Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Gardner’s hors d’oeuvre

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John Gardner

“I myself am stopped cold,” John Gardner writes in On Becoming a Novelist, “when I cannot make out how a character would deal with the situation presented to him. If the situation presented is trivial, one’s perplexity can be maddening.” Gardner continues:

Once during the writing of Mickelsson’s Ghosts I found the novel’s heroine being offered an hors d’oeuvre, and I couldn’t tell whether she would accept it or not. I forced the issue, made her refuse it; but then I found myself stuck. It didn’t matter a particle which choice she made, but damned if I could move to the next sentence. “This is ridiculous,” I told myself, and tried a little gin—to no avail. It seemed to me now that I knew nothing about this woman; I wasn’t even sure she’d have come to the party in the first place. I wouldn’t have. Stupidest party in all of literature. I quit writing, put the manuscript away, and took out my frustration on woodworking tools, making furniture. A week or so later, in the middle of a hand-saw cut, I saw, as if in a vision, the woman taking the hors d’oeuvre. I still didn’t understand her, but I was positive I knew what she would do, and what she would do after that, and after that.

This story has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it, close to a decade ago, and it isn’t hard to see why. Every writer has had the experience of clocking along nicely on a novel or short story, only to be stopped cold by some absurdly tiny question or detail—which is really what we mean when we talk about writer’s block. It’s one thing to find yourself baffled by the big, overwhelming narrative issues at stake; the larger the problem, the more potential handholds it offers for grappling. With something like Gardner’s hors d’oeuvre, you don’t know where to start, and a sentence that nearly any reader would pass over without particular notice starts to loom like the finger of Jehovah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. (For what it’s worth, here’s the sentence that Gardner finally wrote, which occurs shortly after the midway point of the novel: “Hardly aware that his gloom was deepening, Mickelsson bulldozed the plate toward her, urging her to take an hors d’oeuvre. ‘Oh!’ she said, smiling brightly, and, lifting her hand from Blassenheim’s arm, wide eyes unblinking, carefully took the nearest on the plate.”)

Mickelsson's Ghosts by John Gardner

These miniature crises can befall a writer countless times over the course of any career, and I suspect that Gardner, who was possibly the shrewdest writing teacher we’ve ever had, chose the hors d’oeuvre example because it’s almost comically insignificant. (There may be a buried pun, here, too: hors d’oeuvre literally means “apart from the main work”—the canapé that threatens to derail the whole entrée.) Looking at the situation from the outside, an objective observer could naturally suggest a number of possible approaches, exactly as they must have occurred to Gardner himself: you could write the sentence both ways and see how each version played, or simply cut out the interaction altogether and move on, or try a little more gin. But writer’s block has a logic of its own, and it feeds on itself in an exceptionally vicious way. When you’re stuck on an important point, you can at least take consolation in the fact that you’re tackling something that might have stumped Tolstoy or Flaubert; when you can’t bring a character to take an hors d’oeuvre, you feel that you have no business writing fiction at all. It all turns into a crisis of confidence, and it feels more depressing the more trifling the problem becomes.

Yet there’s something more subtle at work here. When he found that he simply couldn’t write the rest of the sentence, Gardner took a long break, and it wasn’t until he was absorbed in an unrelated manual task that the answer popped into his head—”as if in a vision.” The phenomenon he describes is a familiar one: insight often takes the form of a sudden intuition that appears after a long process of consolidation, occurring below the level of conscious thought, and it tends to emerge when we’re doing something else entirely. Gardner’s hors d’oeuvre, then, was less important in itself than as a kind of signal that the story had to render a little longer. In all likelihood, his uneasiness with the story or this character had been simmering for some time, and it happened to crystalize at the moment the plate of hors d’oeuvres appeared, when it might easily have hit a sentence before or later. Stewing over this apparently insignificant problem bought him a week of reflection, and when the solution appeared, it brought the rest along with it: “I was positive I knew what she would do, and what she would do after that, and after that.” Writer’s block is hell, but when we’re stuck on something small, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that it isn’t about the hors d’oeuvre at all, but the entire oeuvre.

Written by nevalalee

November 3, 2014 at 9:08 am

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