A TALK BY RON CARLSON
I just want to talk about a few things maybe slightly differently than we're used to speaking. So many times when a writer travels . . . I've been a teacher for thirty years, and what you do is you get kind of the same information but in different language, and I think that's what I am going to be bringing you, is some of the same information you've been in hearing maybe in different language.
I've written and published dozens and dozens of stories in the last years, and I'm primarily a story writer. We can talk about writing a novel if you want to, I've just finished a draft of a novel. In fact, one of the emails I just answered was that my editor is now ready to talk, and we'll start that process in the next week or two. But primarily, for me, it's been stories, and I've ended up writing them differently than I thought. When I first started writing, it was very strange because I waited and waited. I had some good ideas and I wanted to write, but I wasn't confident, I kept thinking, Well, I'll just wait until I know the whole story, and then I'll go somewhere and write it. I had a good idea, Oh, that's a good idea, but what would it be? Then the rest of it wouldn't appear to me. I'd see one colorful or arresting edge, and I was nervous about that. I wasn't used to going in or heading off somewhere without knowing where I was going. And what I've learned to do is exactly that. So I began writing when I was your age, writing stories that were very strange to me, and very unmanageable, almost, I mean I can't exactly recount how I wrote them. There are stories that I know exactly how I wrote, and I'll talk about a few of those. I think if you write a hundred stories, there are going to be moments that seem like, some stories that seem like gifts. I mean karmic, magical gifts, but not very many of them.
And so of the hundred stories I've published, I would say that how many of those stories did I know the ending of when I started? And the answer is four. Okay, three. Two. So that's very strange to me. That's kind of a confession, and so I've learned that the one thing I know that's different for me now than when I was first starting is that when I start a story I know I'll get it. But I don't know what it is. I don't know what it's going to be. Sometimes I don't know if they're going to be serious or comic. I wrote a story called "Zanduce at Second" about the baseball player who killed the people. "Zanduce at Second" is a concept story. What if there's a baseball player who killed people with foul balls? A great athlete who could just hit a screaming foul ball into the stands in such a way that people were harmed, killed. What would that be? I'm an old baseball player, so I was thinking about that. I like when the proscenium is broken, you know, whenever the play comes into the audience or vice versa. And so that had my attention.
I see that the regions from which I've taken my story ideas are my own experiences, things that have happened to me. Such as the boiling oil story we were talking about earlier, what we wanted to do came from a notion one night when I saw something on television. Actually, I saw the old Hunchback of Notre Dame with Charles Laughton, which is a great version. Actually I'd seen both. Anthony Quinn was in that in 1957, and Esmerelda and the whole ticket. But the oil, I thought, wow, they were lucky that was warm. What if it was, oh, what if? So you have What if a baseball player, so What if boiling oil wasn't boiling? And those are concept stories. I'll talk about those in a minute.
Most of my stories are drawn from my own experience, literally things I've confronted, so that I did drop a mattress off a truck in Salt Lake City. One time in February I was headed for the landfill and I had a bunch of junk on there, and topped by a mattress. This was an old Ford—it didn't have these hooks—I put this wire in the hole and what happened was the little wire, which were these old rusty coat hangers, one broke, the rope went, the air caught the mattress, it went off the truck, but it went off the freeway. And I was five stories from the ground. I mean this mattress, there's a chance I killed people. It's the largest thing I've dropped the furthest. In a way, that's the way I think of what a story idea is. What's the longest thing you've dropped the furthest? Or what's the most sick you were, or the furthest from home, or each of those things? And our inventories on those things as human beings is huge and kind of arresting. A writer is a person who pays attention to her life and wants to know about it. And that doesn't mean exactly what happened, but maybe what the truth is underneath what happened.
So yeah, I draw things from my own experiences, and that's not teachable is what you decide to write about. I think the mandate is that you have to write about something that matters to you. And that's all. I don't look to movies of the week or mainstream culture for any ideas. I wouldn't know what they would be. You know diseases were popular for a while, and I wouldn't want to write about a disease unless it mattered to me. And it's legitimate to write about a disease, loss, death, all these things that happen, but it has to matter to you. I mean, if it matters to you it's legitimate. There's a chance that if it doesn't matter to you, someone else is writing it. And if they are, let them. It's too much work for me to go through it.
So things from my own experience that leap out. I mean sometimes it isn't all these, you know, I've never witnessed a bank robbery, although I've read about thousands and thousands. And when you send me your manuscript, don't put the bank robbery in there. And I don't know exactly why certain things cling to us, why they jump out. It's a little bit like the way we misremember. I think memory is just as challenging, as interesting and as prismatic as imagination. Imagination's championed over memory, and memory is such a reliable thing, but not really. And so when we're both at the same event, we both remember it slightly differently depending on who we are. Sometimes a flurry of leaves ticketing across the street in the fall can put someone in tears and everybody else is annoyed because they're going to have to rake in the morning. So it's that kind of thing, the sensibility.
I told you about the story last night that was based on that speech class incident, but I wrote a story, the story I wrote before that was a story called "Rocket Day" where, here's what happened: my son was making a rocket for his senior physics class in high school. And they make them out of these two-liter pop bottles, and they turn them upside down, and then you're judged on design and you make a parachute system. It's really quite a good assignment, and I really wanted to help him make that rocket, but every time I came in the garage, he'd turn and point: "Get out! Get out! Not your rocket." And I was trying to see, he went with three fins instead of four, and a tear-drop shaped fin, and it was really a piece of work, and he painted it orange. So I knew the day was Friday at nine he would be launching his rockets, and I had forgotten about it. I was at home, and when I work at home, I don't really get properly dressed. I have an old pair of Levi's and an old L. L. Bean shirt with the collar frayed out and a pair of slippers which is not a pair. I mean they're a pair now, but they're two different slippers, they're working for me. I've done a lot of writing in these clothes, and Fridays are a day when I try to stay home and work. So I had forgotten that it was rocket day, and at nine o'clock I remembered, slapped my forehead, and ran over and got in my car, my old beat-up Explorer, and drove to the high school. And went in the wrong way, parked crossways in all these beautiful cars the high school kids have. The physics class was on the football field, and I could see them. It was a beautiful day, and the children were there, these kids. The physics teacher was there, a woman. So I had my glasses, I got my binoculars out, I had brought them, and leaned on the hood of my car and was looking at the rockets, and one went up, "Sssssss!" just like that, and I was so far that it went, and then I heard it, and I thought, Oh, Colin's will be better than that. I noticed that one wasn't orange, and then I saw him with his rocket, I was in time, I was going to make it.
But then I had this story idea. And you've had this feeling, and I'm just saying this so that we're all on the same page. And what it was was, I heard gravel popping in the wheels of a golf cart. And someone was approaching, and I knew without lifting my binoculars that it was the security guard. This guy in a black t-shirt, and the t-shirt reads in big letters, SECURITY. And I knew the guy because my other son had had a run-in with him earlier in the week, and he came up and said something like, "Can I help you?" Which means, "You're under arrest" or "Get out of here." And so, then I had that feeling—don't you have that feeling?—where all of a sudden I felt literally beside myself. As if I had moved over here, and I was watching Ron Carlson, and I thought, in my heart, really what I was doing was I thought, I am going to win this with him. I was going to pull rank in some way, I was just going to . . . But that was the moment then. Me in my stupid little middle-class life confronted by the security guard. He didn't want me glassing the co-eds on the football field. Some geezer is over here. What's he doing with the children. So there are lots of ways to think of how that became the colonel of "Rocket Day."
I could give you lots of other examples. I won't. Is that a story? No. How would it be a story? I've learned that there is something there for me, something warm, an ember that I want and the only way I can find out is by going in. Starting writing. I have to write my way to find the story. So I am always writing to find. When I was at Beloit for a term, I wrote an essay for Tom McBride on why we write, and I wrote about rocket day for him. And I said I am writing to find out, that's why I am, in a sense, all these things . . . I know I was there when it happened, but I wonder what it is. So my own experiences, then the experiences of others which I steal, you know, someone will say something, and I'll hear ten things and none of them, and then the eleventh one will stick to me, and I'll think, Oh, I want that. Someone will say something very curious about a summer job they had or someplace they lived or just the oddest thing, and that's another thing that's not teachable, why what sticks to us sticks to us. I've heard some arresting things. Stories, true stories, I am sure you have too, that have no valence for me. I don't want them. But other things, just the very shadow I think, Oh, I am going to take that.
And I've done that a lot. I did it with a story called "Phenomena" about the sheriff who doesn't want to see a UFO, but one of my friends who is now a headmaster of a school in Massachusetts had as his summer job taking boats underground in underground caverns one summer at a kind of a natural amusement park. And he'd get them in these boats and they'd pull them through the caverns then he'd tell the legend of the caverns. It's just good stuff. I thought, I am taking that. And I gave it to my guy as a summer job. And then the third area is these concepts. What if there's a baseball player who killed people? What if the boiling oil did not boil? Those are trickier. This is a different thing. These other two require empathy. I mean that's the thing that people don't talk about very much in craft classes. And it's a requirement for fiction. That is to say, you have to occupy the person. There is no such thing as other people. Everybody has a motive, and it's not necessarily sympathetic . . . just that notion, there's no such thing as other people. So radical empathy, which comes from kind of what I said last night about radical attention, that I am looking for fiction in the stories I read, and I judge contests like everybody else, I read way too much, like everybody else, that I'm looking for a book, I'm looking for a story or a fiction or a prose that has every sentence has had attention. Every sentence has been worked and thought about and considered. That I am not the first guy here. And I read a lot of sentences sometimes where it feels like I'm the first guy. That the writer missed it, and I should put it straight. I mean that simply as a teacher.
So the empathy, being in with the character, and one of the things then, since I don't know where I'm going when I start a story, why would I hurry? I see a lot of stories that are determined to get to their last line, and they hurry toward it, and they ignore and abuse and miss a couple of opportunities. It's as if the point of the story is the point of the story, which it is not. The point of the story is page two, something sweet on page two. I love that Guterson's book Snow Falling on Cedars, but what I loved about that book was in the first page where the courtroom is like this room, and it's all one wall is windows, and the snow is falling against the windows. With no windows in the courtroom I wouldn't have read another page. And then, somewhere about page a hundred and fifty there's a great moment when the guy's come back from the internment camp, the Japanese-American, to see the woman who has betrayed him because the man who promised him the land has died, and his widow is not going to keep the promise. And the man stands there on the porch, on this wooden porch, and as she's saying, you know, no way, absolutely not, the orchard is not going to be yours, it's mine. My husband may have said that, but nobody knows and I'm not going to keep a promise. But what happens is the wind comes in, fills his shirt, it goes in the sleeve of his short-sleeve shirt, and it builds up his shirt for a minute, it goes on. That's the truth in the moment. That's the truth in the book.
I am talking about embodying. In fact I am talking about embodying a moment, putting it in the bodies more than I am moving toward the point. And one of the words I say least of all in my teachings at ASU or anywhere is the word "theme." The theme is going to be there no matter what you do. You don't need to schedule your theme. You write a good story, the theme will pop out. Annie Dillard said it, she said you scratch an event, and theme comes out of it. And I am an event guy. I keep my nose down. I wouldn't know an idea if it was . . . . I am sure there is something in here that I am missing. I got a bunch of emails after my story appeared in Best American Short Stories last time, "The Ordinary Son." I got a bunch of emails. This first one said, Hey Mr. Carlson you're such a good writer. We like your work so much. Hey listen, on that story "The Ordinary Son," what theme were you writing toward? You know if you could just tell me, that would be a great help. Thanks. Love your writing. And so I got about eight of these, so I wrote back to the first girl and said, I don't write for theme. I was seventeen and had a job at motel, maintaining a motel in Houston, Texas, and I realized I was developing a private life. It was a heavy time for me, and I wrote a story based on sweeping the driveway and the other things I did, the girl I met. And so she wrote back to me and said, That's the wrong answer. Okay, what's the theme, cough it up, my teacher won't accept that, come on, what is that? So I looked at the story again, and there were some themes in there. Being smart doesn't guarantee you'll be happy, I sent that one back. I had about eight of these emails, and I gave them all a different theme. I wrote them all back. I never saw so many themes in my work.
But I don't work toward theme like that at all. The last kid wrote to me and said, I said, Tell your teacher she owes me a milkshake because I've done all of this work for her, and he said, No, it's not, you don't understand. Part of the story had appeared on the Quebec exit exam for high school. I don't know how they did that because it has some risky stuff in it. So he said, But I'll get you the test booklet, I'll put it in my jacket and ask to go to the restroom. And I said, No, no, Louis. Don't do that.
So I don't think about theme, and you know that, probably. But I just work from event, and I've learned that by trusting the event and paying attention to the event and by evolving the event and letting it migrate, I start with what I know and then write toward what I don't. As soon as I can't touch bottom anymore, as soon as I'm off the foundations of what I was thinking, that's when the story, that's when that moment happens, and that's when most writers would leave the room. I've left the room. The most important thing I'll say to you now is that I write every day, that's pretty true. And every day I work, I want to leave the room. I don't mean some of the time or about half the time I want, I mean every day. I think, I've had this thought, I don't know if you've ever had it, but I have it all the time, that maybe I'll be smarter in the other room. I go in the other room, I'm just not feeling very smart right now, I've come to a point and it's a little blip, it's a very small problem, not a big problem. Not a decision about whether, which war to invoke, or where it should be set. But some small thing about somebody's name, or they'll be drinking coffee and I don't believe in the coffee. Something about it feels a little thin, a little anemic. You know, if you said, I have a cabin in the woods in Utah, everybody says, Oh, I want a cabin in a woods and I'll write all day. I'll write till my family worries about my health. Oh, Ron, come, take some nourishment. Have some crackers and soup. Stop that! Come away from that typewriter. And your eyes would be cross-eyed, and you would be weary, and bleary, and pale.
I don't want that. I don't want the whole day. I've been in the cabin in a woods. And if you get a cabin in the woods, I'll tell you what you'll have. There's firewood, there's a screen door to fix, the fridge is always going out. What I want is about an hour and a half a day. In an hour and a half you can write seven hundred words if you take a deep breath, and if you're not too hard on yourself and you keep the editor out of the room. And so what I do is every time I want to leave the room, I . . . you don't have to stay here all day. Don't have to solve every problem. Just have to write through this thin part. This feels a little bloodless, it's stupid, it's substandard, to use a polite term. Just write through that. Just work. Just type. It's just that stupid. And it is. It's just like hitting a rock with a hammer. And I do that for twenty minutes. And that is so interesting, there comes a moment, you've had this too, I love this moment because its almost an invisible moment. I don't even want any coffee now. I don't need to get up and get coffee. I've crossed to the other side, and I own my house again. And it's so interesting. And I will have written just five wooden sentences, or six. And I'm made.
There are days when I leave the room, I'd get up and go down to the kitchen and get some Mr. Coffee and Mr. Refrigerator and Mr. Newspaper. I've got three cats, so the day, you know, the world wants us, and the world gets everybody. It's hard to write. It gets most of my students. I'd say it gets seventy-five percent of them eventually, and it should. I mean, it kind of should. I don't know that writing is any better that being good at certain other things.
So I stay in the room. The other thing I do, the only other thing I am interested in, is surviving the draft. People say, Oh that story of yours, it's lined up, it looks like you did the backstroke all the way across, it's so beautiful the way you did the backstroke all the way through that story. How did you do that? And I talk, I talk frankly about my stories, but what I did is not drown. I would just not drown. I just want to keep my head above the surface in the draft, until I cross to the other side. I never ever come out where I thought I would. I strike the far shore, some way, I can't even recognize where I started. Then there's a time to fix it. A lot of writing is of course work and rewriting. And so one of the ways I don't drown is I include. And what I include is as much inventory as possible, especially in a concept story like "Zanduce at Second." When I started that story I was really nervous. I don't want to stop writing. I don't want to have to get up. The end. Page four. I have all these four-page starts, go down to the kitchen and that's the world I can't write. I know for a fact that the reason there is a Starbucks on every corner in America is that these people couldn't stay in the room. They had to go get their coffee and they sit in public and announce, say, I quit. I couldn't do it.
And so the way I do that is by being all that stuff we talked about. By being specific, by including things, I take the long way around. I am used to writing thirty-two pages to get eighteen all the time. The story I read last night, it comes in at about four thousand words. The first draft of the story was nine thousand words, and I wasn't even halfway done with that first draft. And when I was your age, I wasn't going to do that. Write nine thousand words to get four thousand? Where's the door? I want to coach volleyball. It would be easier. No, it's not easier, coaching volleyball is very difficult. I don't want to do that. I wanted to write one silver story perfectly, and have very word contoured, Oh, Ron, you're so good, that's just golden. But it's work, I mean it's bloody work, and my folders reflect that, and I am sure yours do, too, and you know that.
And so in "Zanduce at Second," when I wrote the first sentence, the first sentence of that story is, I just took a deep breath and I give everybody a name, and sometimes when I don't believe in the character I give them three names, And it is that, "By his thirty-third birthday, a gray May day," so you can hear me trying not to finish the sentence. It's like when I had the mattress in that story that fell off the truck, I am trying to go as long as long as I can, the mattress is my motor, you see. I've got it. I've got the money, I've got a dollar in my pocket, the mattress gets to go off the truck. I'm rich, so I can write all day, but as soon as drop the mattress, I'm done. Leave the room. Go to Starbucks. I tried to get one or two or three thousand words before the mattress would fly off the truck, and it's really nervous-making because by the time that happens then there has to be an inventory, a trajectory, and a constellation of events in place that might help me further. The material is going to help me find my way. I am not some pioneer who is going to make his way to the end of the story with a machete on ground that nobody's ever trod before. I'm going to lean heavily on the inventory that I've created, and so by the end of this sentence there's a woman who didn't exist when I started the sentence, not even in my head. And of course when you introduce a character, that's a huge responsibility in terms of how it's going to come back for you. But that's the same as if a person goes into the room and the room's too . . .
Clint [McCown] had an office in Beloit, I was thinking about it today, it was in an old Carnegie library, but to go into his office he had a hallway about as long as this room, and then he had his bookcases there, so you kind of had to move aside, it was the dumbest thing I've ever seen, the way he had arranged it. So if you used that hallway in the way they put the bookcases, or if you put a piano in the entry then that's going to come back for you and help you. Something on the floor, I had a house once where the kitchen was carpeted, it's not a good idea. So the sentence is this, "By his thirty-third birthday," see I don't even know why I gave him the birthday, "a gray, May day, which found him having a warm cup of spice tea"—this tea comes back for me about five times—"on the terrace of the Bayside Inn in Annapolis, Maryland," the hotel I just invented, "with Carol Ann Menager," oh let me just read the sentence. "By his thirty-third birthday, a gray May day that found him having a warm cup of spice tea on the terrace of the Bayside Inn in Annapolis, Maryland, with Carol Ann Menager, a nineteen-year-old woman he had hired out of the Bethesda Hilton Turntable Lounge at eleven o'clock that morning, Eddie Zanduce had killed eleven people and had a reputation for it, was famous, actually, for killing people, was, really, the most famous killer of the day, his photograph in the sports section of the paper every week or so, and somewhere in the article appeared the phrase 'eleven people,' or 'eleven fatalities'—in fact, the word 'eleven' now had that association first, the number of the dead. In all the major-league baseball parks his full name could be heard every game day in some comment, the gist of which would be, 'Popcom and beer for $10.50, that's bad, but just be glad Eddie Zanduce isn't here 'cause he'd kill you for sure,' and the vendors would slide the beer across the counter and say, 'Watch out for Eddie!' which had come to supplant 'Here ya go!' or 'Have a nice day!' in conversations even away from the parks."
So that's one of the longest sentences, probably the longest sentence I had ever written to that point, although there's two other longer sentences in here. And so he's having a warm cup of spice tea on a gray, May day in Annapolis, Maryland with a young hooker, so now I've got all this responsibility to them. I did a story once, I write some nonfiction, I did a story on mountain-climbing where there's a young guy named Jim Woodmansey in Jackson Hole who had saved three people's lives in climbing accident, and I'd been snowed in the mountains the year before, so I went up, I called him, I went up and I met these people. I met one of the survivors whose toes, his whole feet were black. He had just gotten out of the hospital, it's an interview where he was lying on the couch with his blackened, frost-bitten feet, he later lost all of his toes, and then I met with Woodmansey, and Woodmansey told me the whole story in about three hours in his place as the light failed one afternoon in Jackson Hole. And when I drove away from him I had a feeling that I didn't connect with fiction writing for about a year, but I was really sad. I mean, this very healthy, brilliant young guy had saved two lives, and he had told me his story and now I had it. It was like this huge weight, I thought, I'm responsible for this now.
And when you create a character in a story you are responsible in the same way. Sometime they are going to be slight, sometime they're going to be comic, but you're responsible, and that responsibility means that kind of empathy and occupying the character in such a way that the waitress or the piano teacher or whoever it is gets a new day. You're inventing it. I think that's one of our responsibilities as writers is not make the highway patrolman or anybody in a uniform, sometimes that's hard because uniforms want to make people generic, unique and your person.
There's one other thing I want to tell you about the story "Zanduce at Second." So he spends the afternoon, he's lying there on the bed with his ankles crossed and his hands behind his head, they'd been shopping together, and they haven't had sex. He didn't hire her for that. He hired her for company so he could survive the afternoon with the burden of all this harm that he has created. And she's getting dressed there and says "Who are you? I've seen your name and picture. Are you an actor?" And he says no. And he tells her that he's . . . "Oh, you killed those people. You're that baseball player. What does it feel like to kill people. Is it bad to kill eleven?" And he says, "It was as bad as it got after one." And so then I knew my story had a certain timbre. It was going to be sober, it was going to be serious. And she interviews him and she's hoping that he'll see her. And she gets kind of pissed off that he doesn't. He's just there and they're talking, and they went shopping and he bought her a tortoise-shell beret for her hair and a red sweater. And on page four when they buy the red sweater, I didn't know that she could come back in the story. I was just trying to get there, I didn't know where the story was going. This is one of the stories I was blindest in.
On page seven of my draft, the day or two days that I wrote "Zanduce at Second," I came to a point which was this: they're going up to Baltimore because he plays for the Orioles. He's the third baseman, Eddie Zanduce. "On the drive North, Carol Ann Menager says one thing that stays with Eddie Zanduce after he drops her at the little blue Geo in the Hilton parking lot and after he has dressed and played three innings of baseball before a crowd of twenty-four thousand. A stadium a third full under low clouds this early in the season with the Orioles going ho-hum and school not out yet. And she says it like so much she has said in the six hours he has known her right out of the blue as they cruise north from Annapolis." Now listen to this, the reason the sentence is designed this way—"And she says it like so much she has said in the six hours he has known her," then there is a hyphen. And the reason there is a hyphen in this whole other discursion is I don't know what she said. And then it says, "Right out of the blue as they cruise north from Annapolis on Route 2 in his thick silver Mercedes, a car he thinks nothing of and can afford not to think of, under the low sullen skies that bless and begrudge the very springtime hedgerows that the car speeds past." So she says something, that he remembers in the batter's box three hours later, and I don't know what it is. Again and again when I'm writing stories and people . . . I love dialogue, I love writing dialogue. And dialogue is very involved in occupying the moment. So that someday says something, and then what do they do.
I use the bodies and the room to find out what might be possible for the person to say. People say dialogue should advance the story. Well it might advance the story, but in my stories, how can it advance . . . my characters don't know the story. I mean, we're working along together here, bumbling towards something. So I have to listen, and that's the other thing that I want to say that I think is sort of important in terms of . . . I try to be humble before my material. Once it gets up and going and there's a heartbeat, then I try to listen as loudly as I can.
So that was on page seven. I had to stay in the room till page eleven of my draft to find out what she said. And those four pages—I am probably saying this because I am really proud of those four pages because that's when I was a writer—I did not leave the room, I stayed there and pushed it. She said something he remembers in the batter's box. So here it is, a page later, it says, "She's been treated one hundred ways, but not this way. Not with a delicate diffidence, and she's surprised that it stings. She's been hurt and neglected, and ignored and made to feel invisible, but this is different somehow. This is personal. She says, 'The day was fine. I just wish you'd seen me.' For some reason Eddie Zanduce responds to this, 'I don't see people. It's not what I do. I can't afford it.' Having said it, he immediately regrets how true it sounds to him. Why is he talking to her? 'I'm tired,' he adds." So I'm just out in the scene, I'm doing that thing where, what are you writing about? This is good stuff. This is to the center of it. But I'm still waiting for the other shoe to fall. What did she say? "He regrets his decision to have company purchase it, because it has turned out to be what he wanted so long, and something about this girl has crossed into his vision. She is smart and pretty and he hates this. He does feel bad she's a hooker. And then she says the haunting thing, the advice that he will carry into the game later that night. 'Why don't you try to do it?' He looks at her as she finishes. 'You killed those people on accident, what if you had tried? Could you kill somebody on purpose?'" Then the whole story took off because he's in the batter's box and he says, "Eddie Zanduce remembered Carol Ann Menager in the car, and he hoists his bat"—he's in the batter's box—"and he says, 'I am going to kill one of you now.' 'What's that, Eddie?' Caulkins, the Minnesota catcher, has heard his threat, but it means nothing to Eddie. And he says,. 'Nothing. Just something I am going to do.'
And then the ending turned out to be, I'm a nice person. I think of myself as nice person. And I would bring you a glass of water if you asked, but the hatred he feels at the end of story was just thrilling for me to write. I got a little chill when I wrote it. So that's an example of me being surprised by my material and listening to my material as I go along. But it's also, I could list dozens and dozens examples of you have to tolerate the ambiguity of not knowing where you're going and then you have to tolerate the fact that these things begin to evolve. When I wrote the title story in The Hotel Eden, it was written about this love letter this guy Elaine and I, my wife and I knew in London, and we met him and we both had a crush on him he was just so charismatic and this striking, handsome guy on a bicycle and just dashed everywhere on his bicycle. Knew all the barmen in London and every place we went. Had credit, lines of credit places, such a worldly person and we were kids. And when I wrote "The Hotel Eden," he started to migrate on me, because you know, he's the kind of guy always taking us down to places that were in Conrad, along the Thames, and one day he came back and he had found a body that day, and his life was big. Our life was little, we were school kids. And I realized he was going to be this kind of snake. This seductive, charismatic snake in the story, and I had to tolerate letting him migrate that way. So where I wanted to go wasn't as valuable as where I learned to go from the story. I am sure you know what I am talking about.
So those are the things that, I try to empathize with my characters. I really take my time. I don't hurry. I try to get so many words a day, depending. I push myself for that. I mean I measure my talent, and I am spending and using, I'm trying to get something out of my talent. I am not being lazy. It's important to be prolific. We're not going to live and die by a single story, by our instrument, by the fact that we're writers and thinkers and making these observations. When I work, I am an evolved teacher like all of you are, and I am married to a woman who is a scrupulous editor, but I don't let the editor in the room, myself or her. I'm absolutely aboriginal when I am writing and I can really tell when its going well because my spelling goes away. I don't know how to spell the word hide, h-i-d-e. h-y-d-e, I don't know. So as soon as I start that misspelling, then I am in the zone it's really good, and I go like crazy. I've always been a spelling champion, but I don't edit, I don't judge, I include. I don't evaluate: Should it be Doris or Darlene? I always use, I have a few default formats. I always use Buick for car, Doris for a woman, Mickey for a man, and that's it. In my whole lifetime I've only met one Doris, and that was at a wedding. And she said "Hi. I'm Doris," and I said "Oh!" Isn't that odd. Isn't that weird. So I don't judge and I do not reach for any of my reference texts. I do not look, if I do not know where a city is I just say it. I just make it up. I keep all my books, I have a dictionary stand someone gave me, a beautiful, antique dictionary stand, so I know when, the cat sleeps on the dictionary, when I get up, then I quit, and that's evaluation time. And you don't want your editor in there saying, Oh no, not that, oh no, not that. And about the fifth time he says not that, you're out drinking coffee, and then you're at Starbucks.
And so, my books, my thesaurus, my dictionary, the Yellow Pages, which I use a lot, the atlas which I use the most, The Joy of Cooking— I am done when I open that—and I have a couple other little books. That's for later. I try, I am jealous of my time, sometimes I only get forty minutes or thirty-five minutes, and I am not afraid of thirty-five minutes, if I have to be somewhere at eleven and it's nine-thirty, I am going to move the boat, today. I am not going to wait for eight months' free time to write a great big book. That would be like a snake eating a pig. I can't believe that a snake enjoys eating a pig. I don't know. Who am I to say. It kind of looks like it would feel good, but I want to nibble. I want to eat every day. I want to take little bites ever yday. And then, at the end you have the story.
I was talking to Clint this morning about these three drafts of stories I've that are done, and now I'll go back and do the work and rewrite. So that's my note on the process. I will say this, that I've looked at how I work and I've come to trust it, but it's kind of dangerous, the idea of using your intuition or talent or whatever it is, the unknown, and your knowledge of what the event was, the hunting accident or the family reunion, and then just hoping that the two of them can take you somewhere else. It's not going to be, I mean it isn't going to be a hundred percent. There's a line from Richard Wilbur's poem, where he says, "Every time the queens sits down, she knows there is going to be chair." I am not sure, and that's the way I feel about some of these stories that I get out, I know, that if she sits over there, someone moves the chair, good, got you. But I've sat down and there's been no chair before. And then you just put the story away, or many times I've saved sections of stories.
I've got this terrible story right here that I am traveling with, and the second page is the most beautiful page I've ever written, and the story's not going to work, so I know what I have to do, but it's taken me now about seven months to admit it. And the rewriting there, I'll use what I call big tools, I'm not going to try to go in and try to feather it out, like the way you'd fix a piece of furniture by, marring it out, by making the grain. My father restored cars, and he could make wood grain for a dashboard. It's not like that. You don't use a little, two types of ink and a little brush one with a saw, cut off page one, take off what I've got. It feels so terrible but it's wait, wait, wait find it.
So what I've been really talking about is process. Craft, elements of the craft, even elements of style are totally obtainable. You all know about reading, and reading widely. You all know about emulating, and emulating freely. Find a writer I like, you can hear Cormack McCarthy in "Zanduce on Second." The "springtime hedgerows" the weather "blesses and begrudges," and so I don't shy away, if I find somebody I like then I imitate them like crazy. I take the whole pattern of the sentences. I remember reading a Ring Lardner sentence when I was first writing twenty-five or thirty years ago and it said, "The place they would go on Saturday nights was," and there is something about that sentence, so I wrote a story that said, "The place sat on Saturday." It was just so fixed, I can't even tell you why it stuck to me, but I used it to find my own next sentence. You put everybody in your head and you'll come out eventually.