The writer and critic John Gardner is perhaps best remembered these days for his novel Grendel, and for a quote on the writing life that has influenced generations of writers ever since: “Art begins in a wound, an imperfection — a wound inherent in the nature of life itself — and is an attempt either to live with the wound or to heal it.”
Gardner spoke from his own experience. He felt responsible for the death of his brother in a farming accident, a death that took him many years to finally approach in his short story, “Redemption.” In his 1978 Paris Review interview, Gardner said, “Before I wrote the story about the kid who runs over his younger brother…always, regularly, every day I used to have four or five flashes of that accident. I’d be driving down the highway and I couldn’t see what was coming because I’d have a memory flash. I haven’t had it once since I wrote the story. You really do ground your nightmares, you name them.”
Trauma, of course, arrives from many sources: the death of a family member, sexual assault, the psychological and physical abuse wreaked by dysfunctional families, discrimination’s poison, the catastrophe of war or famine, or any crushing event that reorients a child’s understanding of the world. The list of harsh surprises is probably endless. Perhaps that is why Gardner’s description of an art-generating wound resonates with any writer searching for the truths of his or her childhood. Damage survived through one’s art can be a heroic story we tell ourselves, a suspenseful tale of personal struggle and possible transcendence. For me, Gardner’s insight certainly helped shape my understanding of the secret imperative behind my early attempts at writing short stories: they were ripples that arose from but could never undo two defining events of my childhood.
When I was just past 10 years old, my mother twice attacked my father: first, with a steak knife over the dinner table, and another evening she slammed his head between the rungs of a stairwell’s banister, wrapping a towel around his neck to strangle him. Each time, I threw myself between them, a mere child wrestling with an adult drama whose origins I knew nothing about. To this day, the motives for that violence remain obscure. My parents somehow managed to stay together, shedding their worst arguments and over time adopting quiet guerilla warfare. In spite of daily counter-evidence, an official line developed that we were a happy family. Any past violence was a story that couldn’t be told.
Other stories awaited me behind the closed door of my room. I entered a world of books. Though I couldn’t have put this into words back then, I must have understood that the more stories and novels I read, the more I increased the real estate inside where I might find a place of my own. My life is unimaginable without books, and that inadvertent gift arising from my parents’ desperate disputes and then silence has provoked my life-long artistic gaze.
Gardner’s insight has helped many writers, but as the years have passed I’ve come to suspect that it also conceals a further truth. A psychic wound can be its own healing agent, may itself contain a gift, and may offer a form of unexpected inspiration. Yet how to embrace this elusive not-damage within the wound?
I, The Divine: A Novel in First Chapters, by the Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine, offers one possibility. This brilliant novel takes the form of a memoir-in-progress being written by one Sarah Nour El-Din. Every chapter in the book is a Chapter One, because Sarah can’t seem to find the proper entry into her memoir. She keeps beginning again, trying to start from this angle, then that angle, searching for the most fruitful approach to the rest of her life’s story. But these failed first chapters give the reader a deeper sense of her marriages, her lover, her son, father, mother, stepmother, sisters, grandfather, her life in Lebanon and in America, and her artistic ambitions.
Eventually a first chapter takes on one of her troubled family’s most shameful secrets: Sarah’s sister Lamia, a nurse who overdosed her patients to death. Sarah feels she can’t begin to explain her sister’s actions, so instead she announces, “I will let her speak for herself” and includes in the chapter her imprisoned sister’s awkwardly eloquent letters. By allowing her sister a voice, something breaks through to Sarah. She begins to see her sister from the inside.
Two first chapters later, Sarah writes about a harried day in the life of her despised stepmother Saniya, from what she imagines is Saniya’s point of view. A few first chapters later, Sarah imagines a walk through the streets of New York from her first husband’s perspective. Of course Sarah can’t really know what he contemplated as he navigated from university classroom to apartment, any more than she knows what terrain her stepmother’s thoughts might occupy. But by now the relentless I, I, I of Sarah’s memoir has deepened into the competing perspectives of her extended family. They are no longer mere actors in her story but people with stories of their own, and this realization enables Sarah to move from the role of victim to that of survivor, relinquishing blame through the transformative gift of empathy.
Much like Sarah, for too much of my life I focused on my younger self’s understanding of my parents, turning them into an easy story to tell. We children of dysfunctional families try on certain emotional techniques to survive our parents, to dodge or undermine their worst behavior. Yet if we’re successful at protecting ourselves, in later life we run the risk of holding on to our hard-won tactics too long, and using them — often futilely — against the world, as if the world were our parents. In doing so, we remain locked in childhood without even knowing it.
For writers, the key to avoiding such a fate may lie in our urge to shape our characters’ possibilities. We labor to bestow a depth that allows them to take their first breaths, and by accepting their surprises we may be led to fruitful, unfamiliar territory. These skills we have learned and forged in our writing can be applied elsewhere.
My mother’s name was Edith, not Mom. This is an important distinction for me to remember. Too often, in remembering my parents, I still think of them by their official titles, the names that defined their relationship to me. Yet they were individuals fully existing in their own lives long before I was born. My mother’s father died when she was three. My father, at about the same age, was locked in a rat-infested shed for a day by his older brother. Perhaps the parallel traumas of early abandonment eventually led them to each other.
Throughout her adult life Edith, my mother, smoked heavily but never, ever was her persistent cough to be associated with that smoking. To suggest such a connection invited certain fireworks. My mother also developed an obsession about cholesterol, that dietary evil of all evils. Whenever my mother went into a hacking fit and coughed up phlegm, she announced with some satisfaction that this was a “cholesterol ball” that she had managed to release from her system. She would proudly display her handkerchief to any interested parties.
My mother also developed the habit of driving from our home in Long Island to a town 30 miles away, a 60 mile round trip, to buy a hamburger at McDonalds. I can only imagine the countless unworthy McDonalds she drove past on her journey, but she believed that particular outlet served the best hamburgers, no other could compare. It was wise not to contradict her, or to express disbelief when she asserted that all the traffic intersections on her ride home had been deviously programmed to delay her car at one red light after another.
My mother’s imagination, in these and many, many other examples, used to drive me to infuriated distraction. Why couldn’t she see the foolishness, even the danger of these beliefs? Of course, at the time my exasperation was fueled in part by fear—would I one day become like her, impervious to even elementary logic? Now, I realize that as a child I studied with a master. However emotionally isolated and frightened my mother may have been, she unknowingly gave me the gift of her imaginative skills, and I had just as unknowingly received them. This gift became the key to many of my fictional characters, including the increasingly desperate multiple personalities of the mother in my novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language, and the construction of fantasies that threaten to go awry in my various characters’ interior lives in the story collection Interior Design.
The empathy I needed to create these characters led me to a belated sympathy for my mother. I came to look at her invention of cholesterol balls as an attempt to convince herself smoking wasn’t dangerous. They served to mask her secret fear. My mother’s championing of a singular, incomparable McDonald’s hamburger outlet simply added a little spark into her life, a way to quit the house and the hours of solitaire she played, and go on a small journey. Those malevolently programmed traffic lights on her return drive offered another sort of excitement: despite this conspiracy against her, Edith, my mother, always triumphed and made her way back home.
My father’s name was Bill, not Dad. He was a quiet man who never learned to say, “I love you.” He’d stiffen in a welcoming hug, a nervous smile pasted on his face. His heavy drinking created an invisible wall between himself and his family. He held inside more than I could imagine. By the time of my teen years, he had stopped arguing with my mother and let her have her way, accepting any derision silently. When I was a young man, his passivity symbolized everything I wanted to avoid in my life. I didn’t understand that he had given up on his marriage and further battling meant nothing to him.
Bill, my father, worked for an import-and-export firm that owned a number of commercial buildings in downtown Manhattan. His job was to make sure the company’s buildings came as close to full occupancy as possible. One of the ways he achieved this was by regularly making the rounds, floor by floor of each building, developing relationships with tenants who hailed from Jamaica, India, and Pakistan, Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn and Chinese businessmen and women from Hong Kong.
One summer my father found me a job operating the freight elevators for his company’s buildings — an easy enough task once I got the hang of it, and completely off the books, since I was replacing the regular elevator operators as they took their vacation time. Sometimes my father would take me along on his rounds during my lunch break, and I watched his easy banter with the tenants, the jokes they threw back and forth, his attentiveness to their concerns. Though they all called him Bill and not Mr. Graham, their affection and respect was obvious. I took it all in, shocked that he was so admired, since he’d long been an object of contempt in his own home.
Only many years later did I begin to suspect that my father, Bill, offered this glimpse of his business life so I would see a side of him he buried at home. He attempted to transform himself in my eyes from a one-dimensional to a three-dimensional character. Here is another gift I accepted without knowing I had accepted it — or without acknowledging, unfortunately, that I had any clue I understood what he was trying to give me. Too often I have been a slow learner, and in this case I learned too late to thank him for this, and for something else, perhaps my father’s best gift: his easy camaraderie at work with so many different types of people. I believe his example helped me appreciate my high school encounter with the Middle-English thicket of The Canterbury Tales. Geoffrey Chaucer’s sly generosity revealed the voices and contradictions of the bawdy Wife of Bath, the corrupt Pardoner, the vain Squire, and the rest of that motley group of pilgrims, and showed me how to use, in my first budding attempts at stories, what I’d already gleaned from my father: a necessary curiosity about everyone one encounters.
James Baldwin, with his usual wisdom, has written, “Any writer, looking back…finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way.”
We writers are used to looking back, locating in our rough drafts any glimmer that might show the way forward. A story, a poem, a novel, or a memoir won’t reach its best destination without the labor of reconsideration, without the ability to see afresh what is obscure, or incomplete. And neither will the story of our lives.
Let’s say your family has given you…a sweater. A common enough gift, but it’s a terrible, perhaps even an evil sweater. The combination of clashing colors resembles several things you might have once stepped on, in a nightmare. Worse, it doesn’t seem to fit. There are three arms, each one a different and incorrect length, and no hole for the crown of your head to peek through; instead, a round empty circle in the back gapes open about halfway down your spine.
What to do with this? It can’t be worn in any comfortable way. Hide it in a drawer and hope the moths will find it? Place it in the middle of a box of old clothes, deliver it to Goodwill, and rush out the door before anyone notices? Or take the sweater out to the backyard, improvise a ceremony, and then burn it, trying to read the smoke trails as they slip away in the air?
Each of these tactics is a possibility, and they may even be the most popular choices. I’d like to suggest something else. You cannot wear the damn thing, it will never fit, so stop trying. But you can’t ignore it, either. And its destruction would only be an illusion. Instead, take the sweater apart. Unravel it thread by thread. Examine the length, thickness, and color of each thread and discard nothing of what you’ve been given. Then, prepare your own pattern and make a new sweater, one that fits. Or make a set of gloves, a hat with the warmest earflaps, hand puppets, or a scarf. If you don’t like the scarf, take that apart and make a tea cozy.
Whatever you create will still be made from that evil ugly sweater. There’s no escaping that, it will always be there. So make it into something you can use.
An early version of this essay was initially delivered as a craft lecture at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Image Credit: Pexels/Nguyen Nguyen.
I don’t recall actually seeing Mary Poppins as a child, but I was aware of the film somehow because for a period of time (perhaps as short as a few concurrent nights, grown through the expansive memory of childhood into years) I suffered a recurring nightmare featuring that nanny extraordinaire. It always began as an ordinary dream, about baseball or swimming or driving the General Lee or whatever it was I dreamed of in those days. But at some point Mary Poppins would fly overhead on her umbrella, look toward the “camera” of the dream to deliver a cackle, then fly off, turning whatever pleasant fantasy I’d been having into terrifying chaos. Everything in the dreamworld became darker; trees died, I got lost and left behind in a grim landscape, and I fell victim to all sorts of other horrible things I’ve managed, thankfully, not to remember so clearly.
I regularly told this story to my students on the first day of a cultural studies seminar on monsters I taught for several years, because beyond the instant class bonding that came, at my expense, from laughing at such a peculiar neurosis, my history with Mary Poppins illustrates something about the power of monsters. We are all familiar with the bogey man in our closets and the clawed creatures under our beds, waiting for us to set a bare foot on the floor or to fall asleep without a night light left on for protection. My somnambulant rendition of Mary Poppins creeps from the same fissures in supposedly shared meaning that make Santa Claus terrifying to some children while beloved by others, or allows the clown to be both a figure of fun and of fright. There is, I suppose, no reliable way of predicting the things that will scare us. It was just my dumb luck that a kind-hearted and magical nanny, of all possible monsters, was the one to work her way up through the cracks in my childhood mind.
The video features an eerie, horror movie-style soundtrack with scenes from Mary Poppins recombined to create a trailer for the story of a creepy, wicked woman flying around London on an umbrella, emerging from a dark and gloomy skyline to terrorize small children. In other words, it’s my own childhood fear made larger than life, first in the diminutive window of YouTube’s viewer and later on the classroom screens where I showed it. It’s the secrets of my psyche uncovered and shown to the world in all their absurdity, turning my personal and previously private misinterpretation of a children’s film into a public spectacle, as if Rule had reached into my mind and pulled his video out. It’s easy to see how such a hybrid, piratical medium as the mashup insists on the “death of the author,” but in this case it also risked the death of the viewer from fright.
The intent of Rule’s video may not be to actually frighten instead of amuse, or to do more than demonstrate how recutting footage — like interrupting a dream — can alter its meaning or mood. To turn a cheerful children’s classic into horror is comically ironic, and for those already familiar with both the tropes of movie trailers and the story of Mary Poppins (likely a majority of American moviegoers), it probably is more funny than frightening. Even for me, reminded as I was of genuine childhood terrors long ago left behind, that comic irony wasn’t lost. What makes my nanny-fear so hilarious and humiliating is its absurdity, because I know Mary Poppins should be comforting, not frightening. I used it as an example in class for that reason, to demonstrate that monsters come from many places: from high and low culture, from shared cultural anxieties, from racial, sexual, and economic constructions of the Other, and — in my case — from some unidentifiable and ridiculous corner of the mind that perhaps, as Ebenezer Scrooge explains his own unwelcome ghosts, has eaten a bad jot of mustard.
Rule’s mashup is more than ironic humor, however, and it is more than the coincidental depiction of personal fears that gives power to this relatively new — at least in its ease of production — form of expression. After seeing King Kong in 1934, Jean Levy recalled his childhood fears of ape-men appearing at his windows, a fear he and I shared, though for me it came in the form of King Kong lifting Darth Vader to my third floor window so the evil Jedi (this was early in the series, before we knew Darth Vader’s depths) could come in and “get me.” Of his own pithecophobia Levy writes,
I saw again trait by trait a remarkable detail of my familiar nightmares, with the anguish and the atrocious malaise which accompanies it. A spectator, not very reassured, would like to leave, but one makes him ashamed of his pusillanimity and he sits down again. This spectator, it’s myself; one hundred times, in my dream.
Levy’s “familiar nightmare” was born in the subconscious social, sexual, and racial anxieties that made the giant ape Kong so potent and so sublimely terrifying, which is to say the film succeeded because it showed its audience something they were, all of them, simultaneously terrified of in a graspable, metaphorical, menacing form. It’s telling that we have a word for “fear of apes” — pithecophobia — but no word for “fear of nannies.”
The collective unconscious, or at least our shared fears and fantasies, has always been the lifeblood of cinema: audiences need to share a reaction to make the film and the experience of seeing it work. And, more pragmatically, to make such an expensive undertaking as film worth financing and troubling over at all. “Scary Mary Poppins” is something different, a low-budget, low-stakes (and likely low-profit) exercise in new media. Distributed online, produced with affordable, accessible software and tools, the mashup does not need to make its appeal as universal as a blockbuster does. In this short, public embodiment of my childhood nightmare lies all the possibility of the Web for transformative, responsive, and reflexive creative work: the potential for every viewer to be frightened in his or her own private way even if each must cut their own version of every film.
Certainly cinema (and literature, and visual art, and so on) have always been subject to individual responses and interpretations. And authors of fan fiction have long made characters and stories their own, writing in the interstices and silences, whether to critical acclaim like that found by John Gardner’s Grendel and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, or to local accolades only in the archives of fanfiction.net. But there is something in the monster story, all monster stories, that makes it particularly appropriate and, in fact, vital for such reimaginings to occur again and again. They are intended to frighten, and require flexibility if they are to retain their power to do so across temporal and cultural difference, so monster stories, cinematic and otherwise, are ripe for remakes upon remakes, for an apparently endless stream of classics reproduced every year as dozens of new renditions of familiar archetypes appear on screens large and small, and on pages where Elizabeth Bennet battles the undead after centuries not troubling herself about zombies.
As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes in the essay (from Monster Theory) that was the first assigned reading of my seminar,
No monster tastes of death but once. The anxiety that condenses like green vapor into the form of the vampire can be dispersed temporarily, but the revenant by definition returns. And so the monster’s body is both corporal and incorporeal; its threat is its propensity to shift.
The monsters are always among us, because no matter how tightly we shore up the windows and nail shut the doors, we always create some new cracks through which they can come. And sometimes those cracks are the wires and Wi-Fi waves of the Web.
Image: Canon in 2D/Flickr
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.Signed, Mata Hari by Yannick Murphy recommended by EdanYannick Murphy’s short story “In a Bear’s Eye,” from the O. Henry Prize Stories 2007, stunned me with its beauty and strangeness, and led me to her new novel, which is just as lovely, and just as strange. Murphy’s Mata Hari tells her life story from a prison cell in Paris as she awaits trial for treason. The book fluidly moves from the Netherlands, to Indonesia, to various cities in Western Europe, switching points of view throughout, the language begging to be read aloud it’s so musical, so dream-like. This novel is erotic (oh lord, some parts left me breathless), sad, and fascinating. Check out Bat Segundo’s interview with Yannick Murphy for more.+ Coming Through Slaughter (Vintage) by Michael Ondaatje recommended by AndrewAfter cornet player Buddy Bolden suffered a mental breakdown during a parade through the streets of New Orleans about a hundred years ago and had to be put away, rumors began to swirl about his life. Michael Ondaatje’s first novel, from 1976, is a jazz riff on all the possibilities of Buddy Bolden. A work of fiction, the narrative line running through it involves his friend Webb’s search for Buddy after his sudden disappearance a few years before the breakdown, through the resurfacing, and then his final silencing on that fateful day at the parade.That’s the thread. But this short novel unfolds, or rather, explodes, like a scrapbook filled with bits and pieces of Buddy’s life. Interviews with his former lovers, with his friends and band-mates, with the denizens of the underbelly of New Orleans circa 1907. A poem here, a list of songs there, these fragments seem so haphazard, and yet these contextual glimpses all hang together, swirling around Buddy. And when the music ends, they leave you with a rich story of a jazzman who swung to his own rhythms.+ Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau recommended by GarthTexaco, by the Antillean writer Patrick Chamoiseau, won France’s Goncourt Prize in 1992. It has pretty much everything I look for in a novel: a sweeping plot, a great heroine, a rich setting (geographic and historical), an ingenious structure, and – especially – an exploration of the possibilities of language. In a resourceful translation by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov, Chamoiseau’s fusion of French and Creole seems positively Joycean. Recommended for fans of Faulkner, Morrison, and 100 Years of Solitude.+ My War Gone By, I Miss it So by Anthony LoydRecommended by TimothyWar is not only hell, it’s also addictive, at least for British war correspondent Anthony Loyd, who for severals years covered the conflict in Bosnia for The Times. In this honest and poetic personal account – no index of names and places – the young reporter breaks some of the traditional rules of journalism by taking sides in the multi-ethnic war and revealing how the high he gets from life on the battlefield is matched only by the high provided by heroin during the occasional trip back to London. “War and smack: I always hope for some kind of epiphany in each to lead me out but it never happens,” he writes. In the war zone, Loyd befriends civilians whose resilience is almost unfathomable. He also introduces us to modern-day mercenaries – not the highly organized and well-funded security details found in Iraq, but gritty thrill seekers from across Europe. These are fighters who don’t necessarily believe in a cause, unless that cause is war itself. The book is by no means a primer on the events that unfolded in Bosnia; it simply tells how in war some people get by and others die.+ Hellfire by Nick Tosches recommended by Patrick”The God of the Protestants delivered them under full sail to the shore of the debtors’ colony, fierce Welshmen seeking new life in a new land.” So begins the first chapter of the finest book ever written about rock and roll, Nick Tosches’ brilliant biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire. Not a fan of Jerry Lee Lewis? Hate rock and roll? Couldn’t possibly care less? Doesn’t matter. Tosches’ style – mock-biblical, profane, and wild – will amaze you:Old rhythms merged with new, and the ancient raw power of the country blues begat a fierce new creature in sharkskin britches, a creature delivered by the men, old and young, who wrought their wicked music, night after dark night, at Haney’s Big House and a hundred other places like it in the colored parts of a hundred other Deep South towns. The creature was to grow to great majesty, then be devoured by another, paler, new creature.+ Water Music by T.C. Boyle recommended by MaxI’ve read nearly all of Boyle’s books, but his first (and the first I read by him) remains my favorite. Boyle is now well-known for his mock histories that refigure the lives of prominent eccentrics. But if those books are sometimes held back by the inscrutability of their protagonists, Water Music sings on the back of Mungo Park, an 18th Century Scottish explorer who ventured deep into the heart of Africa, and Ned Rise, a thief from the gutters of London who meets him there. It’s part Dickens, part comic book, and, as one reviewer once put it, “delightfully shameless.”+ The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem recommended by EmreEmbedding Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill, racial dynamics and the explosive 1970s at the heart of its narrative, The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem delves into the white world of Dylan Ebdus in the black heart of a changing neighborhood. It is the story of a motherless white kid estranged from his father and “yoked” by his schoolmates. It is also the story of Dylan’s brilliant journey from solitude to friend of burned-out-soul-singer’s-son Mingus Rude, to neighborhood punk, to Camden College drug dealer, to San Francisco-based music reporter. The trip is outward bound, but the reader is given the benefit of also traveling through Dylan’s heart and mind – be it through a delicious sampling of the era’s music, fashion and city life, or through exploits with Mingus and a ring that gives them superpowers. Lethem paints a brilliant cultural portrait of the U.S. by presenting Dylan’s isolation, desire to fit in – somewhere, anywhere – and transformation to readers. And, for music junkies, there is the added bonus of identifying endless trivia.+ Conversation: A History of a Declining Art by Stephen Miller recommended by EmilyStephen Miller’s Conversation: A History of a Declining Art is a smart yet approachable account of an art that most of us take for granted: the lively and friendly exchange of ideas among equals on topics lofty and commonplace, otherwise known as conversation. While Miller’s book is indeed a history – including different manifestations of conversation in the ancient world (the Spartans, for example, were known for their compressed, economical use of words and thus the word “laconic,” Miller tells us, comes from Laconia, the region surrounding and controlled by Sparta) – it focuses mainly on what Miller considers the heyday of conversation, eighteenth-century England, an age in which conversation was considered an art worthy of study and about which manuals and essays were written. Miller’s book – which he describes as an “essay – an informal attempt to clarify a subject, one that includes personal anecdotes” – is a nostalgic one, which views our own culture as averse to genuine intellectual and emotional exchange undertaken in a spirit of goodwill. We are either, he shows, too aggressive or too timid to converse about the opinions we seem to declare so boldly on t-shirts and bumper-stickers, and thereby we deny ourselves what the likes of Adam Smith, James Boswell, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson considered one of life’s greatest pleasures, as well as a means of sharpening one’s intellect, polishing verbal expression, alleviating melancholy, and acquiring new knowledge. “Society and conversation” Miller quotes Adam Smith, “are the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to its tranquility, if, at any time, it has unfortunately lost it.” A timely, thoughtful book and one not to miss.+ The Art of Fiction by John Gardner recommended by BenOnce upon a time, in a land far, far away, a friend told me that anyone who is serious about writing needs to read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I’ve since read the book a half dozen times and feel confident in amending the statement: “Anyone who is serious about reading needs to read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.”Although Gardner is best known for Grendel, his retelling of the Beowulf legend from the monster’s point of view, The Art of Fiction, finds him at his most engaging. This is no mere how-to book. In simple, captivating prose, Gardner lays out his theory of writing, stopping along the way to add anecdotes about his own experiences as a novelist and commentary on works he admires. In the process, he thoroughly examines the structure of the modern novel, from plot to word choice. The first read changed the way I viewed both writing and reading, and I’ve come away from every encounter with new insight.If you only read one book about writing, this is the one.