that annoy you by their triteness, cuteness, sentimentality, or whatever, anything that would distract an intelligent, sensitive reader from the vivid and continuous dream” of the story. Read different styles of writing. Check out the dictionary for those short, relatively common words you would not ordinarily think to use, with definitions, if necessary, and and make an effort to use them as if they’d come to you naturally.
Next time, The Writer’s Nature – Indicators of Success: Part 2 – “The Writer’s Eye.”
My 2009 Children’s Booklist so far:
Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis – loved the voice in this book
The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry – quirky, fun, different for this author
Outside Beauty by Cynthia Kadohata – strength and diversity in family – really liked the fathers
Peeled by Joan Bauer – strong female protagonist
Hate That Cat by Sharon Creech – loved the verse
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – a great read, tightly plotted, hard to put down
Septimus Heap Magyk by Angie Sage – colorful world and characters
Diamond Willow by Helen Frost – told in diamond-shaped verse
I’m reading an interesting book right now, the first adult novel I’ve read in who knows when. It’s called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.
It’s one of the best books for characterization I’ve ever read. Set in 1946, post-WWII, it’s about a writer who, in search of an idea for her next book, learns of this literary group and begins corresponding with them. The group was originally formed as an alibi to protect its members from arrest by the Germans.
One of my favorite lines from this book is: “I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect reader.”
Here’s a blurb from the publisher:
Celebrating literature, love, and the power of the human spirit, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the story of an English author living in the shadow of World War II—and embarking on a writing project that will dramatically change her life. Unfolding in a series of letters, this enchanting novel introduces readers to the indomitable Juliet Ashton. Through Juliet’s correspondence with her publisher, best friend, and an absorbing cast of characters, readers discover that despite the personal losses she suffered in the Blitz, and author tours sometimes marked by mishaps, nothing can quell her enthusiasm for the written word. One day, she begins a different sort of correspondence, responding to a man who found her name on the flyleaf of a cherished secondhand book. He tells her that his name is Dawsey Adams, a native resident of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands recently liberated from Nazi occupation. Soon Juliet is drawn into Dawsey’s remarkable circle of friends, courageous men and women who formed the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as a cover to protect them from the Germans. With their appetite for good books, and their determination to honor the island’s haunting recent history, this is a community that opens Juliet’s heart and mind in ways she could never have imagined.
Love this book.
A Year of Living Readerly:
As a reader, one of the most important elements I look for in a story is heart. Whether the story rings true, makes me feel deeply, asks me to re-examine my life and find a new perspective. So here is a list of stories I’ve read (or reread) in 2008 that I think have heart:
#1 on my list – I love this book, for its simplicity and its depth. I’ve read it several times, many this year.
Others (in no particular order) are:
Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott, Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban, The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, Skellig by David Almond, Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles, True Confessions of a Heartless Girl by Martha Brooks, Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes, A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck, and A Single Shard and My Name Was Keoko, both by Linda Sue Park.
A Year of Living Writerly:
This year, as a writer, I have finished a mg novel and started a new one, attended both SCBWI National Conferences, braved the waters of editorial critiques and survived, written over 50K words, been totally inspired, been abjectly discouraged, felt quite capable, felt quite incapable, received good news, received thoroughly stinky news, and overall, enjoyed being a writer and weaver of words.
Now I’m making promises to myself about 2009. Who knows what will happen? Here’s to a new year!
What about you? Which books have touched you this past year? What have you accomplished as a writer?