Whatever You Do, Stay in the Room

I just tore through a small but powerful writing book called “Ron Carlson Writes a Story” by (surprise!) Ron Carlson.

Carlson guides us through the writing of one of his stories, “The Governor’s Ball.” He describes where the initial idea came from and then walks us through the process of completing the first draft.

The book is only 112 pages, but in those few pages Carlson uses his obvious, and proven, storytelling skills to construct one of the most engaging explorations of the writing process I’ve read lately.

What makes the essay/narrative so effective is Carlson comes back to a number of specific ideas about writing. Here’s a few that stuck with me:

  • Stay in the room.
  • Slow down, be specific, don’t stop writing.
  • Solve your problems through the physical world.
  • Stay there until something happens next.
  • Introduce a character by considering the least likely thing he or she may do. How can the character surprise us?
  • “My job is to have been true enough to the world of my story that I was able to present it as a forceful and convincing drama.”

The idea that stuck with me the most, and I suspect the idea that Carlson was really trying to emphasize is, no matter how much you want to stop writing after that first good sentence or page or scene, keep going. Stay in the room even though your coffee is cold. Stay in the room even though the phone is ringing. Stay in the room to write your first draft. And maybe even more importantl, when you’re stuck, when you don’t know where the story is going, stay in the room inside your story. It’s there in the physical surroundings of your fictional world that you will find what you’re looking for. And Carlson goes on to prove all that using his own first draft as evidence.

At the end you realize it’s all so simple—yet we know that more often than not keeping your butt in the chair is probably one of the most difficult things to do. This book serves as a useful reminder how important it is to, no matter what, stay in the room.

This is what I’ll remember next time I want to get up and refill my coffee cup (or wine glass):

“All the valuable writing I’ve done in the last ten years has been done in the first twenty minutes after the first time I’ve wanted to leave the room.”

Comments 4

  1. Armand wrote:

    Hi Gordon-

    I liked your post so much that I’m going to copy it and hand it out in the writing class that I teach.

    I also added the book to my Christmas wish list-


    Posted 30 Oct 2007 at 5:14 pm
  2. grumpyoldman wrote:

    I got the book, and I agree that it is terrific.

    I would emphasize another great point that Carlson makes. Let me start by saying that I always envied writers (such as Carlson) who say things like, “I just started writing, and the character took over the story.” I would hear things like that and say to myself, “No wonder Carlson is such a great writer. His characters work their butts off. My characters are lazy mofos who just sit there–I have to tell them everything!”

    What Carlson helped me to see was how he writes the “outer story,” the stuff that happens, with credibility. That credibility allows the “inner story,” the characters’ emotions and motivations and reactions, to emerge.

    Looking at one’s writing from that perspective, the idea that the characters take over the story and do what they will, with the writer becoming an instrument of discovery, makes a lot of sense. I intend to apply it to my next first draft. Should be interesting.

    Thanks for posting about this valuable book. Everyone who wants to write should read this.

    Posted 12 Nov 2007 at 2:04 pm
  3. Lisa wrote:

    Staying in the room…keeping one’s butt in the chair…just showing up at the keyboard…filling the page no matter what….all of these adages are trite and cliche.. and TRUE!

    I cannot count all the times I just kept at it –even when cleaning the bathroom sounded like an appealing alternative (and I HATE cleaning) — and surprised myself by getting something down on the page. Sometimes it was pretty good, too.

    Other times, it may not have been my best prose, but it was something to work with, somewhere to go, and reinforced for me the value of writing through blocks.

    Yet, I also believe that time away from the keyboard/notebook is valuable too, and that most writers are always “working” — turning ideas over in our minds, manipulating our characters and gathering steam for our pieces even when we are doing laundry, say.

    Sometimes I “write” while doing a dozen other things, and that’s another part of the process. But once I sit down to get it on the page, staying in that chair counts.

    Posted 19 Nov 2007 at 12:44 pm
  4. kathleen wrote:

    Ron Carlson recentaly spoke in Boston at The Muse and the Marketplace conference sponsored by Grubb Street (a wonderful supportive writing community). His stay in the the room message resonated with all of us, and his candid sharing of his struggles with writing were so helpful. It’s a great book.

    Posted 15 May 2011 at 8:07 am

Trackbacks & Pingbacks 1

  1. From I quit the world today « Raising My Boychick on 28 May 2010 at 5:13 am

    [...] time will tell), words gone, ideas slipping between my fingers, and I am torn as always between staying in the room and staying in the moment, between going all-out and going with the flow. Which means I do neither, [...]

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