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?'