On the very last page of On Becoming a Novelist, author John Gardner writes:
"Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn't quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or a "way," an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious - a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand - and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough."
Spiritual profits are enough.
When I picked up this book out of curiosity, I thought it might tell of some secret way or unknown set of experiences necessary to start on the life-long path to becoming a novelist. In fact, I think I've always thought that about writing a novel - it's a secret room to which I must find the key.
So when I read this last paragraph by Gardner I was humbled. "A yoga," yes, I know something about that, as I teach yoga to adults and children and deeply value my own personal practice.
When I started on the path of yoga I thought it was a big secret, too. I believed the teachings possessed some magic in them, some elixir of truth that I needed to consume over and over again before becoming a committed yogi. I came to yoga because I wanted to know how to walk in this world with an open heart. I didn't feel myself capable of it at the time.
In essence, I thought the open heart and having the ability to walk with it existed outside of myself. At some point, I realized I embodied both the heart and the way. The real work was not in how long I could hold a pose to achieve some sort of superstar strength. The work was in how patient and compassionate I could be with myself each and every day - how much of myself I could truly be without trying to be someone else. It was a quickening of my inner life and fire, which, to this day, still eludes me and isn't so quick sometimes, but I know it's there somewhere, a low flame ready to be lit with each pose.
Reading Gardner's book and seeing him draw the brief comparison he does to novel writing and yoga... well, I feel one step closer to what it means to walk the way of a novelist in this world. Or rather, I understand that there is a way to it, and that seems like a beginning to me. The novelist chooses to cultivate that inner well of persistence and imagination over a lifetime, to not care what others think of them or their work, to have a day job of some kind to keep one foot in the world. Being a novelist is a way of seeing - a way of thinking - that, if cultivated, can lead to a novel. These are things I was reminded of when reading Gardner's book.
It's not all spiritual. Gardner offers all kinds of practical advice, bitter truths and resources for the fledgling novelist. He spends half of the book committed to "The Writer's Nature." He talks with great honesty about teaching creative writing, having done it himself for quite some time. He tells you what to expect from a writing workshop, and what happens after having your first novel published.
All of it is good stuff, necessary advice, to be sure. But there's a depth to the 150-page book, a conviction, that speaks to more than what is written among its pages. I took my time with this book, digesting five pages here, five more the next day, because it is not the kind of book one rushes through and returns to the library. It drew me down into something much more fascinating than the mere answers to the grand question of how to write a novel, not that there are any answers, really.
It was a becoming for me, reading this book, and I'm glad to have read it. I better understand what it means to take on a novel in one lifetime and all the reasons people do it. It's a book you should read if you write, want to write a novel or just want to understand what makes novelists different from, say, poets or essayists, plumbers or bankers. It's a reminder, too, of how there are some things in life you just can't quit - that of becoming yourself, whether or not you're truly meant to become a novelist.
"The worst that can happen to the writer who tries and fails - unless he has inflated or mystical notions of what it is to be a novelist - is that he will discover that, for him, writing is not the best place to seek joy and satisfaction. More people fail at becoming successful businessmen than fail at becoming artists."