INSCAPE: Not every great writer is a great teacher, but you have a reputation for being one of the best teachers of writing craft. In the introduction to A Kind of Flying you wrote that “the university is where writers disappear,” but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for you. How have you managed to balance being a serious writer and a serious teacher?
RON CARLSON: Well, I said that and meant it as a warning to myself and to my friends because you start to get comfortable in a community and then pretty soon you lose your grip. It’s really about paying attention, and as a teacher I began to see that certain things that I was doing made a difference. I was trying to figure out what kinds of things would have helped me when I was cutting my teeth. I began to focus on those and that’s when I began a sort-of diagnostic approach to fiction, fiction exercises, scene, and elements of craft; it all got my attention. It continued and even now as I’m sure that I’ll retire in the next year or two or three, I’m still kind-of captivated. It still has my attention.
There’s another feature, and that is I’m really proud to be a teacher. It’s not what I do second. It’s as real as anything I do. It’s certainly as real as my writing. I think that notion has been really instrumental in keeping me well in both worlds. Of course I love to write, of course I love to have this body of work behind me, but I feel the same way about my teaching.
I: What of writing can be taught?
C: Well, craft and the elements of craft can be taught by model and by explanation. The idea of how sentences might build a scene, point of view, and the elements of character that might be effective. And there’s never a single answer. There are always lots of things going on. But the things that can’t be taught are attention that a writer would bring, all of her spirit and attention to the moment of writing so that sentences are fresh and real. You can’t teach empathy, which is not talked about very much in writing classes, the idea of really understanding and occupying your characters. You can’t teach a vision, the world view that comes with the writer. It’s just part of the fabric that comes with her or his persona or character. And you can’t teach what a writer chooses to write about. It’s terribly important that a writer choose something that matters to her or him. The old story was, “Money can’t buy you happiness, but you can buy the big boat and go right up next to where the people are happy.” That’s the same with writing. I can’t teach you how to write, but I can take you right up next to where it’s done. Then, with your efforts, with empathy, attention, vision, and what you choose to write about, you can make the leap.
There’s a spirit in the best writing that’s inimitable. You can’t fake it and you can’t borrow it. Everybody knows that, and that isn’t what we’re trying to do with writing programs. We’re trying to make better readers and better citizens and a lot of times writing helps us to discover and clarify what we’re thinking.
I: What does this “inimitable” writing look like?
C: That’s a huge question. It’s a little bit like, “What is art?” Well, there’s a certain density, there’s a certain number of threads per inch. It’s not dilute and it’s not overwrought. Solid work that has a kind of reach that understands. The characters are knowing without being elliptical and there’s an understanding between the manuscript and the reader about the condition of the character. That’s created by what’s included and what’s left out and it’s that ineffable balance of good fiction that I call “reach.” But it’s not the best, simple, confident manuscript because there’s a lot of really impeccable and well-made prose. But this is a prose that has a deeper look, a perspicacity and insight into the condition of the character. That’s the best I can say it. I read hundreds of stories looking for these things and they emerge.
I: After your reading today you mentioned that writing students tend to be “language rich but story poor.” What did you mean?
C: Well, they’re afraid of their stories, their confidence, and their ability to handle material, and also they won’t give people occupations. The thing I say most to undergraduates is, “Into what life has this moment come?” Their stories are very much like a character who was born in the minutes before the event, and that’s not as valuable or as resonate as knowing how this moment might matter to this person because of where she’s been for two weeks or for ten years. That little bit of exposition on page two or three can really determine the value of the current moment. When we have these zero lives, these generic boys and girls, you know the story is in high trouble.
I: What other struggles do think beginning writers have?
C: They start writing about mediated experience, about things they’ve seen in movies. It would be so much better for them to write about going into the cafeteria with a Band-Aid on their nose than to write about a car chase. A person writing about the Band-Aid will have to invent it, I mean there aren’t that many scenes where we see what it’s like to be a girl with a Band-Aid on her nose. I try to get them closer, to choose venues for their fiction closer to home. Then there’s those age old questions of language, of hearing language that’s not been really thought about, a phrase like, “They made their way to the cabin,” or, “He exchanged glances with Doreen.” It’s a mild peccadillo, but we want to start sharpening that, get a little bit more muscle in.
I: What kind of a reader do you teach your writing students to be?
C: Steady. A writer needs to be steadily reading and in a range of work. It’s fun to find a writer you’ve admired, read all of her, read all of her friends, read all the other related work, and then see what else you can find out. I did that when I first encountered Scott Fitzgerald as an undergraduate, and I just went left and right through all his people. Then I eventually ended up with Cheever and Updike, and these are all American men, but they led me back to the women, through Grace Paley and Flannery O’Conner, young Ann Beattie. But there’s another feature of reading that is overlooked. We think as a writer you’re just reading to read because this is the world, you’re not really reading for instrumentation. You don’t read a story to find out how to make things left-handed or make the wind cold, but you end up finding those things out. They’re inadvertent, they gather, there’s a compendium of information that comes from reading steadily. You can’t really reduce it. It becomes part of a writer’s character and a writer’s toolbox, and all that information will be brought to the next story.
I: In Ron Carlson Writes a Story, you mention your teacher Edward Abbey and his credo: “If you want to read a good story, you’re going to have to write it yourself.” Does this “I-can’t-wait-to-finish-this-so-I can-read-it” mentality still sustain you as a writer?
C: Yeah. There’s a curiosity about what we’re making. I think, “Oh my god I thought this was going to be oblong, it’s actually square and inverted.” It’s just a curiosity, it’s not really pride. I’ve had people mistake it saying, “Well you’re proud of this or that,” and the truth is that eventually you can be, but there’s a distance. That’s not the initial thing as you’re going through. Usually you read it and think, “I’m not even sure if this will sit straight. I’m not even sure if the tires have got air in them.” It’s ineffable how you have more in your head than you know and it’s one of the great joys of writing, being able to look around in that closet, in your cranium, and find that thing that you didn’t know you had or that thing you thought you had lost. In the second thirty minutes of writing you should always look to have something creep up that you didn’t know, that you could not have told anybody on a bet that morning that you’d be writing.
I: Was there a story that surprised you the most?
C: The story that was shocking, that actually gave me chills when I wrote the last sentence, was the baseball story, “Zanduce at Second.” From the beginning I followed that story wherever it went, and when I finished that last sentence I sat there sort of sizzling. There are some places in that story that are as good as anything I’ll write. “Zanduce at Second.” Bang.
I: Do you ever write with your readers in mind?
C: Well, you don’t know your readers. I think that I work alone and that I’m my own reader. If I want to read the story then I think my readers will too. While I’m writing I also never think about who I’m going to send the work to, and it seems like when I finish a story and it’s ready for my writers’ group, or an editor, or an agent, I’m constantly apologizing for my work. I’ll say, “Dear John, here’s another story I wrote. I don’t know what you’re going to do with it because it has a this in it and a that in it.” So, I don’t know what to say about that question of the reader. I really caution my writing students to write as well as they can for themselves, but certainly there are times when you’re getting ready to take a story out of your room and you change the language in it, change some references, sometimes you change some names. But that’s simply for public consumption, safety reasons. I changed some of the language in my first book because my mother was going to read it and I’m glad I did. You can’t have your mother in the room while you’re writing, but in the end, there goes the book and you wrote it at full speed, grab it and change it! That’s just the way it is.
I: How have your concerns as a writer changed over the years?
C: We evolve as writers. I think we come out of the chutes looking to writer flavorful rites of passage stories. Without even knowing it, you’re writing what you know. You never have to look far. I began to write stories using what I knew and moving toward what I didn’t. In this way a vacation in Martha’s Vineyard evolved and an incident with my brother evolved. Those were the first two or three stories I wrote in college. After I left college to teach prep school, I began writing a novel about my college days. It was a love letter from a graduate’s world, Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Then I wrote a plot novel called Truants—I’m giving it a B+ (I was a young guy). Then I was going to write a novel called A Thousand People Later, just a great title, and I wrote seven or eight chapters of that novel before my children arrived. When my children arrived, I didn’t care if the two people in that novel got together or not, I had kids! And I couldn’t not write about those kids. All of a sudden, I went into the house of my heart, and there were other rooms in there that I didn’t even know about. So I started writing about that. My ability didn’t change as a writer, but suddenly my concerns got real and very close at hand. My prose improved just because my subject dragged me deeper. These rooms are my concerns. Then I wrote about relationships, marriage, then other people’s situations, contemporary American life. I’ve written a lot of stories lately about what it’s like to be a man living alone, what’s rueful about that and what’s glorious, the light and shadow of such a world. This last year, I got out from under a book I really didn’t want to be writing and I wrote a western, and now I’m writing a detective novel, which really has my attention. It’s fun to bring some of the understanding and skills I’ve developed to this conventional plot novel. I’m also playing with notes on a play; I would like to write a play. I have friends who are involved with the theater so there’s a way to have the thing read, which would be delightful. I’ve not started it yet, but I’ve got the world of the story. In the meantime what I’m going to do is finish this detective novel—hopefully this year—and then write a story or two. The idea of not having any obligations is really delightful for me.
I: You mentioned publishing Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald right out of graduate school. What was it like getting so much attention so young?
C: You know, I never thought of it. When I think of it now, I think, “Holy hell! I was twenty-nine when I published that!” But I didn’t think of it then, and I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve had this and that successes, and none of it has turned my head. I still love what I do. I wouldn’t have traded it. It makes me smile, it makes me happy, and it makes a few other people I know happy. It’s odd because I know some important writers who act important and I don’t want any of that. I’ve had some fancy stuff happen in some fancy places, but I would just like to get another dog and make a road trip. That’s where I am.
I: You mentioned in an interview that Five Skies and The Signal were written as straight narratives partially as a reaction to what you called “the great thickets of irony in which so much of American discourse is now struggling.” Are there other tics or trends in contemporary fiction that worry you? Any you’re optimistic about?
C: Well, I think the story that stands up, where something happens, something that we can read, a story that is written in strong and intelligent prose, that is something that will never go away. There it is. I’m optimistic about the story. There’s a lot of irony today as I’ve said. There’s a certain kind of fanciful, speculative edge. It seems like every story you read is about some guy that can’t afford a swing set, but his neighbor bought a really nice swing set, and the story has to have some kind of terror, fantasy, or subsurface, postmodern glint at the “other”. I’m not sure of that. That’s really fun and anything goes, but it can be oddly mute. That’s what I’m seeing. It’s hard.
I: Some critics have called you “the master of the rare happy ending,” but you seem wary of the idea of a “happy ending.” I think Michael Cunningham was perhaps more to the point when he said that you have an uncanny ability to chronicle human kind’s “quirky, unreliable potential for grace.” What kind of role does grace play in your stories?
C: In a way, I think you’re asking me if I’m optimist. Well, I like to improve the quantity of kindness is the world without being caught at it. That’s my goal. I think that even in the stories in which my characters get a little drubbed, get a little defeated, there’s a sense that they’re okay, that they’ll be redeemed. I don’t think that’s coming from any particular dogmatic view on my part; it’s the way I live in the world. It’s a little bit like what I was talking about before, about visions not being teachable. I don’t know if I got it from my folks, which I expect. I don’t know if I got it from my experiences, which I also expect. But I believe in the best. I think all of us, even those of us who end up short of what we were going for, are still better for our struggles. That’s the way I feel. That’s as close as I can say it.