21 March 2006

Taking Pains

From On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner:
In conversation with a slightly older colleague at the University of California at Chico, where I was teaching at the time, I suggested that the two of us do an anthology of fiction including (as anthologies did not then do and most anthologies do not do now) not only short stories but also other forms -- fables, tales, yarns, sketches, etc. The result was The Forms of Fiction, a book (now long out of print and almost impossible to get a hold of) that provided a close analysis of the narratives we included. A more important result, for me, was that I learned about taking pains. Lennis Dunlap, my collaborator, was and remains one of the most infuriatingly stubborn perfectionists I have ever known. Night after night for two full years we would work for five, six, seven hours on what sometimes added up to three or four sentences. He drove me crazy, and he wasn't so kind to himself, either: often we had to stop because the stress of working with a young man as impatient as I was would give Lennis a histamine headache. Gradually I came to feel as unwilling as he was to let a sentence stand if the meaning was not as unambiguously visible as a grizzly bear in a brightly lit kitchen. I discovered what every good writer knows, that getting down one's exact meaning helps one to discover what one means. Looking back now at our writing in The Forms of Fiction, I find the style overly cautious, a bit too tight. (Sometimes saying a thing twice is a good idea.) But that painful two years -- the midnight fights and sometimes the shock of joy we would both experience when the right choice of words made us grasp the idea that had until that instant teased and eluded us -- showed me what was wrong with my fiction.

Needless to say, since I was writing fiction throughout this period, and since Lennis Dunlap has a mind worth consulting, from time to time I showed him my own fiction. He went over it with the same eye for detail he gave to our work on other people's writing, and though I cannot say he wasn't helpful, I soon learned the limits of even the best advice. Coming from Tennessee, he did not speak the same English I speak, or know the same kinds of people, or interpret life experiences in quite the same ways I do. When he suggested changes and I accepted his suggestions, the story almost invariably went wrong. What I learned from him, in short, is that a writer must take infinite pains -- if he writes only one great story in his life, that is better than writing a hundred bad ones -- and that finally the pains the writer takes must be his own.
William Gass, speaking of Gardner, in "The Sound and Fury Over Fiction" by Stephen Singular, The New York Times Magazine, 7/8/79, included in Conversations with John Gardner:
John should revise more, but he doesn't. His greatest weaknesses are his glibness and his preachiness, and his problem is that of almost any writer who has gained some popularity. That popularity is almost invariably based on what is weakest in the writer's work, and then the tendency is for the writer to lean in the direction of that quality which encourages the weakness rather than counteracting it.