John Gardner, another workshop legend and Iowa graduate, took a different view of the business. He believed in what he called a “fictional dream,” a vivid, continuous, and believable alternate reality. His book “The Art of Fiction,” published posthumously in 1983 (he died in a motorcycle accident in 1982), concludes with a list of writing exercises, such as:
2. Take a simple event: A man gets off a bus, trips, looks around in embarrassment, and sees a woman smiling. . . . Describe this event, using the same characters and elements of setting, in five completely different ways.
4b. Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.
4c. Describe a landscape as seen by a bird. Do not mention the bird.
27. Using all you know, write a short story about an animal—for instance, a cow.
No doubt Gardner had success with this method of instruction, but the exercises have nothing to do with establishing an “intense acquaintance.” They are about acquiring a knack for adopting different styles and assuming different points of view. And for many writers writing is a job, or a way to escape from oneself. Those writers would not be happy in a Stegner workshop.
On the other hand, Gardner was a flamboyant and intensely personal teacher. His preferred pedagogical venue was the cocktail party, where he would station himself in the kitchen, near the ice trays, and consume vodka by the bottle while holding forth to the gathered disciples.