The most well-known fiction-writing exercise comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, in which he asks us to describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war—but without mentioning the son, war, or death. The goal is to inhabit a character so completely that you see how they see, and you bring to bear on your seeing their history and loves and losses. It’s a great practice. When I’ve used the exercise in classes, I add other scenarios as well: Now describe the barn as seen by a teenage girl who’s just developed her first crush. Now describe it as seen by a weary farmer who’s recently gone bankrupt. Now by a weary cow…
Fiction writing is an exercise in empathy, or perhaps a state beyond that—a thorough imagining our way into the lives of others. (more…)
If you want to write, here’s the most important bit of advice I can give you: The best reason to write is for the love of it. Love is literature’s essential ingredient. If you are concerned with the quality of your writing, striving for publication or recognition, you may think this sounds simplistic. But listen to David Foster Wallace in an interview with Larry McCaffery:
I’ve gotten convinced that there’s something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn’t have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent… Talent’s just an instrument. (more…)
John Gardner writes that we read for “the pleasure of exercising our capacity to love.” Having been an English major, I find this idea slightly challenging. Don’t we also read to see the world from others’ eyes or to learn about history or as a social critique or to have our beliefs turned on their heads? Don’t we read to be entertained? To escape?
But when I think back to my first and best experiences of reading (in grade school, when I spent summers on the back porch with my nose in some Newbery Award winning novel and my whole being transported to worlds more contained and extravagant than my own), they were saturated with love. And if I’m honest, all my lofty academic reasons for pursuing an English major were cover-up for a plain old love of reading. (more…)
I have a vague memory from my MFA years: Some author of intimidating stature was asked about writers’ moral responsibilities. He dismissed the question, and the questioner. The essence of his response? Writers are responsible for making art and nothing else.
His answer made me uncomfortable even then but I was too much of a novice to know why. Ever since I’ve navigated literary communities with caution, fearing that my earnest commitment to the common good and to uplifting the human spirit would be written off as contrary to art-making.
Imagine my great relief, then, when I dug into John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction last month! (more…)