October 2nd, 2012 / 11:26 am
Author Spotlight & Craft Notes & Random

No Tricks

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.

OK, onward.

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.

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  1. Nick K

      Seems to misunderstand what Carver meant by “tricks.” Almost certainly did not mean all instances of “technique,” which, here, seems synonymous with “subtext.” Tricks, I think, in Carver’s vocabulary, are more akin to sentimentality, etc; things the story gestures toward but hasn’t “earned.”

  2. deadgod

      [Craft note: the address for the link to the Carver “shoptalk” essay concludes with a close-parenthesis mark that leads clickers-on to ‘Page Not Found’. Address as is, readers can backspace the mark away from their address bars and get to the essay.]

  3. Sean Lovelace

      My bad, links fixed now!

  4. Sean Lovelace

      I disagree. He clearly says he’s talking about technique: I get a little nervous if I find myself within earshot of sombre discussions about “formal innovation” in fiction writing. Too often “experimentation” is a licence to be careless, silly or
      imitative in the writing.

      I would agree he aligns himself with your point, this of course part of the “Hemingway” shadow, the BS detector, etc.

  5. Nick K

      Still unclear about what you mean by technique. Is this the same as ‘formal innovation’? I don’t think Carver would claim to be techniqueless, nor would he attribute that to any of the authors he seems to admire. The BS detector, I think, is more an aversion to writing becoming too writerly, so to speak. Which is maybe its own separate problem. Writing ceasing to be an act of seeing, and instead becoming an act of regurgitation. I think that for Carver–and I’m only interpreting him here–seeing itself is a technique; both what constitutes style and determines form.

  6. deadgod

      a trick or a gimmick […] a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick

      This synonymy sounds like Carver is referring to ‘technique’: broadly (sentimentality, beginning-middle-end), narrowly (diction–like choosing between ‘catlike’ or ‘feline’), or narrowly indeed (compound sentence, semi-colon, or two sentences).

      I’d go maybe farther than Sean: every decision commits one to trickeration.

      You could say that, opposed to ‘nature’, is ‘artifice’, and all linguistic action is an ‘artificial’ imposition on ‘nature’… but I think it’d be more accurate to say that artifice is always opposed only to other artifice–even in the case of a chosen (so ‘artificial’) silence. That is ‘nature’: the natural condition of linguisticality–the nature of a ‘language animal’ (το ζωιον λογικον). In language is discovery as well as imposition.

      Hendrix, in his impatience, puts it fine: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tAIhiinaw8 .

      To be maybe more fair to Carver, though he uses an Everything Word, he might mean something more everyday: “trick” in the sense of ‘magic trick’, that is, of trying to fool the reader. –as sentimentality “tricks” victims by getting them to suppose a trite or trivializing emotion manifests what they take to be important to them.

      It’s also possible that Carver understands that he uses “tricks” and must use them, but hates them anyway. He seems to have been thoroughly in conflict with himself–not universal, to that degree, but not so uncommon.

  7. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      When a construction worker lays down tar, the only thing he/she is interested in is laying down the tar in a way that is satisfactory to him/her. He/she might use old tips from older construction workers to make the laying down of the tar easier, maybe make it more resistant to weathering, etc. Finally, when the tar is put down to the construction worker’s satisfaction, he/she is finished with it and relinquishes it to the public.

      The public does not only see the tar, however. They smell it, they feel the warmth of it, they go out of their way not to step on it, and maybe even comment on it in some way which the construction worker never intended. The construction worker might find this amusing, insulting, or nothing.

      If it is part of an inherent, semi-(un)conscious ability, if it is done naturally with no need to fear the public’s response to the product because what you produced is a part of who you are, I don’t see it as a trick.

  8. J. Y. Hopkins

      A trick (which must be intentional) requres a victim, whereas expression (which maybe sub- or un-conscious) only requires a medium. You can’t accidentally trick someone, but you can express something without intending to.

  9. Sean Lovelace

      Actually there is a school of trickery that educates the said “Victim.” New York street hustlers might fool you once, but they are also assisting you. You shouldn’t be fooled twice, unless you deserve it. It’s a noble act to trick in this situation.

  10. Kyle B. Bjorem

      I thought of “tricks” as those instances in fiction that are simply illustrations of theory rather than, like, art. The details can be parsed by someone else, you know what I mean.

  11. J. Y. Hopkins

      “Nah, see, I’m doin’ youse a faver. You’ll thank me, kid.”
      [Down-vote was not me.]

  12. qingtian996