“TAYARI JONES ON RON CARLSON” IS FORTHCOMING IN THE ANTHOLOGY A MANNER OF BEING: WRITERS ON THEIR MENTORS (UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS PRESS) EDITED BY ANNIE LIONTAS AND JEFF PARKER

Ron Carlson taught me how to write, distilling craft lessons into pithy statements that I call “Carlsonisms.” His stamp on my work is so indelible that I sometimes call myself, as his protégé, a “Carlsonite.” My students are Carlsonites, once removed. Yet just as valuable as his instruction about which words to set next is his guidance on the life of an author. What follows is one of my favorites:

Being a writer is all about making mistakes and managing disappointment. Let’s say you are going on a road trip. You get, say, a hundred miles down the road and you realize that you have left your wallet back home on the kitchen table. You have no choice but to go back and get it. But how’s your attitude?

(A) Do you curse yourself as you make that U-turn and head back home, continue cursing until you have the wallet in hand, grumble still as you head back out, unable to relax again until you have recovered the hundred miles? Are you, for the rest of the journey, thinking about how much farther you would be if only you had not been so stupid to forget your wallet there at the beginning?

(B) Do you slap yourself on the forehead when you realize the wallet is lost and pout all the way home? Once you get home, do you pack yourself a nice lunch and set out again in good spirits?

(C) When you realize the wallet is lost, do you say, “Thank god I realized that I forgot the wallet!”? Then do you drive home with the radio blasting, singing your favorite song?

Person C is the one who is going to make it. Writing a novel is all about forgotten wallets. From a craft perspective, it could be a point-of-view error or a pacing snafu; on a professional level, it could be realizing that your first novel is in the hands of an unscrupulous publisher. You have to recover and move on.

The sooner the better.

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Tayari Jones and Ron Carlson with Jones’s novel The Untelling


 

Tayari Jones is the author of three novels, including Silver Sparrow and Leaving Atlanta. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the United States Artists Foundation.

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