"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

27 March 2006

The Fiction Writer's Study

I disovered last night that I had not read the second half of John Gardner's On Moral Fiction when I started it a couple of years ago. Needless to say, that was the end of my grading binge.

(Reminder: Gardner, by "moral fiction," means art that is honest and that intends the good of the reader. This is not "moralistic," telling sappy sentimental stories like we so often, sadly, get in "Christian" fiction, but honest writing that acknowledges that art has a purpose: it "celebrates life's potential, offering a vision unmistakeably and unsentimentally rooted in love"; "[i]n art, morality and love are inextricably bound: we affirm what is good -- for the characters in particular and for humanity in general -- because we care.")

I am still in the first chapter of the section, where he is outlining a theory of the thought process of writers of moral fiction. The writer, he says, is testing out some theory of how people think and live by experimenting with characters -- he creates characters, places them in a setting and situation, and watches carefully to see how they act. This "watching" is, Gardner says, a matter of imitation -- the writer is imitating with his characters the way he believes that real people would act. Thus, he says, "[t]he writing of fiction is a mode of thought because by imitating we come to understand the thing we imitate," and "the kind of knowledge that comes from imitation depends for its quality on the sanity and stability of the imitator." (He suggests that this simply means that the writer is making a genuine effort, with real empathy, to understand all the characters of his work -- Tony Esolen recently remarked at Mere Comments on the reason he loves Dickens: Dickens loves his characters and wishes that even the worst of them would choose to be redeemed.)

This imitation, of course, requires that the writer study people. Not psychology or theory, but people. "We study people carefully for two main reasons," Gardner writes, "in order to understand them and fully experience our exchange with them, or in order to feel ourselves superior." Clearly, the writer of moral fiction must not fall to the latter reason, but embrace the former, seeking truth, seeking reality, not confirmation of some already-held prejudice or theory.

Making art, then, is a process of discovery -- sometimes, perhaps, discovery that one is, indeed, right, but often discovery that at least one's idea is oversimple if not simply wrong. The honest writer will always be open to such discoveries.

I am wanting to write fiction again . . .


GrumpyTeacher1 said...

Wow, I really need to buy that book.

alaiyo said...

Oh, yes, you do. You and your lovely wife will both love it.

Megan said...

"Making art, then, is a process of discovery... but often discovery that at least one's idea is oversimple if not simply wrong."

Wow-- I've definitely begun to understand THAT lately.