Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things
I am reading a short book by my colleague, fiction writer Ron Carlson. The book is called Ron Carlson Writes a Story, and it’s directed at aspiring fiction writers. Since I don’t write fiction, maybe I should be reading one of Ron’s novels instead. But I press on anyway. I am compelled by the sample story that Ron delivers in crisp, salty little chunks, like so many goldfish crackers on the path through the dark woods of procrastination. But I am also drawn in by the lessons Ron draws out of the writing process: tips and truisms, warnings and reminders, all of it frank and funny and right, because each one is tied to the wagging tale of the story he’s telling.
Ron’s emphasis is on process, not craft, and hence on intuition and accident more than control. Writing is discovery; you need to listen to your characters, not tell them what to do. Writing dialogue, Ron tells us, is “like playing tennis against a real partner. It’s not like playing tennis against a wall.“ Craft alone would be mastering the wall; but process means creating characters who feint and parry, keeping the writer on her toes.
A lot of the book isn’t about fiction writing at all. It’s about time management. In a sharp little chapter called “Coffee,” Carlson writes, “No one among us suffers the radical appreciation for coffee that I do. It calls to me, but I have learned not to listen.” Coffee takes you out of your seat; it breaks concentration; it persuades you that “you might be smarter in the next room.” And every coffee machine has a vacuum cleaner as its neighbor. Or an email account. Or a Face Book page.
The writer, says Carlson, “is the person who stays in the room.”
Carlson calls the things that build a world and make a character inventory (“Everything is inventory; everything is evidence”). Things keep the fiction writer firmly in the physical world. Put otherwise, things help the writer avoid adjectives. Say it with marigolds, or ear wax, or a big red plastic hair clip. And there’s help here for the design writer, whose job is to tell stories with the stuff we inherit, disown, use up, wear out, throw away, or store high up on the shelf. Coffee pots and toaster ovens may keep us from staying in the room — but they can also become magnets that will keep us put, at least until the water boils or the baby cries.
This is a quick, fun, and enlightening read, for anyone who likes to write, or to read about writing. Great with a cup of Joe.— Julia Lupton · 2008-12-06