September 2007

Akshay Ahuja

nonfiction

Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson

It is the rare modern writer of literary ambitions who can survive without some sort of relationship with a university. A few of these authors teach literature classes; most teach creative writing. Although there are certainly more romantic ways to secure a crust of bread, it is unclear whether this living arrangement has done any damage to the quality of books published in America. There has been, however, one definite consequence, and that is the rapid population of a genre that would probably have been unimaginable a century ago: the writer’s book on the craft of writing.

I would guess that there are now dozens such books in circulation, almost exclusively written by writing professors. I have read several and, while conceding that a few of them are pretty good, I have a theory about why so many are produced: they are fairly easy to write. The necessary material is close to the surface for a working writer, with very little digging or exploration required. All you have to do, after all, is detail your working methods, quote authors who have impressed you or demonstrated some aspect of craft, trot out a few of your own passages as examples, praise hard work and the magic of art, and -- at some point -- be sure to discuss the old chestnut about whether writing can be taught.

Here is Ron Carlson’s attempt to settle this question, from his uneven but creditable contribution to the genre, Ron Carlson Writes a Story:

Can writing ever be taught? The best answer to that was given obliquely by the 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 the people were happy. With a teacher you can go right up to where the writing is done; the leap is made along with vision, subject, passion, and instinct.

Frankly, I don’t think the question exists for which David Lee Roth has the best answer. His advice on happiness does not strike me as particularly wise, and I’m not sure what Carlson might mean by “where the writing is done.” This quote is on the second page, so the book does not have the most promising beginning. Carlson, however, unlike many authors of craft books, has earned some trust with me. Several of the stories in The Hotel Eden collection are among the most enjoyable and satisfying I have ever read, so I kept an open mind.

It soon became clear that -- as with the quote above -- Carlson is rather bad at dealing with any sort of abstraction. His passage on the difference between reading and writing, for example, is less than illuminating: “They are as different as walking through a strange city and folding a map correctly, as timing a swim meet and swimming in a cold river at night, as flying a plane and meeting a strange woman in a plane.” I encourage readers to try to figure out what is being compared to what, and whether anything interesting comes out of the connection.

Luckily, such moments are rare. Carlson is much better when he abandons the world of ideas for concrete details -- and this substitution is, in fact, something like his credo. The book consists of Carlson’s narration (with several asides) of how he wrote one of his early short stories, “The Governor’s Ball.” He began writing with no characters or plot ideas in mind, only the image of a mattress flying off the back of a truck. Then, over the course of the writing day, Carlson relates how he felt his way through paragraph after paragraph, always focusing on small physical details, until the story eventually revealed itself to him, complete with its own strange logic and beauties. And, despite some moments that strike me as a little false, it is good story.

Carlson’s two enemies during what he calls his attempt to “survive” this process are the urge to analyze -- that is, the desire to impose his will on the story, to plan it out, to make it mean something or another -- and the urge to stop: get coffee, celebrate a fine sentence, look something up, check e-mail, revise what he just wrote. His advice for combating these two urges is the meat of the book.

Not stopping is, I think, great advice for everyone. The extent to which forethought should be removed from composition, however, largely depends on the writer and the nature of her gift. Carlson repeatedly insists, Don’t think, and urges writers to allow the narrative to basically write itself, leaving the critical intelligence entirely for revision. I immediately thought of all the great authors who did not work this way. It is hard to imagine Borges, for example, stumbling into one his stories, most of which are deeply planned and built more around ideas than characters. And Frank O’Connor, maybe the greatest short story writer in English, insisted on writing down a four line “theme” before he began a story, sketching out the central events and relationships. O’Connor’s stories also quite often end with realizations, with beautifully articulated moments of understanding. Carlson writes that such moments only occur in “simplistic” stories, but I think this is only necessarily true if the mind behind them is a simple one.

So what’s the best way? Given the diversity of art and artists, it seems unlikely that there is an appropriate mindset for someone approaching a blank page. Every writer with something serious to say has a vision of reality and art that will have to be channeled and shaped using entirely novel methods. There are no particularly useful preliminary instructions other than to keep at it until it feels right. And this is where I think Ron Carlson Writes a Story has a function -- a function that goes some distance towards redeeming an otherwise undistinguished genre. My favorite parts of the book all concerned Carlson’s descriptions of how hard it is to focus on the story and keep working, and how essential this patience is to creating anything of value. Even people who feel like part of an artistic community end up, finally, alone at their desks, and it helps to have the voice of experience in your mind when you want to get up and chase the nearest comforting distraction. Carlson is a good friend in this respect, and worth listening to. The odd irony of craft books, though, is that in the end they are themselves the kind of distraction that they warn against -- for all parties involved. Authors write them when they should be focusing on their creative work, and aspiring writers read them when they should probably be doing the same.

Ron Carlson Writes a Story, by Ron Carlson
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1-55597-477-0
112 Pages