“Fiction, like sculpture or painting, begins with a rough sketch. One gets down the characters and their behavior any way one can, knowing the sentences will have to be revised, knowing the characters’ actions may change. It makes no difference how clumsy the sketch is — sketches are not supposed to be polished and elegant. All that matters is that, going over and over the sketch as if one had all eternity for finishing one’s story, one improves now this sentence, now that, noticing what changes the new sentences urge, and in the process one gets the characters and their behavior clearer in one’s head, gradually discovering deeper and deeper implications of the characters’ problems and hopes. Fiction does not spring into the world full grown, like Athena. It is the process of writing and rewriting that makes a fiction original and profound.”
John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist
What a gift! Just reading these wise and compassionate words made me breathe a sigh of relief, because they really struck a chord with me. There are so many helpful nuggets of advice embedded in these sentences, waiting for us to discover and apply them.
First, there’s the idea that we begin with just a sketch – a wisp of an story. And that it doesn’t matter how clumsy that sketch is because we’re going to revise it, fix it, reshape it.
Next, there’s the dedication to making the story better, the willingness to go over and over it as if we had all the time in the world — because revising, revisiting, reimagining — takes time. As we add a bit here, take away a bit there, we improve one sentence, then another.
Then as we notice “what changes the new sentences urge,” we begin to see our characters and their behaviors more clearly. And, as we begin to delve more and more deeply, to understand more fully, their “problems and hopes,” we begin to know them more fully and bring them to life.
And as we take these steps, moving closer and closer to the heart of our story, we take strength from knowing that, unlike Athena, fiction “does not spring into the world full grown,” but must be nurtured, tended, and pruned. Armed with this wisdom, wisdom that will surely make Athena, the goddess of wisdom, smile down upon us and our words, let’s write on!