Ron Carlson Writes a Story

In my brief career as a book editor, one of our key titles at the time was a diet book. When I was doing background research on the subject, I learned that each of the hundreds of diet plans works for only about five percent of the people who attempt to follow it. The trick, I figured, was for the dieter to find the diet plan for which they would be among the five percent.

I suspect that the same is true for creative writing guides.

I certainly felt that was the case when I read Ron Carlson Writes a Story. I saw this book recommended on another blog and quickly requested it at my local library. I’m not sure just what to say about this book. I can’t say I was disappointed exactly. I can’t say that I don’t recommend it. I can’t say his points are wrong. But I don’t know what I can say.

Carlson devotes the short book to the genesis and creation of one of his short stories. He goes sentence by sentence, even image by image, and gives an account of what he was thinking at these moments of creation. He implies that he began the story with no more than an incident (a mattress flying off the back of a truck) and that he had no idea where the story would take him. I’m not sure I wholly believe that. He may be saying it purely as an exercise for the book to show the evolution of the story. Or it may be the case that he truly did not consciously know what story he had when he began but that he had an accumulation of experiences and talent that he could trust to reveal the story he didn’t know he had. (The ultimate contrast in the intended and actual destinations of the protagonist suggests some significant plotting.)

I could not write this way, both not knowing where a story was headed and analyzing each sentence as I write it. As to the former, I have already spoken in earlier posts here. As to the latter, I suspect this analysis was done mostly in retrospect, either in one of the rewrites or for the purposes of the book. I certainly acknowledge the possibility that he paused after each sentence to give it a thorough scrutiny, but as I have said, I don’t think he did (at least in the fever of first draft writing).

I admit that I have come upon discoveries about my current work in progress that I had no inkling of when I started writing it, even one that changed the fundamental “point” of the story, but I did not (and could not) embark on writing it without at least an intended destination.

Regardless, he takes the reader slowly and carefully through the creation of the story, gleaning nuggets of writerly knowledge from each observation. It’s all good, but it’s also all idiosyncratic. While the book is insightful, I’m not sure that it is instructive, except perhaps for that five percent for whom it will work.

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