Ron Carlson’s most recent novel is Return to Oakpine. His short stories have appeared in Esquire, Harpers, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly, as well as The Best American Short Stories, The O’Henry Prize Series, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction and other anthologies; they have been performed on NPR’s “This American Life” and “Selected Shorts.” Ron Carlson Writes a Story, his book on writing, is taught widely. He is the author of two books of poems, Room Service and The Blue Box. He has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Cohen Prize at Ploughshares, the McGinnis Award at the Iowa Review, and the Aspen Literary Award. Mr. Carlson directs the Graduate Program in Fiction at the University of California, Irvine.
From Ron Carlson Writes a Story
And that is process. 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.”
Sometimes this can be a hard sell to beginning writers because it feels like a mystery. They see things: articles full of how-to advice or books full of finished stories accompanied by study questions. But between the nuts and bolts of prose construction, character work, dialogue strategies, and the sweep of the short masterpieces of Western literature, there may be other notes useful for the writer.
From “A Kind of Flying”
That was twenty years ago this week. So much has happened. I’ve spent a thousand hours carpeting the rooms and halls and stairways of Stevens Point. Brady and I now have three boys who are good boys, but who–I expect–will not go into the carpet business. Brady has worked hard on her art. She is finished with her new book, Obelisks, which took her around the world twice photographing monuments. She’s a wry woman with a sense of humor as long as a country road. Though she’s done the traveling and I’ve stayed at home, whenever she sees any bird winging away, she says to me: There you go.
And she may be kind of right with that one. There have been times when I’ve ached to drop it all and fly away with Brady. I’ve cursed the sound of airplanes overhead and then when she comes home with her camera case and dirty laundry, I’ve flown to her–and she to me. You find out day after day in a good life that your family is the journey.
And now Linda’s oldest, Trina, is getting married. We’re having a big family party here in Stevens Point. Butch and Linda have all come north for a couple of weeks. Butch has done well; he’s a lieutenant colonel. He’s stationed at Fort Bliss and they all seem to like El Paso.
Trina came into the store yesterday pretending to look at carpet. People find out you’re married for twenty years, they ask advice. What would I know? I’m just her uncle and I’ve done what I could. For years I laid carpet so my wife could be a photographer, and now she’ll be a photographer so I can retire and coach baseball. Life lies before us like some new thing.
It’s quiet in the store today. I can count sparrows on the wire across the road. My advice! She smiled yesterday when I told her. Just get married. Have a friend sing your favorite song at the wedding. Marriage, she said, what is it? Well, I said, it’s not life on a cake. It’s a bird taking your head in his beak and you walk the sky. It’s marriage. Sometimes it pinches like a bird’s mouth, but it’s definitely flying, it’s definitely a kind of flying.
The way Craig Ralston found out that his old high school buddy Jimmy Brand was coming back to town was that Jimmy’s mother had called him for help. There was a time when Louise would have tackled this whole project alone, but now it was too much and it had come up too soon. She called Craig at his hardware store downtown, and he came out one night after work. It was August. All the cottonwoods in his old neighborhood, pretty as a park so long ago, were now towering giants, clustering leafy cumulous that shaded the district and sounded like a river in the wind. They had split the sidewalks and dwarfed the old bungalows, half of which were still occupied by their original owners. The trees were the theme here, and Craig, who was happy for his move to the scrub oak mountain and the new mansion, felt them get to him as he went to her little porch. When he knocked, she didn’t invite him in but came outside and took him around to the garage. It was a classic one-bay garage that her husband had erected with community help years ago, wooden frame, plank walls, wooden shingles, peaked roof, a one-paned window with a layer of dust on it thick as speckled paint, and a little side door. This place was the old band to Craig, the room where he and Jimmy Brand and Frank Gunderson and Mason Kirby, who had lived three houses down, had practiced a hundred afternoons that fall. The little building hadn’t been opened for ten or twelve years, maybe longer.