Review: On Becoming a Novelist

I picked up John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist the last time I went to the library. Unlike most books on writing, this one doesn't try to teach you how to write, or offer any definitive ideas on the creative process. Instead, it reads like a thoughtful meditation on the nature of creativity, inspiration, and the writing process. Amidst the plethora of advice targeted at writers today, this book is notable for its lack of definitive advice beyond, "do what works for you," and "don't quit." I found that one of its most endearing qualities.

Gardner, a brilliant novelist and creative writing teacher, begins by noting that few, if any, writing teachers can tell which students will ultimately become successful writers. He considers the difficulty of the task of evaluating a youthful writer, especially considering how much success ultimately depends on a writer's dedication to the craft ad refusal to give up or withdraw. He offers a critique of the most common methods of teaching writing and the inane, repetitive, and often destructive advice heaped on young writers. For example, the "write what you know" trope that so many creative writing teachers push ignores the fact that fiction is based on the imagination. While it's true that characters and settings need to feel vivid and real, writers can use their imagination and their sense of empathy to create whole new worlds and populate them with unique characters. Rather than "write what you know," Gardner advocates writing honestly and avoiding overly optimistic ("Pollyanna") or overly cynical cliches. He reflects that all great art is about finding and sharing truth, and we make poor artists when we can't see or understand what's true about human nature.

Gardner is at his best when he tries to capture those elusive and brilliant moments of creative flight that all artists have in their best work. Indeed, the writing process he describes is about capturing those dreams as closely as possible, then meticulously going back over the work to make sure it communicates the writer's intention. I loved his description of the vivid, creative dream-like state of creative inspiration--it comes closest to the feeling I get when I know what I'm writing is good, or when I'm playing music and everything just falls into place.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who needs an antidote to all the writing advice that gets heaped on you the second you start talking about writing. Gardner notes that there are many kinds of writers, and everyone of them has a different process. What matters is that you work to perfect your craft, keep yourself honest, and hone your sense of observation.