Friday, November 7, 2008

A Writer’s Education, Part Deux: On Becoming a Novelist

So. How did I continue to produce pages without getting derailed by my perceived shortcomings as a writer? Advice from pro authors and from careful amateurs. I read published novels that had been edited and proofed by professionals. And I had trustworthy readers pore over my drafts and mark them up for me. The more I read and wrote, revised and corrected, the greater my confidence grew.

Soon after I started writing I picked up a book that would become invaluable to my early efforts: John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist. John Gardner, who died at age 49 in 1982, was a celebrated novelist and writing instructor. Raymond Carver, one of his former students, wrote the book’s forward. In the book, Gardner discusses, among many other topics, the education of young writers. I was relieved to read that it was okay to not go to college for writing. In fact, the way he made it sound, it was almost preferable that I was busy living my life and earning the experiences that I would eventually get busy writing about. His words were a validation of the way I was living as a writer.

I still have my original copy of On Becoming a Novelist. Instead of highlighting the pages of interest, I used scraps of paper as bookmarks. Many are still there. I marked a section about combating self-doubt and self-consciousness. Gardner served up a crash course in being true to the fictive dream and not just writing to sell. He introduced me to the idea that you can either write for publication (which, in his estimation, wasn’t a hard goal to achieve) or become a serious novelist. In other words, “…a dedicated, uncompromising artist, and not just someone who can publish a story now and then.”

As with any how-to book, some pieces of advice stuck, and some rolled away for someone else to pick up. But when Gardner wrote about a “quality of strangeness” in all great writing, this sounded like a clue to something I needed to strive for. “There come moments in every great novel when we are startled by some development that is at once perfectly fitting and completely unexpected—for instance, the late, surprising entrance of Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment, Mr. Rochester’s disguise in Jane Eyre,…” I tapped into this advice as early as I could; the idea that a piece of writing could be great, could transcend. That image is what I keep out there in front of me, the reward that urges my writing, keeps me revising and fussing, worrying my drafts into what I someday want to realize as sublime versions of a specific truth.

Around the time I found On Becoming a Novelist, I had an opportunity to talk to a real author on the phone. It came about like this: My father was a used book dealer on Cape Cod. One of his summer customers was William Hanley, a published novelist from the late 60s/early 70s who had gone on to make a living in TV, winning an Emmy and such. My father was kind enough to ask Mr. Hanley if it wouldn’t be alright to have his aspiring-novelist son give him a call and seek some advice. Mr. Hanley was kind enough to agree.

I got through to him at his Long Island home. I imagined the Jaguar I knew he drove parked out front, next to the four-car garage and the servant’s quarters. Mr. Hanley was gracious over the phone, giving practical advice like when sending chapters to an agent, send consecutive chapters. He admitted he no longer had contacts in the publishing world and couldn’t help there. He conveyed that, from his experience, writing was a long, hard road. Not an easy way to make a living. Don’t expect to. He wistfully wished me good luck. I hung up and wondered if it was easier to dole out advice from the far end of Long Island than receive it in a three-family dump in greater Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Gardner said, “One has to be just a little crazy to write a great novel.” I’d add that to be an honest writer, or to be any good at all, you need to keep your id tapped and ready. Maybe your id is your adolescent self, a youthful yet world-wise doppelganger that doesn’t allow clichés to touch paper, constantly scanning your pages for vague language and passive voice, maybe she alerts you to crummy dialogue and overuse of the word Suddenly. Needless to say, I’ve continued writing. And while I have only a few publishing credits, I’ve chosen the middle ground: fighting to stay true as a creative writer while trying to get published.


Cynthia Sherrick said...

Thank you for sharing your writing journey. I loved hearing how you've worked so hard to become the wonderful writer you are today.

Dell Smith said...

Blush. Stammer.

Robin said...

I'd like to add my two cents! Yes, I have always felt that a person struggling to find his/her own voice as a writer doesn't need a writing degree to be a writer. In fact, it might hinder originality and the need to experiment. I also like the idea that every great novel has an element of strangeness. Some writers to look at: William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers. Anyway, keep writing, Dell!

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Robin. While workshops and writing programs definately have their place and can be extremely helpful (and sometimes necessary, unfortunately, to get a publisher to notice), one has to be careful not to get roped into a trendy way of writing that may not hold up over time.