“Hey, look, Ma! I’m a writer!”
This is how Ron Carlson, author of four novels (most recently Five Skies) and four collections of short stories, characterized the writing in his first book, Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, last night at a literary salon moderated by Janet Fitch (Paint It Black, White Oleander). The event, hosted by local press Red Hen at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles’s Westwood neighborhood, brought together Carlson, the director of the fiction MFA program at Irvine; first-time novelist Charles Bock (Beautiful Children); and short story writer Greg Sanders to read and discuss literature in front of an audience of mostly writing students.
Now, Carlson said, “I don’t want the sentence to call attention to itself, but it needs to carry its own weight.” The same goes for the narrative. “I want the story to have a heartbeat more than call attention to itself. … Over the course of writing short stories, everything moved down in the body—out of the head and down,” he said, putting a hand over his heart.
Writing four complete drafts of his first novel over the course of ten years, Bock, a graduate of Bennington’s MFA program, suggested this is a lesson he’s already learned.
“Early on I was an angry writer,” he admitted. “I did very much feel I was taking on the culture.” A culture that, in Beautiful Children, includes strippers, pornographers and a gang of street kids. “But when I looked at the people the book was about, these people at the side of the road, that wasn’t getting through. You have to care about every single person. They’re your babies. Even if you have to send them out into the night to eat poison glowing cows”—a reference to a hilarious parable Carlson read earlier in the evening—”you have to care about them every step of the way.”
It was this realization that helped Bock to stick with the project for a decade. “Part of it was to see what frightened me,” he said. “And to move forward, to tell it. That sees you through when draft three doesn’t work—whether you put it in a drawer and say, ‘That’s it. I’m a shoe salesman,’ or you see if you can figure it out.
“Some things can’t be fixed, but I didn’t have much else going on. I don’t have a rich life.”
Paraphrasing Nike, “Just fucking do it,” was his final piece of advice.
Caught in the ’Net
I could have used these writing targets oh, say, five years ago.