General · Writing

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner and Education

I was reading The Art of Fiction yesterday and I stopped at this line:

Though the literary dabbler may write a fine story now and then, the true writer has become, as it is for the pianist, second nature. Ordinarily this means university education, with courses in the writing of fiction, with courses in the writing of fiction, and poetry as well.

Is he saying you can’t write well all the time without a college education? One where you take creative writing classes. If they do manage a well-written story, they wrote it by accident? Seriously?

I am having a hard time believing that’s what he is saying.

I went to college; I sat in on a creative writing class, but couldn’t finish the semester because of my course load. Not that the class gave me any insight; it didn’t. Pretty sure that’s because everyone else was there to fill a writing credit requirement, not because they wanted to tell stories, and that changed how the teacher taught the class. That made it less useful for me and a bit of a disappointment.

So I don’t think I have the type of education he’s talking about. I decided not to get one because:

1) I figured I could learn everything I needed to without majoring in English or writing or something similar.

2) I wanted a degree that would lead to a good job while I figured out the writing bit.

I don’t think that makes me a bad writer or one lacking in technique. Okay, maybe the technique part, but practice will cure that.

I am pretty sure I am missing something about these two lines. But what?

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8 thoughts on “The Art of Fiction by John Gardner and Education

  1. I haven’t read this book, but I do know some of his former educational colleagues and adored his Grendel. Both my experience with those people and his novel leave me feeling he couldn’t argue that one could only become a luminary by working in academia.

    As far as me, what I’m missing is the context of those lines. Out of context, he says “Ordinarily” and depicts the rigor of academia. Writing, reading and thinking about those things all the time are what separate a professional from a dabbler. Great degrees of exercise and experience are necessary to hone craft.

    1. Never read his Grendel, though I have heard of it.

      The context is a little odd. This is still in the first chapter. The previous paragraph talks how the writer needs to trust their own judgment, a judgment that comes from wide reading, their own aesthetic, and knowing will and will not work .The paragraph this is from starts out talking about practicalities. Basically, how a writer can develop all that by reading widely, writing, doing crits, all at the same time.

      Than there is the line I quoted above. Immediately following that is this line: Some important writers have said the opposite – for instance, Ernest Hemmingway, who is quoted as saying having said that the way for a writer to learn his craft is to go away and write. Hemmingway, it may help to remember, went away for free “tutorials” to two of the finest teachers then living, Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein.

      That really is the point where I stopped reading, so I don’t know what he says next. It’s just going away and write doesn’t sound quite like the opposite. Except he says it is, and than adds that about him studying with someone, as if that somehow contradicts the going away and writing thing.

  2. I haven’t read this either, but I believe that Gardner distinguished between writers as serious literary artists and writers as, well, pretty much anything else. He had a bias against “popular” works and towards “literary” works. In that context, I find it easy to believe he meant it exactly as you read it.

    1. Sounds a bit snobbish. Yeah that could be it. He does say something to that effect in the preface. Not that I paid much attention to it. Something about elegant junk (IMO, that sounds like a contradiction).

      Wondering now if I even want to read the rest of this. Something tells me this book is going to send me into a snit fairly often. When that happens, I will undoubtedly end up venting in the blog.

  3. They are an interesting couple of lines. The way they’re phrased makes me wonder what the next line is, though. It’s like it lacks context–He says “Ordinarily,” so there’s an “out of the ordinary, but still valid” situation somewhere in there too.

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