Like many of us, I’ve read “On Writing” by Raymond Carver numerous times. It holds many useful ideas. There is a stage of our own creative writing. (I believe this phase usually arrives in the mid-20s, but possibly I am in error—perhaps it arrives after so many years of practicing the craft, not so much a writer’s age.) Either way, this stage involves reading copious interviews, craft books, and essays on writing, by writers. Apparently, as writers, were are seeking some golden ticket, some integral advice, etc. I believe most writers leave this period, and then, you know, write.
What is the most famous (or infamous) line from the Carver essay? No tricks.
“No tricks.” He says. “Period. I hate tricks.”
First, I like tricks. So what? Others have written the same. Second, Carver is wrong. He doesn’t hate tricks, he uses them. He especially employs tricks in the shorter form. Why? Because “tricks” are not tricks. Tricks are technique. Technique is important to the short story, very important to the sudden fiction, and absolutely essential to the flash fiction form. We flash writers have fewer words. We need artistry.
Let me show you Raymond Carver using some tricks. Read “Little Things” here.
Now, let’s begin with Carver’s first trick, the title. (BTW, I’m well aware Lish—as usual—got his sticky fingers and pen on this flash and certainly the title [this short piece has actually had three titles, “Mine,” “Popular Mechanics,” and “Little Things.”] For the sake of my argument, let’s assume Carver approved of Lish’s edits. Carver’s name is finally on the story. Any shenanigans he has to own. Also this story appears in his later collections as “Little Things.”) This title is clever. It’s a trick, in a very traditional way of titles. It is meant to wink, umbrella, echo, connote. A baby is a little thing and clearly is NOT a little thing. The road to domestic agony is paved with “little things” that build to large arguments, strife, separation. Like a mosquito buzzing in a room while you are trying to sleep, little things often…I could go on. I could don my pointy hat and write a literary essay solely on the title. My point is Carver begins his story with a classic creative writing technique, arguably a trick. My second argument would be a flash writer had better take advantage of the title. Like in poetry, the title matters. The expertise is in carrying weight with these initial words, this opening to the text, not as trick, but as aptitude. Let’s continue.
Here is our opening paragraph:
Early that day the weather turned and the snow was melting into dirty water. Streaks of it ran down from the little shoulder-high window that faced the backyard. Cars slushed by on the street outside, where it was getting dark. But it was getting dark on the inside too.
There is a lot going on, folks. I see mood being established through accumulation (dirty, dark, dark). I see foreshadowing. (Who hear argues this isn’t a dark story?) I see a noun, slush, being verbed into slushed. Very lyrical of Mr. Carver, wouldn’t you say? And what of this, “But it was getting dark on the inside too.”? Didn’t Carver’s narrator just break the fourth wall? This seems to edge on experimental, perhaps tricky, but no. As a writer/reader, I acknowledge and respect the skill. This entire opening is drenched in craft, borrowed from lyricism, used to effect in flash. It’s no more tricky that a painter using perspective on a mountain landscape, a chef reducing a sauce to its essence, a scientist with a centrifuge (now I’m pushing it). I mean to say, technique.
And what of no quotation marks? Isn’t this form-equals-function? Isn’t this showing us the stark nature of the argument?
And what of the careful calibration of the rising action? (Does it bleed into trick if the wiring shows?)
And what of the flower pot? Flowers?
In the scuffle they knocked down a flowerpot that hung behind the stove.
Not only do we get the sound (crash!) and the image (all of this now undone), but flowers are instantly metaphorical. We don’t have to hold a PhD in contemporary literature to know florists exist for something more than our universal admiration of horticulture. We give flowers as symbols, for prom, for birthdays, for funerals, etc. A flower blooms connotation. As god of his story, Carver could have had anything knocked over in the kitchen: a bottle of Pepsi, a bowl of lemons, a ceramic dachshund. A spatula. a Grecian urn. He didn’t. He chose a flower pot. Any flash writer knows this “trick.’ Objects matter. They must reverberate. Each word needs to do something.
Final trick I’ll address today: Raymond Carver’s entire text is an allusion. As a western writer, Carver can only allude to a few things, since most readers won’t “get it” (and even then…) unless you touch upon our central motifs. What are these? Mythology, Shakespeare, some historical situations, the bible. A gauzy bit of these concepts are ingrained in most readers. (I might not know all of Shakespeare, but if you start talking about a teenage girl on a balcony, I’m going to nod my head.) Here, Carver alludes to the bible. Do you recall any story about two adults fighting over a baby? Ah, it’s stirring now…somewhere in the memory neurons. King Solomon anyone? The original biblical tale is about unconditional love—the true mother of the child does what anyone selfless would. Carver’s re-telling is about our more contemporary selfish lives. What would you do, in Carver’s story, if you held honest compassion during a baby tug of war? You’d let go. This argument is clearly about the parents, not the child. The final line gives us all we need to know, and Carver’s literary allusion shows us why fiction can sometimes be as true as any form, the punch and power of all skillful writing, the thing behind the thing—a technique that works, and I for one don’t feel tricked at all.