I love when the right book finds you at the exact right time. A few weeks ago before leaving town, I went to the library and checked out several craft books so they'd be waiting when I got home. Home now, I began with Ron Carlson's Ron Carlson Writes a Story and read it quickly, cover to cover. Definitely the book I needed and at the exact right time. A lot of the basics that I am wrestling with are addressed in Carlson's (clear, straightforward, blunt) little book, and I ended up taking away at least two pieces of solid advice: (1) let your coffee go cold and see it [the story] through; and (2) inventory, inventory, inventory. (There's also a fantastic section on dialogue that I'm planning to PDF for students.) I suppose these tidbits amount to that old "butt in chair" saying, but hearing it from Carlson is rather a nicer experience than being told to shut up and get one's ass in gear. Nicer not least of all because he dissects his own story, "The Governor's Ball," sentence by 'graph by scene and splays it out on the operating table for us to see. His protag is a pretty relatable guy — he's expected to attend the governor's ball but is, instead, covered in grime and headed to the city dump. On the way, his mattress flies off the back of his truck and so he pulls off the highway to search for it. Simple enough, right?
In the interest of talking in depth, analytically, about what I took away from Carlson's book, I met up with Jason for coffee and asked him to help me plot out a story about any random idea just to get a sense of what it's like to actually see a plot idea through. We started with four random articles from Wikipedia: (1) Bari Palese Macchie railway station, (2) Labyrinth (Labyrinth album), (3) Maikel Moreno, and (4) Chasle Tourbillon. We ended up with a spy story about a woman on the run, a la "The Garden of Forking Paths," but honestly, for me anyway, our experiment was too complicated and I couldn't keep all the details straight and it didn't help that I know nothing about spy stories and also I didn't understand "The Garden of Forking Paths" the first twenty times I read it and so basically I just sat there and sipped my iced matcha latte while Jason wrote. I did offer a few suggestions along the lines of "maybe she has large ears" and "I think they should go eat soup." For my purposes, I think we went wrong with selecting four super specific Wikipedia articles. As prompts go, they weren't exactly: (1) governor's ball, (2) city dump, (3) flying mattress, (4) annoyed wife. However, like most writing exercises, it was kind of sort of productive; and hey, we have another collab in our Dropbox folder. But our sad spy story didn't help me to really hammer home the ideas that I wanted to think about — slowly, deeply, personally. So here I am, doing some of that work now.
Generally speaking, I don't take breaks from blog posts. So I get what Carlson's saying about banging out a draft of something, of anything, in ideally a single sitting. I usually turn on my computer, search for an image to use, drag and drop it into the box, and then tap keys until I've ruminated to satisfaction. There's less pressure on a blog post, to be sure. The blinking cursor in a Word doc is not the same as the blinking cursor here. Here, I can just think aloud. It's not exactly crafted. At least, not with the same extended intensity of a poem or fiction or, god, a book. As I read them, Carlson's words spoke to me: "Every day that I write, all these days since I wrote 'The Governor's Ball,' I have come to a moment early where I wanted to leave the room. No one among us suffers the radical appreciation for coffee that I do. It calls to me, but I have learned not to listen. All the valuable writing I've done in the last ten years has been done in the first twenty minutes after the first time I've wanted to leave the room." I needed, right now, to be told to focus, concentrate, eliminate distractions, and push through the doubt and fear and all of that crap I don't need to explicate. You know what I'm talking about. Especially now, when it seems so selfish to be worrying about writing, about a book, about your own stupid "voice" because seriously? This country. But, small as it may seem, I have a job to do. This academic year, my income and my tuition benefit and my health insurance are all provided by my Steffensen Cannon fellowship. Dissertate or rot, is what that means. So there's no time like yesterday to get back in the practice of writing, daily and intensely, so I can finish the next draft of Fit Into Me by the end of July so I can get started in August on the first full draft of Beauty.
I needed to be reminded, too, of what Carlson calls "inventory." About halfway into his dissection, at the point when his protag thinks, "I still had half an hour to make the governor's ball," Carlson-as-author-of-the-story breaks in to share: "I've been typing for about an hour now and it feels as if I've exhausted what I know, what I had. [. . . But my] credo is: just follow, approach the unknown with simple knowns, stay in the physical world, figure what could be earned by what has gone before. [. . . ] Most of the ingredients necessary to the story should be in place by the two-thirds mark. No new inventory — nothing that hasn't been suggested by something that has come before — after that point." Then he breaks in again to offer a professorial talking point: "When reading a story, mark the two-thirds point with a pencil. Stop reading at that place and make an inventory of the story: characters, sets, events in progress, etc. If you'd written this far with these things, how would you close? How does your writer's projection compare to what the writer did? Are there significant new elements introduced after the two-thirds point?" He closes with this advice: "When writing a story based and centered on a single event, stay close to the physical world, closer than the real details. Don't plan or project, try to learn from what you've written, what you should write next. Listen closely, write closely, simply trying to evoke the real world of your story."
Since wrapping the first draft of Fit Into Me (back in 2015), I think I've always known that I'd have to write a scene or scenes from the bal masqué. I began to admit this about a month ago when "pine torch" stopped me in my tracks, for the second time. But I didn't let it go. And this past weekend, before even opening Carlson's book, I was back on track thinking it through. Thinking it through, though, and seeing it through are two very different things. Truly, I can overthink just about anything into an early grave. So now, after hearing Carlson's hundred-page analysis of "The Governor's Ball" and listening to him just talk about writing, being a writer, his own writing struggles, I am ready to revisit Fit and read it today, start to finish, for the first time in three years, and inventory what I've written about the events leading up to the bal masqué and events that take place after, and now that I think I'm ready I'm going to try like hell — tonight, at last — to finally see this new chapter through. You know, the irony's not lost on me that Carlson's narrator never does get to his ball. But dammit, it's time to get to mine.