Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Ron Carlson.
There was a weekday this July when all the banks in Utah were closed. I was born and grew up in Utah and lived there for years, growing up among the Mormons which was a valuable feature of a writer’s youth. I have been away from that dear place a long time and live in a beach town in California now, but on this particular day I greeted people with “Happy Holiday.” It was also my brother’s birthday and as kids we were thrilled that he got a big parade every July 24, Pioneer Day. I was in the actual parade once in high school when my buddy George Pearson and I walked the route through downtown Salt Lake City as Roman Soldiers. I have no idea why. I think the costumes were available, always a good guide for character development. A girl I had a crush on rode a unicycle along with us.
So I wake up nostalgic in the dead center of the summer and the marine layer off the coast has dissipated and the sun is that thing, promising, here’s another day, buddy, and I step out the back door of my cottage and across my little patio to the room in which I write. Years ago the French translator of one of my stories wrote to me and said: what is this thing, patio? Is it like a terrace? I grew up in a small house on the west side of Salt Lake, and my father poured a cement pad between the house and the wooden garage. He was a welder and made an arched arbor at one end with a steel frame onto which plants volunteered. We barbequed on that patio many a summer night in the late fifties. If you’d said the word terrace, my mother, who loved words more than any person I’ve ever met, would have said, veranda, adding an h to the end of the word, her little joke. We had a patio–and now a million years later I have one again and I walk ten steps across to my writing room. So, it’s Pioneer Day 2014.
Overhead a dirty yellow Cessna flies over my little house every eighteen minutes dragging a banner urging those of us below to drink a new beer which is actually an old beer in a new bottle. He’s there many days, circling back from the beachfront, sounding like a lawn mower really, sounding like he could use a tune up. Every day he has more readers than many of us ever get.
My writing room is a writing room, some people would say writing studio and that’s a bit like saying veranda. It has the great everlasting writing devices: a big table and a door. On the wall the old charming artwork for the cover of my first novel Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald and two thrift store paintings my sons have edited for me and which I absolutely love. In one of the paintings the mounted cowboy on the mountain pass can’t see the asteroid approaching in the moonlight, in the other several pink pigs await their cappuccinos.
Today, even in the morning light I know that I’m stuck. I’ve written as far as I can in my chapters and I have to make some mapping decisions about larger issues in this fiction I am constructing. I’ve said elsewhere that I make all my decisions as I write the scenes before me, and that has been a valuable guide for a story writer, but with a novel you need a map and there is a time when you must decide to bring the five strings you’ve started together in a nifty bow or it’s metaphoric equivalent or if you are going simply to lay each thread down where it is and tiptoe toward the door. Of course, you’re terrified of being melodramatic fusing those five storylines. Best is to make the decision and do not second guess it, but write it with all of your heart as closely as you can. What I need to do is read these three hundred pages, which means I have to print them at last, which means I am going to put page numbers on each page using this new computer. This is the kind of thing that takes twenty seconds for any other human.
Today I am numbering the pages, while my old beach town fills up with holiday seekers who do not know what holiday it is. When I get the page numbers right, which I am assured because I have my son’s phone number right here, I’ll print up my problem and, yes, leave the room. I’ll walk to the coast and come back to read.
And for years whenever I have spoken of writing dialogue, of course, I’ve addressed the bodies, the dance, the actions the characters are doing as they try to talk, and forever I’ve used the example of having someone on his or her knees with a trowel finishing the cement work on a driveway or a patio when the other person arrives with bad, good or other news, and I know that springs from the day sixty years ago when I watched my father and his friends do that wondrous work. What can you do as a writer to make me believe these people occupy space, do something, so they might actually talk.
Now, when trying to urge a student away from the disembodied voices in their scene of dialogue, a more manageable example is to have one person on the living room floor with all of the pieces of an Ikea bookcase laid out before them while the other person, drinking coffee, tries to angle her questions so as to find out where the money is hidden. The things we call work have changed in the years I’ve been writing. No one I know works cement. And I finally ceased using the “changing a tire” exercise because all of my students have Triple A and cellphones. So few of them have changed a tire.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- I’ve been reading Bob Shacochis’ masterpiece The Woman Who Lost Her Soul the best book I’ve read in ten years.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Every morning separate the writer and the editor; send the writer into the room and let the editor know he/she can come back after three.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- Stop the day’s writing mid-sentence, and if possible mid-word. Find every way you can to be a friend to yourself; you’ll be back in the room tomorrow. How can you help that person and not leave them vexed at a space break.
By Ron Carlson