The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle has kindly given us permission to post this article (in its entirety) originally published in 1973. We are deeply grateful to them. Permission to reproduce this article in whole or in part should be sought from the D & C (as we say around here).
People, Section C
Thursday, July 12, 1973
"AUTHOR JOHN GARDNER: A SERIOUS CLOWN"
By Sandy Flickner
D&C Staff Writer
They come, as would-be writers do, as much on the chance of being discovered as on the chance of learning something.
They’re holding a manuscript, needing just a little approval.
But who can blame anybody in the fiction writing section of the
The instructor is, after all, John Gardner Jr, son of a dairy farmer, the
And that’s close enough to home.
"There are two ways to be a serious creature in the world,"
Only the clowns, he says, get to be fancy and wild.
"It’s not an age for grandiose posturing unless you’re a clown," he, well, postures.
He says he never leaves "real people" out of his novels. "I just lie about them." And says his book on the forms of fiction writing (except for one regrettable chapter on the short novel) is "brilliant. Nobody can correct a word of it."
And they all like him for saving it, because he doesn’t pretend to be an acrobat.
He’s gotten critical acclaim, most recently for his book "The
Sunlight Dialogues," an epic set in
There have been other novels, anthologies, and essays for the Southern Illinois University teacher, who got his doctoral degree at 25.
But still the "Dr. Gardner’s" and the "Mr. Gardner’s" seem out of place in the workshop setting.
For workshop directors who’d been depending on the big-name no-show Jimmy
Breslin for pizzazz,
And it seemed he was winning over the workshop participants during yesterday morning’s class session too. Some were bold. But more were hesitant, easing into opinions. Feeling for the right responses.
One after another, they offered their suggestions of how the writer knows when he’s got a story.
But none of the ideas satisfied Gardner, who has not only made it good, but – according to some bold enough to make such predictions – will one day make it very, very good. They talk about the big prizes and literary history books.
Just how a writer knows he’s got a winner was still dangling at the
end of the two hour session, when
The self-described literary clown was doing his best, verbally this time. It
was pontification. A bull session, if you will, and a
bit of grandiose posturing, as
The participant talent,
Some are promising, he said. And there’s at least one who doesn’t need this workshop, just a good agent
"You can’t teach a person to write in a workshop," he said, "but you can be helpful to someone who will be able to write."
The quality of instruction at the
The "clown" cares about his craft.
One woman wonders at the beginning of the session if
Maybe he can duplicate a story and hand it to everyone, another suggests.
"I don’t know – the theory that you have to see the whole structure – I no more than half believe that.
"The problem," he says, "is how to lay down a line. The biggest problem in all of writing is just sentences. What makes the whole story go wrong is the same thing that makes a sentence go wrong."
And so they attack sentences. It is not a pleasant exercise for the author, who finally loses his anonymity by coming to the defense of his prose because it isn’t the beginning of a short story, but of a novel.
But it makes no difference. The writer wants the others to learn to lay the line.
He reads a sentence with adjectives backed up in threes, and dependent clauses on dependent clauses.
There’s no focus to the sentence, he shows.
He goes on from the same manuscript, and finally says he feels there’s "something profoundly wrong here." What is it?
And after the hesitant suggestions,
He says it happens to everybody. To him, sometimes. A writer has to be in a trance when he’s working. Otherwise he fails.
"Some of the stuff you read is stillborn – all the techniques are there, but it’s a dead baby.
"And some has an aura, it has a hum to it. It’s alive."
And the anonymous author sits somewhere in the group hoping it can happen. The would-be writers lean forward a little, listening.
Because maybe it will hum.
Updated March 2, 2005