I met up and chatted with Ron Carlson today (the author of Five Skies, The Signal, and Plan B for the Middle Class,among other works) and I have to say, I thought he was great: smart, funny, interesting, observant, slightly offbeat. Aimee (Bender) had introduced me to him being a UCI MFA grad and everything. Anyway, here are some of the highlights of our convo:
1. Unlike some compulsive fiction writers (à la TC Boyle and Joyce Carol Oates), he told me that sometimes he doesn't write for days and he really enjoys that perspective, the simple act of living, which gives him a good counterbalance to his writing life
2. He said he never wants to hate (his) writing, which is why he never pushes himself to write when he doesn't want to write
3. He said that you can't force your writing. You can't rush your writing. And you can't quantify the quality of the work itself as if your writing operates on some point system. If you write one awesome page, that's better than say 50 meh pages
4. After I told him that I've had a bunch of agents asking for full manuscripts of Ninjas in the past year, and how Coffee House Press was still considering Atlas of Tiny Desires, my collection of short stories and how Kaya Press was about to give me their verdict on Amnesia very soon, he said: —You're busy. Then he said: —I hope you don't mind me giving you some advice (which of course I didn't), but don't get burned out, Jackson.
I told him I knew exactly what he meant, but also that I tried to use one manuscript as artistic respite from another manuscript. So, for example, if I got sick of revising Amnesia again, I'd work on my memoir. When I could no longer evaluate that manuscript effectively, I'd switch to Ninjas. It's my way to keep writing without hating the act of writing itself. So far, it's been working out pretty well.
5. I also told him that if he needs any more lecturers in creative writing in the future (it can't hurt to ask), he should hit me up. He gave me a knowing smile and then said he's got my email now, which I think is his polite way of saying "I admire the way you snuck in your pitch like that but as you know since you teach here, our department is being ravaged by a Dean who just gave a bunch of lecturer positions to TA's from other departments."
6. I told Ron how much I'd learned from Aimee, one of his protégées, how she taught me to actually sit with my characters instead of whizzing by to the next scene and he really seemed to appreciate that advice. He said that often the biggest mistakes fiction writers make aren't the obvious mistakes that workshops focus on, but on the things they passed on up, the missed opportunities in their own fiction to let a character, a place, a moment, bloom for just a few moments.
Ultimately, there was a lot more I wanted to talk about with him, questions I had for him, things I was interested in getting his take on, but our conversation came to a comfortable and organic lull after forty-five minutes and I was happy to leave it there for now.
Just as important to me, I know now that when I spot him in the bright hallways of UC Irvine in the next year, we'll recognize each other, which can only be a good thing for me in the writing universe.