Tag Archives: Alice LaPlante

Review: ‘Ron Carlson Writes a Story’

When people ask me the personal-experience question, my response is that I write from my personal experiences, whether I’ve had them or not. At first, this sounds like a joke and people laugh, but I’m not joking. Regardless of where I got the experience (or the story “idea”), I treat it personally; if it’s not personal, I don’t want to be involved. . . . I will explore it until I find the personal element and something sparks. Having a feeling for my material means sending myself on each journey, whether I’ve actually been there or not, and it involves the powerful act of the imagination that good writing requires: empathy.—Ron Carlson Writes a Story


Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson. Graywolf Press. 112 pages.

The amazing thing about how-to books on writing is this: some gal or guy who wrote successfully sat down one day and tried really hard to tell you how it was done. That’s not unique to writing books, I guess—entrepreneurs do it, and hit men—but writing is so challenging for most people, and so mysterious to everyone, that the simple fact of someone trying to give away hard-won lessons and secrets is impressive. And humbling.

Which is not to say that every writing book is good or, rather, that it’s good for you. Such a book is like any other: if I’m not informed and inspired, it’s not working for me and I quit. For instance, I consider The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, by Alice LaPlante, more interesting and useful, to me as a teacher and student, than the acknowledged long-time classic creative writing textbook Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway, which is fine. And recently I began reading an acclaimed book by a fiction writer who has an idiosyncratic approach and I soon thought, This is bad for me. Iput it down. That’s rare. But I know that very book might help me with my next project.

Ron Carlson Writes a Story had the opposite effect—even though it’s about writing a short story and I’m writing book-length nonfiction—it excited and inspired me. It helped me see how to make better scenes, to more effectively recreate dialogue, and to sketch settings with fewer but more telling details. (Interestingly it’s published by Graywolf Press, which published the previous book I reviewed, The Art of Time in Memoir; Greywolf must have a great list on writing.) Carlson’s book and his story it explicates model prose that I savored for its spare beauty. (I notice that I find craft books that employ plain prose more inspiring, perhaps because they make writing seem simpler, no problem to pull off.)

This short book follows “The Governor’s Ball” as Carlson writes it during one day. He conveys the hanging-in-there experience of writing for him. He does this almost line by line, kind of like this: I wrote A and then thought X and wrote B, which surprised me and I wrote Z; I wanted to take a break and celebrate but was at a dangerous point—didn’t know what was next—so I stayed there and this new character appeared and said . . . Obviously he isn’t a writer who plots his short stories or even who knows where he’s going. But his process of drawing from life and experience and intuition seems to result in discovery—he’s not bored, but interested—when he’s not mildly apprehensive (or scared shitless) that he’s going to hit a dead end or quit. He hangs in.

The latter point is key. He says: “The writer is the person who stays in the room.” To stay in the room, he doesn’t stop to ponder a name—if he can’t think of a good one, he plugs in a provisional one, Mickey for a guy and Doris for a gal—nor does he pause to consult a dictionary or a thesaurus. That’s for editing or polishing phases. Needless to say: no googling—and certainly no email reading or writing; the internet is a “heaping helping of what everyone else is thinking” and even reference sources “are simply metaphors for the critic, teacher, reader, editor, reactor in all of us, and we must leave these people out of the room.” He has learned not to leave his desk when he first wants to, which is always at a tough spot, not at a good stopping point, because, and this is his emphasis: “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.”

Carlson emphasizes that his method is to “build upward from craft.” That is, he may have one small incident (in this case, a mattress he was taking to the dump blew off his truck) that sticks with him; this becomes a story when he makes it happen on the day of the Governor’s Ball and sets a narrator in motion (as he struggles with that mattress, the testy guy’s impatient girlfriend shows up and reminds him they have the party that night). Carlson creates at the keyboard. In his way of working, the text tells him what comes next (if he stays in his chair) as he experiences the action and the setting, sees the characters and key “status” details. Always he looks for “the next thing” that happens to help him keep going, to help him “survive the writing of the story.” He trusts this process, and finds it teachable.

Vision, of course, is not teachable. Dreams are not teachable. The passion a writer brings to the page is not teachable. Can writing ever be taught? The best answer to that was given obliquely by rock musician David Lee Roth. When asked if money could buy happiness, he said, no, but with money you could buy the big boat and go right up to where people were happy. With a teacher you can go right up to where the writing is done; the leap is made alone with vision, subject, passion, and instinct. So a writer comes to the page with vision in her heart and craft in her hands and a sense of what a story might be in her head. How do the three come together? My thesis is the old one: they merge in the physical writing—inside the act of writing, not from the outside. The process is the teacher.


So whatever happened in his daydreams or his subconscious in the year between losing that mattress and deciding to write about is a blank, and he leaves it there. Nor does Carlson even hint why he united the mattress and the Governor’s Ball. Maybe because he lost the mattress in January and he and his wife had attended, in another year, the Ball in January. One senses (hopes?) there must have been more to start off with than he admits. But maybe not, at least not consciously, and his everlasting point is to trust the process and follow the story:


The process of writing a story, as opposed to writing a letter or a research paper, or even a novel, is a process involving radical, substance-changing discovery. If you let the process of writing a research paper on Romeo and Juliet change the advice the Friar gives to those young people, you’re headed for trouble. If you let the process of writing a story inform and change the advice an uncle gives his niece, you’re probably moving closer to the truth. I’ve also become convinced that a writer’s confidence in his/her process is as important as any accumulated craft dexterity or writing “skill.”

This is Carlson’s method—this exploration, this not-knowing-the-ending—what works for him. I’m not sure I could use it to write short stories. But it stimulated me by seeming honestly to reveal one man’s proven process for writing in an intuitive but workmanlike and disciplined way. And it resonated for me in terms of writing in general—what it takes to get work done, to discover what we know and feel, and to make a story better. This little book is a gem.

Do not be misled by the limited vocabulary the American marketplace uses to describe the possibilities for story and drama. If we’re really writing we are exploring the unnamed emotional facets of the human heart. Not all emotions, not all states of mind have been named. Nor are all the names we have been given always accurate. The literary story is a story that deals with the complicated human heart with an honest tolerance for the ambiguity in which we live. No good guys, no bad guys, just guys: that is, people bearing up in the crucible of their days and certainly not always—if ever—capable of articulating their condition.



Filed under discovery, emotion, fiction, REVIEW, working method

Make a scene

The big shocker this winter: making scenes is hard. At least it’s a lot more work to give readers an experience than to pound out summary. The payoff’s obvious—the reader gets to immerse in another life—and scenes may even help me cut swaths of fat exposition from my memoir. All this is clarifying, and my writing feels more like conscious craft these days. Always in this latest revision, I’m trying to bring more showing to the foreground and less recapping. Scenes are defined by action—something’s happening before our eyes—and usually include dialogue, a strong point of view, and are highly visual.

Donald M. Murray has a great example of the power of visual details in The Craft of Revision, Fifth Edition:


A parent always wants to protect a child and never, no matter how irrational it is, stops feeling guilty if a child is killed or dies from an illness, feeling there must have been something the parent could have done.



Remember me not

when I was kept from you

in the waiting room, not

when I sat in an office signing

your dying, not

when I pushed you on the swing

higher than you had ever flown

and you looked back as I grew small,

certain I would always be able

to save you.

In Murray’s poem about his daughter’s death, in a flashback we see what he saw—her glance back—that revealed her confidence in him. We understand, without being told, that the memory, surely always poignant, now haunts him because he let her down. He couldn’t save her. Since we see this, we understand his emotions, his feeling of loss and guilt—even that he betrayed her trust. That such a short, spare piece can stir empathy and convey so much is astonishing.

Perhaps in a longer scene, and surely in a narrative made of scenes, the writer might move readers to feel an emotion as well as to empathize. Just explaining won’t hack it, because the two techniques trigger completely different areas of the brain, explains Jordan E. Rosenfeld in Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story one Scene at a Time. Visual scenes of unfolding action stimulate the brain’s visual cortex—our mind’s eye—and allow readers to participate. In contrast, exposition affects the inner ear. “While the eye allows the reader to become emotionally involved, and activates the heart and the viscera, the inner ear seems to be linked more closely to the function of sound,” writes Rosenfeld. Voice is important, she allows, but explaining can make readers feel bored, like they’re “sitting passively by and receiving a lecture.”

Here’s part of a scene from Alice Munro’s story “Royal Beatings”:

“All right,” he says, meaning that’s enough, more than enough, this part is over, things can proceed. He starts to loosen his belt.

Flo has stopped anyway. She has the same difficulty Rose does, a difficulty in believing that what you know must happen really will happen, then there comes a time when you can’t draw back. . . .

At the first or maybe the second crack of pain, she draws back. She will not accept it. She runs around the room, she tries to get to the door. Her father blocks her off. Not an ounce of courage, or of stoicism in her, it would seem. She runs, she screams, she implores. Her father is after her, cracking the belt at her when he can, then abandoning it and using his hands. Bang over the ear, bang over the other ear. Back and forth, her head ringing. Bang in the face. Up against the wall and bang in the face. He shakes her and hits her against the wall, he kicks her legs. She is incoherent, insane, shrieking: Forgive me, Oh please, forgive me! Not yet, he throws her down.

Saying “My father beat me” lets us know a fact but doesn’t help us imagine the experience. With our intellects, we can understand only the tip of the iceberg. So making scenes is the technique of choice when the writer is asking for readers’ emotional understanding. Here’s a scene from near the end of Bernard Cooper’s memoir essay “Winner Take Nothing”:

After loading the boxes into my car, I came back inside the kitchen to say goodbye. “I have something for you,” my father said. He beamed at me and stepped aside. Atop the counter, a pink bakery box yawned open to reveal an enormous cake, its circumference studded with ripe strawberries. Slivered almonds, toasted gold, had been evenly pressed into a mortar of white frosting, every spare surface dotted with florets. In the center was written, in goopy blue script, Papa loves Bernard. For a second, I thought there’d been some mistake. I’d never called my father Papa. Dad, yes. Pop, perhaps. The nickname didn’t mesh with the life I knew. If the years of silence between us had an inverse, that cloying, layered cake was it.

Back to Donald M. Murray, who says in Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem that the light went on for him about this fundamental building block when someone told him, supposedly quoting Joseph Conrad, to write narrative in “scenes of confrontation.” In the above example, conflict suffuses Cooper’s scene.

Lest we get too simplistic about the components of scene, Alice LaPlante observes in her excellent textbook The Making of a Story that all scenes blend telling and showing. There’s much more telling than is recognized, she says, because technically only three things constitute showing: dialogue; actions; and basic objective descriptions of objects or settings that a reader would see if he were there. She’s a little strict about this, but is making a point to strike at the sanctimony of those who advocate pure scene-by-scene construction. The depiction of viewpoint, so basic to voice and usually intrinsic to scene, is telling.

Writers fall somewhere on a continuum of showing vs. telling, their particular mix defining their style, says LaPlante, who prints a scene from Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres that’s mostly shown; another passage from Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News leans more heavily on relaying point of view; and the opening scene of Flannery O’Connor’s famous story “Everything that Rises Must Converge” uses telling and showing equally for rich texture and satisfying point-of-view lines like, “Everything that gave her pleasure was small and depressed him.”

But try to show the important stuff, LaPlante emphasizes. Use exposition (she calls it narration) to fill gaps (which, she shows, arise constantly within scenes) and to set up a scene. “Ideally,” she writes, “these two elements of writing are organically intertwined.” Recognize that “often we can tell something more efficiently, elegantly, beautifully, or subtly” than by dramatizing it.

So this matter is complex, but the writer’s gut seems a good guide. The important lesson I’ve taken is to use scenes of unfolding experience involving action and conflict whenever possible, whatever their mix of two very different modes of writing. Yeah, it’s basically the timeless advice “Show, don’t tell,” if tell isn’t taken too literally.

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Filed under emotion, memoir, scene