On the Problems of Changing Style, Novel to Novel
Tim Johnston Finds Long Lost Advice from Raymond Carver
Back in 2014, while I was teaching creative writing at the University of Memphis and waiting (and waiting. . .) for my novel, Descent, to come out, I discovered and foisted on my students a 1987 interview with Raymond Carver, conducted in Paris by the French journalist Claude Grimal. Hard to say now what I hoped my students would get from this obscure interview, but what I got from it was one salient, surprising, and durable Ray Carver quote, namely: “I like to give myself enough time between books to become a different kind of writer.”
The quote has served me well since then, but a fresh look at the source shows my tinkering:
CG: So you think that between your first book and your latest you’ve changed your way of writing?
RC: Yes, very much. My style is fuller, more generous. In my second book (…)
CG: Is this something you did intentionally?
RC: No, not intentionally. I don’t have any program (…) but I think it’s important that a writer change, that there be a natural development, and not a decision. So when I finish a book, I don’t write anything for six months, except a little poetry or an essay.
The essence of my single-sentence tinkering is in the phrases, “I think it’s important that a writer change,” and “So when I finish a book, I don’t write anything for six months.”
One thing I love about these words is how they have helped me excuse the long periods of time I’ve taken between books; Carver liked six months, but I’m averaging more like six years, if we’re going by publication dates. I wasn’t not writing during those gap years, I tell myself; I was giving myself time to become a different kind of writer.
Another thing I love about these words is the idea—so casually made it’s easy to miss—that it’s important that a writer change.
As a young student-writer myself I was taught that I must find my own voice, suggesting to me a kind of treasure hunt at the end of which, after trying on and discarding many other voices, I would say, Ah hah, there you are! and be done with childish things. When you found your own voice, it meant no more goofing around. It meant you had arrived, fully mature and distinctive. No one ever suggested that once I’d arrived I could move on again.
Yet it seems to me, looking back, that that’s what I’ve been doing ever since publishing my first book in 2002—a book which, for the record, I never intended as a YA novel but which was sold as such. Readers of the stories I published seven years later, as the collection Irish Girl, would hardly guess they were by the same author of Never So Green.I could see where I wanted to get to as a writer, and it could not be reached by any slow, organic development, but must be gained in one great heave of effort.
Very little time passed between writing the last story of Irish Girl and writing the first sentences of Descent, but when I began that novel I was conscious of a desire, once again, to reboot. I was living up in the Colorado Rocky Mountains at the time, working as a carpenter in the midst of all that American wilderness, and I was reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for the first time, and something about the combination of these two stimuli—raw, strange, violent, otherworldly—worked some kind of alchemy in me, stimulating the all-at-once shift toward a whole new level of writing, a more visceral and also more poetic kind of writing style. Unlike Ray Carver, whose 1987 interview I had not yet read but who said his own change was unintentional, that he had no program, I could see where I wanted to get to as a writer, and it could not be reached by any slow, organic development, but must be gained in one great heave of effort.
This heave would end up taking the next seven years of my life, because, well, seeing where you want to go and getting there are two different things. But when it was published at last in 2015, Descent was unlike anything I’d ever written before, in length, depth, page-turnability and, most significantly to me, in language.
Way back in graduate school (about the time Carver was being interviewed in Paris), I took a course in which the professor’s main thesis was: Fiction Behaves. It had to do with the modulations in stylistics, in registers of language and voice, within any given story we studied. I remember how the whole idea muddied the reading waters for me—to say nothing of the writing waters—but all these years later, I think I’m beginning to get it.
Descent is told from the third-person points of view of the four members of the Courtland family, but often, especially in descriptions of the physical world, the writing becomes heightened by language not exactly native to the character who is observing the scene. Like when 17-year-old Sean steps outside one night in New Mexico and “…the moon was high and a weird spectrum of light lay over everything—the trucks and the ruins of trucks, the looming mesas and the juniper and piñon that grew from their walls. All of it saturate, phantasmal.”
Sean is definitely observing the weird spectrum of light, the ruins of trucks and the looming mesas, but these are not the words his brain would come up with were he to describe the view aloud in that moment. Certainly he would not come up with “saturate, phantasmal.” Another voice, with no limits on its facility (other than my own), has stepped in to heighten the moment with language. In my old professor’s words, the fiction is behaving.
Not that I could’ve told you, at any point during the writing of Descent, that this was what I was doing—by which I mean I couldn’t have expressed it as a calculated technical strategy. I was just trying to write the best damn sentences I could write.
Then, at some point in those gap years between finishing Descent and beginning my new novel, The Current, I picked up James Wood’s How Fiction Works and read his description of what he calls “free indirect style,” which, boiled down, is the narrative mode of using the language and thought processes of the point of view character, rather than those of an omniscient narrator. In other words, if that character’s thoughts, observations, musings, etc., were put into spoken dialogue, there would not be much difference in diction or vocabulary. (Rather than “saturate, phantasmal” for instance, to describe that New Mexico night, Sean’s description might’ve been: “soaked in a weird, spooky light.”)
The light bulb that went off in my head was the realization that, in Descent, in my pursuit of the best damn sentences I could write, I had been adding a kind of ultra-voice to the narrative—a narrator who spoke through the principal point of view characters, but who was at the same time far more literary than any of them.
Which is not to say I didn’t like the effect; that I didn’t think it worked. But when I began The Current, I decided I would try to write the best damn sentences I could write without ever betraying the language boundaries of that given character. And since no one in the book is especially sophisticated or poetical, this meant I had to make the most of the unpoetic and ordinary stuff of my characters’ minds.
And yes, at times I’ve worried about the effect this would have on the writing. I’ve worried that readers who loved the language of Descent would notice the difference, as if I’d not tried as hard, or had lost the knack. But the truth is, whatever the effect of the decision to hew more closely to my characters’ actual working minds, I feel that The Current is a more naturally written book. That it’s closer to my natural writerly self, at this time in my life.
Ray Carver didn’t just say a writer should change; he said that that change “should be a natural development, and not a decision.” But I’ve come to believe that sometimes it’s the deliberate, conscious change in technique, in style, from one book to the next—or even one story to the next—that is the true catalyst of development, and the beginning of becoming a different kind of writer.