It’s a piece I go back to now and again and enjoy reading over – even though there are parts of it I disagree with.
If you’d like to read it you can find it in Fires, a collection of Carver bits and bobs, along with some of his other essays, stories and poems – it’s also available online here.
‘On Writing’ is essentially a Carver manifesto, dealing with what he thinks makes a good writer.
He tells us: “Ambition and a little luck are good things for a writer to have going for him. Too much ambition and bad luck, or no luck at all, can be killing. There has to be talent.”
But talent on its own, he says, is not enough – in fact, he’s never met a writer who didn’t have talent. What picks out the best from the rest is a way of looking at the world, and describing it, which is different from everyone else’s way. Every good writer makes the world over to their own specifications.
“It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.”
The essay also includes a bon mot which Carver picked up from the writer Isak Dinesen which he likes so much he say’s he’s going to write it on a card and pin it to the wall above his desk. Dinesen said that she “wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair.”
I like that too – ‘without hope and without despair.’
There’s plenty more in there to cherish – but now to the bit in the essay I can’t quite go along with – Carver’s dislike of ‘tricks’ in writing.
He says: “No tricks.” Period. I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span. But extremely clever chi-chi writing, or just plain tomfoolery writing, puts me to sleep.”
It’s easy to be seduced by the way Carver writes – but I can’t go along with what he’s saying here. For many of us, short stories are the place where we try out ideas, do mad things – they are our space to be experimental, even if those experiments don’t always work.
Also, there’s the question of what constitutes a trick – Carver himself was prone to the odd literary device, and particularly to the ‘trick’ of leaving a vacuum in his stories so the reader was left to fill it with emotion. It was an astonishingly successful trick which worked at times like magic.
Hmm – so it’s like the president of the magic circle saying: ‘All these other magicians, they do tricks. Not me! I’d never stoop so low as to fool you with trickery.’
So I don’t agree with every word in there – but it’s still a remarkable manifesto. And it extols the virtues of working hard at your craft, taking pride in making each piece as good as it can be and finding precisely the right words in the right order. Who could disagree with that?
Last word to Carver of course – here he tells us how the short story writer should go about his or her task:
“He’ll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things: of how things out there really are and how he sees those things – like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise they may even sound flat, but they can still carry; if used right, they can hit all the notes.”
I can’t promise you no tricks at all – but, if you get a moment, take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.