"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."
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.