There’s an old story about short story master Raymond Carver that he’d write his real life distractions into his stories. Most notably of these is the “knock at the door.” Supposedly, while Carver was writing, a porter knocked on his door, and by the time Carver got rid of him and returned to his work, he couldn’t remember his train of thought. So, instead, the porter’s interruption became part of the story. I really want that to be true, so I will present it here as fact.
Last night, I had a dream in which a friend of mine from childhood was telling me a very long story about… well, something. I can’t remember the actual story, but thinking of it now, it makes sense that the story itself was beside the point. What I remember about the dream is that our location kept changing and her story kept getting interrupted by pretty banal things. In one scene, we were at my apartment, but she decided she was hungry, so we ended up in a pub. Then a bartender took our drink orders. Just when she started the story for a third time, we suddenly took a trip to the bathroom (the way girls do). It was bizarre and, frankly, would have been very boring had I not been so aware of what was happening.
I woke up with a number of questions; namely, why would I dream about someone who I’ve known since birth, but was never really close friends with? More than that, I wanted to know why my subconscious kept interrupting her narrative.
This got me thinking about life’s little distractions and how they influence the way we tell stories. How often have we sat down to write, only to remember that we need to take out the trash or make a phone call or, for those of you with kids, tend to a crying baby? If we, like Carver, can’t avoid real life, as unexciting as it could be sometimes, do we have no choice but to let “the small things” infiltrate our work?
You tell me: Have any of you been inspired by seemingly insignificant real life events while working on a project? As a side note, have any of you ever changed a story midway through writing as a result of something more significant?
4 thoughts on “Knocking on Carver’s Door”
Distractions are always making their way into my work. I can guarantee that if I saw a squirrel, there is a squirrel in the chapter I was writing. If I ate a turkey sandwich and carrots for lunch, my character is probably having a similar meal. But I think that's what makes writing real. I don't live in the tundra and see polar bears. I don't eat five star meals for lunch. Why should my characters?
Peppering my writing with bits of real life is just how I write. A bad habit here – a phone sign-off between best friends there. I have to say it is one of my favorite parts of writing. And I learned from the amazing James Howe to always be prepared for when something “real” (interesting, quirky, wild, strange, hurtful, lovely, etc…) comes across your path that would be perfect for writing – he said to write it down.
And I always do.
Yes! Yesterday morning, I woke up with a song in my head. The first thing I wrote was a four-word phrase from the lyrics, tense changed. I do that a lot, but usually end up taking that stuff back out.
Yes and no. I'd like to think that I keep things nicely compartmentalized, but there's some cross-over between my writing life and my regular life. Sometimes you just meet someone especially unusual and you just have to take a part of them and put it in your book. Speaking as a former barista, pretty much any time there was an unpleasant or irate minor character in my early trunk novels, I had stolen their basic model from a customer I served that day.