Once or twice in a lifetime, a writer will read something so beautifully rendered, so poignant and plot-perfect, that she would consider striking a Mephistophelean bargain to have written it herself. “My left arm, my right eye, my heart, my soul”, are just a few of the proffered bargaining chips. But, it is not envy that motivates the negotiation. It is pure admiration and the recognition that the author has not only gifted the reader with a supreme work of art, but has thrown in a master class for free.
As the facilitator of the “1st and 3rd Saturday” writers’ group at the Fairfield Public Library, I am a grateful supporter of critique groups, writers’ workshops and visiting authors’ lectures. But, I also love the found lessons in our craft. The ones we learn listening to a story being told “around the water cooler” which remind us how instinctive story-telling is. How it is meant to flow like water from a spring not blood from a stone. These spontaneous tales are a crash course in structure: distilled to the essential, embellished with intrigue, romance or heroism, wrapping up in a wallop-packing dénouement, all told in the time it takes to pour a cup of coffee and eat a donut.
There are stories we can learn from everywhere we look, or perhaps I should say, everywhere we listen. Plot twists are revealed in fortune cookies. Inspiration hides in off-beat headlines and snippets of conversations that waft our way in trains and grocery store lines. Impromptu how-to’s issue from the mouths of babes. In fact, I am such a believer in the value of what we can pick up about our craft if we keep our ears open, that I begin our meetings with these five words: “Heard any good stories lately?”
But by far the best lessons are the ones that we learn from reading a story, poem or novel that touches us so profoundly that all we can do is sigh, and lament having read the last word. When you finish you think, “I would change nary a hair on its head.” You fall in love with the writing, which surprises you, because, like the blonde bombshell that falls for the 90-lb weakling, it doesn’t seem your type at all, until your knees buckle at the first reading.
This was the case for me with Raymond Carver’s A Small Good Thing, a short story which inserted the tip of its blade in the first paragraph and slit me wide open by the final words. Lean as Hemingway, there are no SAT words here. Description is muted, the dialogue spare, and dare I say it, the plot nearly plods, but not with weighted boon Dockers on muddy back roads. No, this plodding is as clean-cut and sure as a barefoot walk on the beach at dawn.
Pull it apart, and A Small Good Thing doesn’t seem like much. Put it all together, and is it one of the most breathtaking and heartbreaking stories I have ever read. More importantly, it taught me a very valuable lesson as a writer and a reader. In fact, it shamed me into seeing how some of my assumptions about writing and style were blatantly biased. And getting the wind knocked out of your beliefs as a reader is the best way to learn as a writer.
Having often come away from Hemingway’s spare prose feeling emotionally disenfranchised and Mamet’s terse dialogue with my stomach in knots, I just assumed that all writing tending toward the minimalist was not for me. It was not that these writers did not move me; they did, and in the very direction I’m sure they were aiming for. But, as a reader – and I know this is a purely subjective predilection – I am looking to be, not just moved, but transformed, and I just didn’t think that that was possible without sophisticated prose and a good dousing of color and adjectives. But Carver’s small good story proved me wrong.
In the words of a dear friend, a rough and tumble type of guy, with whom I occasionally discuss literature, this quiet story, “shattered me . . . and put me back together again.” In the process, it took the understanding of a valuable and self-evident truth about our craft bone-deep for me: Words are secondary to the power of the story. And the power of the story depends upon the degree to which it is irradiated by the intensity and commitment of the author’s vision.
I guess you could say A Small Good Thing, continues to live in me, a voice in my head, urging me to have confidence in my ideas and not to be afraid to express them. Furthermore it acts likes a warning bell whenever I want to compensate for a weakness in my vision with too many words.
Lastly, Carver is an example of the type of writer I aspire to be. There are some authors, be they mass-market paperback romance writers or Pulitzer Prize winners, whose stories crack the human heart wide open to reveal both its extreme fragility and fathomless strength. I’m not there yet, but “A Small Good Thing” has given me direction. That’s good and no small thing.
– Kimberly Carr