I never met John Gardner, the mid-20th century writer and teacher, but I talked to him on the phone once and we exchanged a few letters. I remember little of the phone call except that his voice was brighter than I expected and absolutely upbeat about the topic, which was writing in general and my short story in particular.
He made my effort to finish the work seem not only possible, but worthwhile, and many times since I’ve wished I had a recording of that conversation to spur me on. Fortunately I’ve kept his letters, and since they are writing itself (and he was foremost a writer) that’s probably a better thing.
From those letters, here are a few very Gardnerian quotes:
Stories must first be told for their own sake, because they’re good stories. The back-up stuff is fine (symbolism and all that) but only in its place.
Write from life, not in imitation of art you know. Life will not trick you; art is sure to.
Remember, fiction is a competitive business: people read the most interesting stories they can find. So you’ve got to prove your story interesting, and right away. (Interesting, that is, to the sensitive, smart reader….)
The cheapest thing a writer (I mean a good writer) can do is end with a symbolic shot. Symbolism at the end of a story is always an evasion of the end of a story.
Great art is thrillingly affirmative, recognizing all the darkness.
And then this clencher from his last letter, after he had helped me through several edits: The story is terrific!
It still makes me smile, and keeps me writing.