When I was in college John Gardner came for Humanities weekend. Also that weekend, Anthony Burgess gave a talk to a theatre full of students. The only thing Burgess said that I remember was he was less than honest about a lawsuit against Warner Brothers who distributed Stanley Kubrick‘s film of Burgess’s novel “Clockwork Orange.”
But John Gardner, the American writer, not the British writer, was more interesting. He met with a number of us English majors in a small conference room. I remember three things from that day. One was that a student, bless her heart, had made a plate full of chocolate chip cookies. As they were passed around I took my fair share. But there was not enough cookies for everyone. Somehow eyes turned to me whose stack of cookies looked like I been winning at a blackjack table. I told you it was my fair share, I didn’t say it was fair to everyone.
Gardner was a professor of Medieval literature and a writer of fiction, his most notable novels being “Sunlight Dialogues” and “October Light.” Some may say “Grendel,” a retelling of the Beowulf story told from the monsters point of view, but as he told me the next day when he signed my recently purchased copy of the book, “This is my least favorite book I wrote.” My heart sank, and I never finished the book because I could not shake his comment. He also taught creative writing and wrote about writing.
The second thing I remember is that he struggled to explain why he thought “Treasure Island” could not be easily categorized as fiction, it somehow needed its own category, but he could never explain what he meant. Imagine a writer without the words to explain something that confused and befuddled all present. He clearly got into something he was not prepared for.
The third thing I remember was his writing exercise. He had, I came to find out, variations of the exercise, but the one he shared was this: Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just died in a war. Do not mention the son, do not mention death, do not mention war.
This is a great exercise because it forces the writer not to tell emotion, but create the emotion by painting a picture with words that elicit the feeling of loss. That is the aim of every writer, to make the reader feel something, whether it be sadness, joy, fright, wonder, to laugh, to cry. As a writer you do half the work, the reader does the other half. Your half is to paint the picture, the reader’s is to interpret the picture. So don’t tell, create. Try the exercise, it may open doors to your creativity.