For those of you who read my post on Tuesday and guessed that today’s post would consist of me (once again) geeking out about my new fiction grad class—well, you were right. I finally started reading John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, and let me tell you, so far it’s pretty awesome.
The first chapter of the book serves as an introduction to fiction craft and technique, and it jumps around quite a bit. One of the main points Gardner gets across, however, is that there aren’t any definitive rules when it comes to writing fiction (because the great writers pretty much always end up breaking anything the “experts” decide to set in stone), but there are techniques that can be developed. There are patterns to good stories that can be observed and replicated.
Gardner’s second chapter gets into the specifics of these techniques, and also reveals that the author isn’t afraid to be funny. According to him, education is key to being a good writer, but he does realize the pitfalls inherent in the university classroom.
We move through a course on Dostoevsky or Poe as we move through a mildly good cocktail party, picking up the good bits of food or conversation, bearing with the rest, going home when it comes to seem the reasonable thing to do. Art, at those moments when it feels most like art—when we feel most alive, most alert, most triumphant—is less like a cocktail party than a tank full of sharks. Everything’s for keeps, nothing’s just for exercise. (35)
An exercise—at least for the fiction writer—is never just an exercise. According to Gardner, it’s “a possible beginning of some magnificent work” (35). Although obviously not every exercise can be turned into some brilliant masterpiece, it’s important to approach a writing prompt with a clear purpose. We are playing for keeps. We’re experimenting, we’re honing our craft, we’re getting our creative juices flowing. We shouldn’t be afraid to use an exercise as a springboard to a new creative work.