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).


Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

People, Section C

Thursday, July 12, 1973


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 University of Rochester’s writers workshop for believing it could happen.

The instructor is, after all, John Gardner Jr, son of a dairy farmer, the Batavia boy made good.

And that’s close enough to home.

"There are two ways to be a serious creature in the world," Gardner tells the writers, urging them to cut the fancy, phony language unless it’s just right. "One is to be an acrobat and do noble things, and the other is to be a clown, like me."

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 Batavia. Gardner is working on the screenplay with French director Jules Dassin, and says filming should begin in Batavia in the fall.

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, Gardner has become a welcome personality to the six-day workshop. He’s already appeared on two television talk shows and a radio show, winning the interviewers over.

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 Gardner had just begun his theorizing on the subject.

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 Gardner might describe it.

The participant talent, Gardner said later, is "very mixed." Some of the hopeful writers are "just bad," and he said he tries to tell them if they’re banking their futures on writing they’re in trouble. If they are writing for their own gratification, they’re okay.

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 UR workshop is high, unlike some such events which can be "rip-offs," he said.

The "clown" cares about his craft.

One woman wonders at the beginning of the session if Gardner couldn’t read an entire manuscript instead of reading snatches here and there.

Gardner thinks that might eat up too much time.

Everybody agrees.

Maybe he can duplicate a story and hand it to everyone, another suggests. Gardner doesn’t know when he’d have time, and isn’t convinced he wants to do that anyway.

"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, Gardner tries to explain the trouble. It isn’t easy for him either, he says but there’s no imagination.

No magic.

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."

Gardner moves to a second manuscript, another anonymous author, a story about a circus jack-of-all-trades. He reads from the beginning this time.

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


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