Notes from Underground

JOHN GARDNER taught me how to write, though I never met him.  By the time I started writing he’d been dead several years, his star already receding, but a friend who’d been an English major had had to read him for a course and highly recommended Grendel.

I was an engineer, from a long line of engineers, and my reading had been necessarily self-directed and haphazard.  The subtle riffs Gardner was playing off Beowulf escaped me, but the story and the narrating character gripped me.  At times the rightness of the language–single words, phrases, metaphors–made me laugh and shake my head at the author’s talent.  The book was not only a story but a performance.  Here was something I wanted to have written, something my own writing could never approach. I needed to learn from it.

After Grendel, I searched out John Gardner’s other books, trying to be patient and workmanlike in my reading, but I was young and insatiable.  I fell for the story every time.  I gulped down the massive Sunlight Dialogues, blazed through the thoughtful Nickel Mountain, hammered at the wily October Light.  Each book seemed so different, yet each delivered its world through an attention to language and detail I’d rarely seen before, and not through some author but integrated fittingly to characters–people–we came to know intimately.

How did he do it?  I was interested because I had no clue how to do it in my writing.  I could write sentences and dialogue, but more often than not they went nowhere, try as I might to attach them to characters. In my basement after work I’d look over sections from John Gardner’s books, parsing sentences, dissecting images and effects.  Poe–a great favorite–was always talking about a story’s total effect, but I wasn’t that far along yet.  I needed to understand local effects, effects I could accomplish in a few words or sentences that would draw the reader deeply into the world of my people. Once they were in, I reasoned, then I could figure out something to do with them.  First I had to learn the basics.

Here’s the very opening of Nickel Mountain:

In December, 1954, Henry Soames would hardly have said his life was just beginning.  His heart was bad, business at the Stop-Off had never been worse, he was close to a nervous breakdown.

Sometimes when he was not in a mood to read he would stand at the window and watch the snow.  On windy nights the snow hurtled down through the mountain’s darkness and into the blue-white glow of the diner and the pink glitter of the neon sign and away again into the farther darkness and the woods on the other side of the highway.  Henry Soames would pull at his lip with his thumb and first finger, vaguely afraid of the storm and vaguely drawn by it.  He would imagine shapes in the snow that shot past, mainly his own huge, lumbering shape, but sometimes that of some ominous stranger.  Though he stood in the lean-to room behind the diner he could hear the hum of the diner clock, and sometimes he would see in his mind the red and blue hands and, unaware of what he was doing, would try to make out what time it was–twelve, one, quarter-to-three . . . .  At last, he would sink down on the bed and would lie there solid as a mountain, moving only his nose and lips a little, troubled by dreams.

How much I found in these two paragraphs.  And they were built to last.  Looking at them now, I’m still drawn in by the tale-like simplicity of the first sentence with its homely nailing down of time period. And what little mysteries Gardner sets up, what promises he makes to the reader.  What exactly is the Stop-Off?  Why is Henry close to a breakdown?

And then, without answering (as if we can wait till later), he proceeds to take us deep inside Henry’s pensive, late night mind. He lets us know, oh so offhand, that Henry’s a reader, then establishes a dramatic landscape in motion, working in a marvelous lighting effect, the blue-white glow, the neon, and all the time, without having to address it outright, playing up how alone Henry is, isolated halfway up a mountain on a stormy night, a tiny light in the darkness.

We understand that Henry might be afraid of the storm, but why is he also attracted to it?  Henry’s gesture of pulling at his lip as if contemplating something larger–his life, the darkness, the world–not only defines Henry brilliantly, but is the kind of closely observed and then rendered physical detail (and tactile, along with smell one of the toughest to pull off naturally) that reminds us of how much escapes us, and how we need to keep our eyes open to catch these revealing moments.  More intriguing is Gardner’s ability to convey Henry’s dreamy state of mind; the shapes Henry imagines aren’t simply benign–say, whimsical animals, as another person might conjure–but instead form another unsettling couple like Henry’s fear of and attraction to the storm:  himself or possibly an ominous stranger.  Like a prophecy read at the beginning of a Greek tragedy, this opposition tantalizes the reader, thrills us then sends us on.

As Henry’s mind flits now out into the storm, now back inside, Gardner follows, riding his line of sight, tracking after his thoughts. Henry sleeps in a lean-to room, a startling fact, his circumstances so different from ours they take on a shabby exoticism or strangeness.  Who is this man?  How did he end up here, this dedicated reader?  Why is he so worried?  We’re here with him though, sharing his dark night.  The clock–burning in the empty diner, shedding its doleful, two-toned light over the wiped-down counter–appeals to both the ears and eyes, and which is the blue hand, which the red?  It’s another detail available to us as writers, if only we were paying better attention to the world.  The time, and Henry being unaware of it, unconcerned, make us wonder again what he’s doing up–regularly, it seems–at this late hour.

Henry comes to no conclusions, no neat scene-ending revelation here at the beginning.  At last–how long has he stood there contemplating the dark?–he gently gets into bed, this huge man (remember his shape?) and lies there, now metaphorically identified with the mountain he lives on.  Is he awake or asleep?  At this point we expect him to be awake, even through the comic, doglike moving of his nose and lips (the lips bringing back his earlier gesture), so it’s a small surprise that we find him asleep by the end of the sentence, troubled by dreams. The paragraph pleasingly comes to rest just as Henry does, form and content neatly dovetailed.

I had only begun writing at this time.  I didn’t know any fellow writers, so I came to see my reading as my education.  I would read books that I knew I liked and try to learn from them–Stephen King and Theodore Sturgeon, James Joyce and Franz Kafka.  I was just a reader until their stories had moved me to emulate them. Now, reading them again, I saw their strengths and tried to make them my own–King’s facility with everyday detail, Joyce’s adventurous ear.  I was learning in bits and pieces, copying Fitzgerald’s or John Edgar Wideman’s or William Maxwell’s sentences out on paper to see what they were doing. Little things.  Like the engineer I was, I was breaking the whole down into its component parts and examining them to learn their secrets.  Once I mastered them technically, I could then fashion my own stories and novels.

This proved to be absolutely untrue.  The stories I wrote were filled with marvelous sentences, yes, but, my readers informed me, too many of them.  And what did they mean?  Where were they going–anywhere?  Did anything happen in this story?  But the toughest question of all, one I had no answer for, was:  Why am I reading this?

Well, I thought, why does anyone read anything?

Again, no answer.

It wasn’t far from there to the related question of why, exactly, was I writing stories?

I wanted to fall back on Flannery O’Connor’s answer, “Because I’m good at it,” except I was not good at it.  In fact, I pretty much sucked.

As with all my searching then, I turned to books, to what was available at the local library and at the one used bookstore near us. I wanted to see what the writers I admired had to say about writing.  It was in the aisles of the now-defunct Bonmark Books in Hicksville, Long Island, that I came across a browning mass-market paperback of The Art of Fiction, by none other than John Gardner.

Originally notes he’d used to teach his creative writing classes, it was published posthumously.  In a little over 200 pages, Gardner lays out his take on the process of writing fiction, arguing for his vision of art.  It’s a high-minded study, sometimes even pompous, and more than a few of my students have chafed under Gardner’s holding up Dante or Ovid or Apollonios of Rhodes as models, but when I came to the Art of Fiction, I was desperate to learn anything I could about writing.  I was abject, alone in my basement, and, having read Gardner’s work, I trusted that he knew what he was talking about–unlike some other authors whose writing guides were their most–sometimes only–notable titles.

And he did.  The technical advice John Gardner gives in The Art of Fiction is solid and smart, but even more important to me at the time was his wider view of character and story.  Why am I reading this?  Gardner had a simple answer that I knew, at a gut level, to be true.  If your character is capable of and worthy of love, the reader will follow him or her anywhere.  I already understood the use of point of view, but his explanation of psychic distance was a revelation, as were his notions of economy and proportion. He encouraged beginners like me to start small, to master a paragraph, a scene.  Revise it till it’s right.  Stay close to your characters and their true desires.

All simple things, yet I had never heard them before. After I’d read the book and felt that I understood what he was asking of me, I turned to his fiction exercises, just as I would have turned to a professor’s.

4d.  Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war.  Do not mention the son, war, death, or the old man doing the seeing.

I worked hard on the paragraph I wrote for this, and when I saw where it was urging me to go (the natural consequences of what I’d written, the hints imbedded in the sentences), I followed.  The story I wrote was taken by a literary magazine and later won a prize, and is a story I’m still proud of.  I felt, after just a short time, that I was working on another level, one I couldn’t have reached without having read The Art of Fiction.

I was writing stories at the time, daunted by the idea of trying anything longer, until I discovered his other book on craft, On Becoming a Novelist.  This book demystified the novel for me, made it seem more an act of patience and will than inspiration (and it’s true, it is simply patience).  The novel I wrote was woeful, an absolute trainwreck, but as Gardner says at the end of On Becoming a Novelist:

If, on the other hand, you miserably fail, you have only three choices:  start over, or start something else, or quit.

Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or “way,” an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world.

I had no intention of quitting.  So what if my first novel was awful; my first stories were awful too.  I started something else, all the while reading other writers, re-reading The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist.  I dedicated myself to not quitting.

And the new novel was not very good either.  After a day of writing I’d look over my draft pages with dismay.  I wasn’t quitting, but I was far from Dante or Apollonios of Rhodes.

By chance, I had the opportunity that summer to do research in the John Gardner Archive at the University of Rochester, putting together a book of his miscellaneous prose.  The pieces were scattered throughout the archive, so while digging through the boxes I ran across countless early drafts.  Gardner worked in the age of typewriters, and the drafts were either bulky reprints made from carbons or shedding piles of onion skin. Some of them were massive:  The Sunlight Dialogues weighed in around 1300 pages.  One box had draft after draft of Mickelsson’s Ghosts, each of them painstakingly typed by hand.

But the one set of drafts that meant the most to me was that of Grendel.  A boxful. I wanted to see that wonderful first sentence, the first time he came up with the cascade and cadence of it.

The first draft didn’t have it.  It was a different sentence, a bad one. Laughably bad.

Later, he pencilled in what would become the first sentence, but it was nowhere near what I presumed–foolishly–was the original. It was just as clunky and atrocious as the other one.  Draft after draft, he’d crafted that opening so it seemed natural, seemed to flow from Grendel’s throat and his pen effortlessly.

I’d heard how hard writers worked at revising, but here was concrete and heartening proof.  I’d been impatient with my work because my early drafts lacked depth and precision; now I realized I had completely misjudged them, and misjudged the effort required to write well.  It was not brilliance or facility that was necessary, but the determination to bear and even enjoy the dull process of wading into one’s own bad prose again, one more time, and then once again, with the utmost concentration and taste, looking for opportunities to mine deeper, clues to what these people wanted and needed. I went back to my desk, applied myself with this in mind, and discovered that I was again writing on another level, a level that even now I’m happy to reach.

Perhaps these were simple things, and I was just slow in picking them up, and perhaps I could have learned them somewhere else, from someone else.  But at the time I had little exposure to the larger world of writing, and I feel lucky that I stumbled on John Gardner’s teachings when I needed them the most.  I’m no longer an engineer, no longer alone in my basement.  I’m a novelist, and the lessons I learned from John Gardner I learn again every day as I try to apply them to the world I’m writing about, whatever world that might be.

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