Ron Carlson steps to the lectern at Changing Hands Bookstore. The podium sits beside the store's "writing" section, next to the books designed to instruct and inspire budding authors. Copies of Carlson's own new volume, The Hotel Eden Stories (Norton), are stacked nearby. The new book is a collection of short stories, but, in a way, it's a writer's guide, too, a here's-how for fiction writing that rivals the more didactic manuals on the shelves.
Carlson eyes the full house of familiar faces, mostly former students from his creative-writing classes at Arizona State University. He adjusts his slightly rumpled white shirt, takes a hitch to his khaki slacks and begins with "a new poem," a tradition at Carlson readings.
"I don't want to set the world on fire," one passage reads. "All I want to do is start a little spark."
Ron Carlson has been starting sparks in local writing students for more than 10 years. Former director of the Creative Writing Department at ASU, he's been on the faculty since 1986. He's authored two novels, Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Truants, and three short-story collections, The News of the World and Plan B for the Middle Class, and now, The Hotel Eden Stories. Carlson's books have never threatened the best-seller lists, but they've all been critically acclaimed and much admired by his peers. Pam Houston, author of Cowboys Are My Weakness, says one of Carlson's new stories, "A Note on the Type," in which Carlson parallels his artistic ideals with the fascination of a petty criminal for type fonts, "might be the best story in the English language." And rising literary star Brady Udall, whose recently published first effort, Letting Loose the Hounds, has been compared to Carlson's work, says Carlson is one of the best short-story writers in the country.
Such accolades mark Carlson as a "writer's writer," a craftsman who can stay true to his art, yet still get published regularly in Harper's, GQ and Esquire. What fuels Carlson's fiction is an almost palpable subtlety, a heartfelt examination of characters in quiet moments of change or crisis. These moments don't include guns or car chases or alien invasions from the final frontier. They do include humor and a wry talent for observation. Carlson's protagonists are often well-meaning, everyday people in search of answers to questions they never knew they asked.
More often than not, these bemused characters are young people. The two strongest stories in Hotel Eden involve a misfit high school student who gets involved with the homecoming queen ("Keith") and a college student who wrestles with emotional and sexual maturity while working a summer job in Phoenix ("Oxygen"). Carlson, in his late 40s, concentrates on characters who are young enough to be his grown children.
"I think one of the requirements of storytelling is to find someone at the hottest moment, or the sharpest moment, when they're turning," Carlson says during a conversation a few days before the Changing Hands appearance. "Many times, those moments are in the rites of some kind of passage. My work has migrated, my narrators are older, looking back at where they were. There's a sense of narrative distance in a lot of these pieces, but it's all about the hot moment. Why bother telling the story, why now? The story should implicitly answer that question by being about a moment of revelatory stress, a moment of intensity that's worth writing a story about."
That's the kind of talk that endears Carlson to his writing students. He instructs aspiring fiction writers to write from the inside out, from the small to the large. Writing, to Carlson, is the setting off of little sparks.
"You start very close and very real," he says. "Sometimes it's a memory, sometimes it's a distant memory. You listen and you stay in the room and pretty soon the story will come." He adds that the best way to get such a spark is to adhere to the old maxim that writers should write about what they know.
"Writing about what you know is a wonderful line for teachers. Everybody who's taught 11th grade--and I did--uses it to avoid reading a lot of bad science fiction. There's always these ardent science-fiction writers in the 11th grade who write about the planet Dwingor--what you end up getting is a lot of other people's experiences. Start at home. Start at the kitchen table. Start with the mother and son washing the dishes. You start with what you know, and if you stay close--this is one of the great paradoxes of writing fiction--if you stay close and vivid and particular, then you'll be able to write your way into the other room. But if you start on planet Dwingor, with, you know, its translucent gases, you're gonna have trouble getting back."
The creative process, to Carlson, is an embraceable mystery. He remembers first being interested in stories back in Mrs. Thornton's fifth-grade class in Utah. He went from writing classroom skits to penning parodies of Tarzan movies ("We had a little monster club, Johnny Ikester and Darryl Perry and me, and I wrote the stories we acted out. I liked being that person"). He went on to college at the University of Utah and wound up teaching at a prep school in Connecticut for 10 years. Not long thereafter, he hooked on at ASU.
Carlson's ideas on storytelling, his ways of looking at stories and prompting writers to write, are far from the airy-fairy, "right brain" models espoused by some books and instructors. He's not a big fan of waiting for the muse to alight on a writer's trembling shoulders. Carlson's philosophy is that instead of waiting for inspiration to show up, you should go out and get it by simply sitting down and starting to write. It may not be the easy way to go, but Carlson figures that's the point.
"In this book, I selected 12 of probably 20 stories," he says. "And of those 20, probably three were electrified by what we might call 'inspiration.' If you're going to be a writer, there's going to be lots of moments, a higher percentage than not, that are going to seem like work. And you're going to have to stay in the room when other people are playing outside, calling your name and saying, 'Come on outside and play.' The only artistic credo a writer has is, 'I can't go. I'm going to stay here.'"
Carlson drills into his students the idea of letting a story go where it wants to go. Outlines are like straitjackets in the Carlson creative process. It may be tempting to script plots, but characters tend to have their own ideas once the writing process begins.
"It's different than being a reporter," he says. "When a reporter goes out to write about a hearing or something, she better come back and write it up as it happened. If anything she writes up didn't happen, she's in trouble. My hardest students are seasoned journalists. These people who train themselves to write on deadline and get it done, they like a handle, and they don't like to let go of the handle. And so much of writing fiction is about a kind of letting go. You go in with a very strong affection or feeling for a moment, you write it down--I like to start with a place; my old line is 'nothing happens nowhere'--and you imagine people who are there at the time. Then it takes on a life of its own."
Carlson's classroom methods for teaching fiction writing are accented by a presentation that borders on theater. He'll dramatically stroll back and forth, head bowed in exaggerated concentration. He'll stop and do a little two-step. He'll pretend to jot down a particularly pithy comment he's just made. And he'll remind students that the few decidedly amateurish diagrams he chalks out on the blackboard are copyrighted, always including a little copyright symbol for good measure. He'll ask questions about stories: "What's at stake for whom?" "What does this character want?" "What does this character not want?" He'll then immediately quip, "Don't answer that question." Carlson's performance is laced with a subtle sarcasm delivered with a comic's sense of timing. It makes for an entertaining time. Addictive, too. Some students have taken his classes more than half a dozen times, with a few returning for repeat sessions long after they've graduated with their MFAs.
"The best thing about Carlson is his ability to be honest without eviscerating," says Meg Giles, a former student now in the Columbia University graduate writing program. "He finds the promise in stories, that's his genius. No matter what the story--like the planet Zork stories he's always talking about--he won't be discouraging to the creative process."
Giles figures Carlson's best advice is for writers to "write about what's hot for them personally." She adds that Carlson's accent on keeping stories personal is a technique lacking in her Ivy League classes. The message at Columbia, she says, is that stories must have a message.
"Carlson stays focused on the small and the particular, and he's not trying to teach lessons. At Columbia," she says, "the professors can be discouraging. Carlson pulls things out of the work; they all seem to be working an agenda."
She returned to Tempe on vacation and described her battles with her new professors to Carlson. "I'm becoming you," she told him, "asking, 'What's at stake for whom?' and 'What does this person want, what do they not want?'
"He told me that those weren't his questions, those were the questions. They're universal. When he's asking all those questions, maybe you don't need to have them all answered, but if you haven't considered them, you may not be where you should be."
Not every Carlson student is convinced. David Koen, now in the University of Arkansas' graduate writing program, says that Carlson's one of the more "traditional" fiction teachers he's had, disdaining Carlson's requiring students to memorize, then recite first paragraphs of well-known short stories. Koen says Carlson's dominating classroom presence can be a distraction.
"He has one of those big, electric personalities that can be as charming as it is irritating. He was Mr. Show Biz in class--dancing, joking, telling stories--which made the workshops go by more quickly, but I never felt any personal connection to him. He always seemed a bit distant one-on-one, hiding behind the glib facade."
Such sentiments, however, are overshadowed by Carlson's success. He takes his teaching methods around the country, doing workshops and consultations at writer's conferences and retreats. Occasionally, he'll procure a visiting professorship. Indeed, this fall he'll be teaching a semester at the University of Hawaii.
The concept of instructing people to write fiction is ridiculed in some circles. Best-selling author John Irving, a former student and teacher at the famed University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, has said the only thing a teacher can do is encourage good writers and discourage bad ones. Rosellen Brown, who's on the faculty at the University of Houston, says she has no problem telling some talented writers to stay away from MFA programs, that it's not for them. Still, creative-writing programs at colleges and universities have been big hits over the past two decades, and they're getting more popular.
"They're useful," Carlson says. "I can save a writer a lot of time. The way I like to look at it is the way David Lee Roth felt about happiness. He was asked if money can buy you happiness, and he said, 'No, but with the money, you can buy the big boat and go right up next to where the people are happy.' That's the way I feel about creative-writing programs. I don't think I can teach people to write, but I can teach them enough things that we can go right up next to where the writing happens. Then that leap has got to be made by the individual. I can save a person a lot of time in their first 20 stories; there are a great many things to be learned. The things that you can't teach are about passion and perseverance and dedication. How a person is going to stay in the room."
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Carlson figures the payoff for "staying in the room" is getting work published every few years or so. "I think the best parties are baby showers, weddings and book parties, in that order. They're the times when I'm certainly most full of a kind of affirmation. The weight of a book is terrifically exciting. I get the same things with my friends' and students' books. When it arrives, the tangible fact of the book--it's exciting."
Carlson describes the publication of The Hotel Eden Stories as a "nice moment." He figures it's his best book in terms of the breadth and reach of the material. When asked if he's considered attempting another novel, he shrugs and fidgets.
"I need to," he says. "But I'm still fooling around. I've got two stories on my desk, and they're too good; I love writing these stories. To write a novel, you need to walk out from your life about 10 miles and think about what you're going to do with the next two years, make a commitment and come back and carry it out. Stories don't require that, and that's part of the reason I write them. My life has been a bit piecemeal with my teaching--my plate is full, so I do what I can. I write regularly. But right now, I'm fooling around with these two stories, and I just love them, I can't wait to see what they become. I'm also writing a tiny book about writing, some of the things we're talking about here, and then, yeah, I do have the start of a novel. So my work is cut out for the next little bit.
"The way I work is just steady, steady. Very little every day. Some days you get more than others, but every day you get something. If you do that, you're well, and you can go forward.