Friday, November 12, 2010

John Gardner on Mastering the Art of Fiction

Her daddy is teaching her a new skill and she has just about mastered it. Our two-and-a-half year old granddaughter is learning how to get in and out of her car seat by herself. It's is a skill that needs mastered, and pretty soon, since she will have a new little sibling here in less than a month and her parents will need as many free hands as possible.

I remember when little Angelica mastered the skill of jumping. What a hoot to watch her try. She's learning to sing and dance, too, among other skills she's already mastered--like handling a spoon by herself, turning pages in books, and the big one that continues to amaze me, her ability to learn not just one, not two, but three languages. English and Spanish together are her "first" languages, and her mommy has introduced French as well. Without pause she will say "hi" to me and "hola" to her daddy, rattle off a stream of Spanish to him, and turn right around and talk to me in English. I wish I could switch language gears like that.

Then there's the little six-month old grandson out in California. Baby Nicholas is at the beginning stages of mastering skills. He eats bananas from a spoon that is offered to him, but has yet to master the skill of getting a cracker to his mouth by his own hand. We saw a first-hand example of that via Skype this afternoon!

John Gardner, in his The Art of Fiction, speaks of mastering the art of fiction. He says, "The primary subject of fiction is and has always been human emotion, values, and beliefs...The writer's business is to make up convincing human beings and create for them basic situations and actions by means of which they come to know themselves and reveal themselves to the reader. For that one needs no schooling. But it's by training--by studying great books and by writing--that one learns to present one's fiction, giving them their due. Through the study of learns the best, most efficient ways of making characters come alive, learns to know the difference between emotion and sentimentality, learns to discern, in the planning stages, the difference between the better dramatic action and the worse. It is this kind of knowledge...that leads to mastery."

He clinches the thought by adding, "Mastery is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather."

Or, we might add, like a child's gathering power as she or he moves through time. Looked at that way, we might say that writing can be a hoot, too, as we continue to master it.

Any writing skills, or skills of another kind, that you feel like you've gotten a better handle on lately?


  1. What a wonderful comparison! A cute one too, thinking of your grandkiddies:) The only skill I'm working on at the moment is keeping my head above water with numerous projects. Is that technically a skill? :P

    Good post, thanks for sharing!

  2. Good post, Kenda. Yes, I'm working on the skill of the query letter for a picture book I want to send out. Meanwhile, I have enjoyed John Gardner's novels. Your post makes me want to read the book you quoted from.

  3. Teaching my baby boy to sleep through the night!! 5 nights so far!!!!
    And he already masters the skill to take his crackers to his mouth (has done that since I gave his first cracker) but he likes just to have the cracker in his mouth without holding it ("lazy" boy). But what he really needs to master is sitting up and rolling over. He's getting there : )

  4. Very cute, and great comparison! :)

  5. I actually think I've gotten better at dialog. Describing things, not so much.