Review of a fine little book on how to sit there and get work done.
When people ask me the personal-experience question, my response is that I write from my personal experiences, whether I’ve had them or not. At first, this sounds like a joke and people laugh, but I’m not joking. Regardless of where I got the experience (or the story “idea”), I treat it personally; if it’s not personal, I don’t want to be involved. . . . I will explore it until I find the personal element and something sparks. Having a feeling for my material means sending myself on each journey, whether I’ve actually been there or not, and it involves the powerful act of the imagination that good writing requires: empathy.—Ron Carlson Writes a Story
Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson. Graywolf Press. 112 pages.
The amazing thing about how-to books on writing is this: some gal or guy who wrote successfully sat down one day and tried really hard to tell you how it was done. That’s not unique to writing books, I guess—entrepreneurs do it, and hit men—but writing is so challenging for most people, and so mysterious to everyone, that the simple fact of someone trying to give away hard-won lessons and secrets is impressive. And humbling.
Which is not to say that every writing book is good or, rather, that it’s good for you. Such a book is like any other: if I’m not informed and inspired, it’s not working for me and I quit. For instance, I consider The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, by Alice LaPlante, more interesting and useful, to me as a teacher and student, than the acknowledged long-time classic creative writing textbook Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway, which is fine. And recently I began reading an acclaimed book by a fiction writer who has an idiosyncratic approach and I soon thought, This is bad for me. Iput it down. That’s rare. But I know that very book might help me with my next project.
Ron Carlson Writes a Story had the opposite effect—even though it’s about writing a short story and I’m writing book-length nonfiction—it excited and inspired me. It helped me see how to make better scenes, to more effectively recreate dialogue, and to sketch settings with fewer but more telling details. (Interestingly it’s published by Graywolf Press, which published the previous book I reviewed, The Art of Time in Memoir; Greywolf must have a great list on writing.) Carlson’s book and his story it explicates model prose that I savored for its spare beauty. (I notice that I find craft books that employ plain prose more inspiring, perhaps because they make writing seem simpler, no problem to pull off.)
This short book follows “The Governor’s Ball” as Carlson writes it during one day. He conveys the hanging-in-there experience of writing for him. He does this almost line by line, kind of like this: I wrote A and then thought X and wrote B, which surprised me and I wrote Z; I wanted to take a break and celebrate but was at a dangerous point—didn’t know what was next—so I stayed there and this new character appeared and said . . . Obviously he isn’t a writer who plots his short stories or even who knows where he’s going. But his process of drawing from life and experience and intuition seems to result in discovery—he’s not bored, but interested—when he’s not mildly apprehensive (or scared shitless) that he’s going to hit a dead end or quit. He hangs in.
The latter point is key. He says: “The writer is the person who stays in the room.” To stay in the room, he doesn’t stop to ponder a name—if he can’t think of a good one, he plugs in a provisional one, Mickey for a guy and Doris for a gal—nor does he pause to consult a dictionary or a thesaurus. That’s for editing or polishing phases. Needless to say: no googling—and certainly no email reading or writing; the internet is a “heaping helping of what everyone else is thinking” and even reference sources “are simply metaphors for the critic, teacher, reader, editor, reactor in all of us, and we must leave these people out of the room.” He has learned not to leave his desk when he first wants to, which is always at a tough spot, not at a good stopping point, because, and this is his emphasis: “All the valuable writing I’ve done in the last ten years has been done in the first twenty minutes after the first time I’ve wanted to leave the room.”
Carlson emphasizes that his method is to “build upward from craft.” That is, he may have one small incident (in this case, a mattress he was taking to the dump blew off his truck) that sticks with him; this becomes a story when he makes it happen on the day of the Governor’s Ball and sets a narrator in motion (as he struggles with that mattress, the testy guy’s impatient girlfriend shows up and reminds him they have the party that night). Carlson creates at the keyboard. In his way of working, the text tells him what comes next (if he stays in his chair) as he experiences the action and the setting, sees the characters and key “status” details. Always he looks for “the next thing” that happens to help him keep going, to help him “survive the writing of the story.” He trusts this process, and finds it teachable.
Vision, of course, is not teachable. Dreams are not teachable. The passion a writer brings to the page is not teachable. Can writing ever be taught? The best answer to that was given obliquely by rock musician David Lee Roth. When asked if money could buy happiness, he said, no, but with money you could buy the big boat and go right up to where people were happy. With a teacher you can go right up to where the writing is done; the leap is made alone with vision, subject, passion, and instinct. So a writer comes to the page with vision in her heart and craft in her hands and a sense of what a story might be in her head. How do the three come together? My thesis is the old one: they merge in the physical writing—inside the act of writing, not from the outside. The process is the teacher.
So whatever happened in his daydreams or his subconscious in the year between losing that mattress and deciding to write about is a blank, and he leaves it there. Nor does Carlson even hint why he united the mattress and the Governor’s Ball. Maybe because he lost the mattress in January and he and his wife had attended, in another year, the Ball in January. One senses (hopes?) there must have been more to start off with than he admits. But maybe not, at least not consciously, and his everlasting point is to trust the process and follow the story:
The process of writing a story, as opposed to writing a letter or a research paper, or even a novel, is a process involving radical, substance-changing discovery. If you let the process of writing a research paper on Romeo and Juliet change the advice the Friar gives to those young people, you’re headed for trouble. If you let the process of writing a story inform and change the advice an uncle gives his niece, you’re probably moving closer to the truth. I’ve also become convinced that a writer’s confidence in his/her process is as important as any accumulated craft dexterity or writing “skill.”
This is Carlson’s method—this exploration, this not-knowing-the-ending—what works for him. I’m not sure I could use it to write short stories. But it stimulated me by seeming honestly to reveal one man’s proven process for writing in an intuitive but workmanlike and disciplined way. And it resonated for me in terms of writing in general—what it takes to get work done, to discover what we know and feel, and to make a story better. This little book is a gem.
Do not be misled by the limited vocabulary the American marketplace uses to describe the possibilities for story and drama. If we’re really writing we are exploring the unnamed emotional facets of the human heart. Not all emotions, not all states of mind have been named. Nor are all the names we have been given always accurate. The literary story is a story that deals with the complicated human heart with an honest tolerance for the ambiguity in which we live. No good guys, no bad guys, just guys: that is, people bearing up in the crucible of their days and certainly not always—if ever—capable of articulating their condition.