I’ve been carrying around a copy of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction this summer. In addition to getting sand in the binding, waterlogging one corner, staining a few pages, and bending the cover, I’ve also read this wonderful book all the way through. Summer travel schedules meant our group has met infrequently these past couple of months, but during that time Gardner has made a terrific writing companion. His insight and analysis provide helpful information. Even more, the depth of his thought about writing fiction affirms the value of this strange work we do.
One of the things I find satisfying about the book is its understanding of the creative process. Gardner appreciates, as well as anyone can, the powerful role of the unconscious and its symbolic language in shaping the strongest and most resonant writing. In a discussion of description he writes:
To the layman it may seem that description serves simply to tell us where things are happening, giving us perhaps some idea of what the characters are like by identifying them with their surroundings, or providing us with props that may later tip over or burn down or explode. Good description does far more: It is one of the writer’s means of reaching down into his unconscious mind, finding clues to what questions his fiction must ask, and, with luck, hints about the answers. Good description is symbolic not because the writer plants symbols in it but because, by working in the proper way, he forces symbols still largely mysterious to him up into his conscious mind where, little by little as his fiction progresses, he can work with them and finally understand them. To put this another way, the organized and intelligent fictional dream that will eventually fill the reader’s mind begins as a largely mysterious dream in the writer’s mind. Through the process of writing and endless revising, the writer makes available the order the reader sees.
Gardner reminds us that we have more resources than we can know when we start to write. It helps to remember that when we’re wandering in the woods, trying to find the path of the story. Giving ourselves to this work is an act of faith in a process that has no map. There’s nothing comfortable about that. But in spite of how it feels, not knowing where we’re going doesn’t mean we’ve lost our way. We know more than we think we do, but only as we work does it come to light. Maybe that’s the best reason of all for writing.