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Thursday, November 02, 2006

If Pablo Picasso Never Got Called an Asshole, It Wasn't John Gardner's Fault

You D.B.ers know the relationship Dead Beat has with John Gardner ( see Smart Chimps and The Art of Fiction). Well Jeffrey Ford who studied under Gardner and has written more than a few fine short stories himself dropped by to chew the fat and of course the conversation steered around to The Gard.

"Nice chap, The Gard," Dead Beat exclaims.

"Are we talking about the same person?"

"Lighten up Jeff, he's king of the heap."

"A Number One."

"Yeah, so what gives."

"Gardner trashed just about everyone who was anyone, including himself, at some point. If Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole, it wasn't Gardner's fault. Gardner brought a bad rap on himself with all that Moral Fiction crapola. I never paid much attention to it and it never really came up in any discussions we had. I think he liked to stir the shit sometimes for fun, sometimes for notoriety, sometimes out of a sense of perverseness. He was, at once, a very good person and a very troubled person. His mind was spinning 24/7. If you go back and look at the writing of that period in the seventies, he was probably one of the most innovative of fiction writers. He was also writing essays, poetry, opera librettos, plays, radio dramas, you name it. I was never much for some of his more lauded works like The Sunlight Dialogues , a real brick of a novel, but I really love The King's Indian, Freddy's Book, Mickelsson's Ghosts . The last mentioned is one of the wildest fucking books in American Literature. I found its structure and story mind altering. Its style is deceptively at home, but it is really a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Above all else, Gardner was a great teacher of writing (not just my estimation but also attested to by scores of his students, including Raymond Carver). I'd take him these thirty page stories written in pencil on torn out sheets of notebook paper and slip them under his office door. Then, who knew when, sometimes late at night, once in the middle of a blizzard, he'd call me and say, "I'm reading your story." I lived in a motel across the highway from the college and I'd just drop what I was doing and go. Then he'd sit there with a pen in his hand and go through the lines of the piece one by one. He was brutal, but not without a sense of humor. By the time he'd be done, there would be about five lines left. "These are good," he'd tell me. "Write another one."

Eventually he told me he wouldn't read them anymore unless I typed them up. It's got to be rare to find a writer of his caliber who would spend the amount of time he did with students. He'd spend hours going over a single story with you. So many of the things he told me about writing I didn't understand at the time but they come back to me now and I just shake my head at how true they were. He'd say weird stuff too, like "I believe that consciousness exists outside the body and it plays the physical being like an instrument." It made me wonder if everything he told me was total lunacy, but, luckily, I was dumber than a sac of shit and knew it, which allowed me to just push forward and trust him."

"Like I say, Jeff, The Gard."

"The New Gard."

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