Diane Williams wraps up Raymond Carver Reading Series

The short story author discussed the art of writing in HBS Gifford Auditorium on Wednesday evening.

Reading Diane Williams Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty (McSweeney’s 2012) is to enter a kaleidoscope of unsettling emotions, where time either stands still or moves entirely too fast. But to listen to her read from it makes a world of difference. Williams is soft-spoken and almost diminutive in appearance, but her voice brims with steel. More importantly, her advice to young writers packs a punch:

“Anyone who embarks on this difficult life has to really want to it. You have to have the will to do it, to fail, to take risks, to keep trying and trying and trying. The ones who insist on this are the ones who succeed.”

Williams brought the Spring 2013 Raymond Carver Reading Series to a successful end with an enlightening Q-and-A conducted by SU professor and eminent author Christine Schutt (Prosperous Friends, Florida), followed by a reading of several stories from Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty on April 24 at the HBC Gifford Auditorium.

Besides having written seven books of fiction, Williams is also the founder and editor of the literary annual magazine NOON and the recipient of three Pushcart prizes. Jonathan Franzen once described her as “one of the true living heroes of the American avant-garde.” However, Williams’ journey to this point of success was not without several hurdles.

Citing heavyweights like John Cheever as one of her many literary influences when growing up, Williams admits that her own fictional exercises had difficulty extending beyond a few sentences. On several occasions she was advised “to write longer stories.” Having tried but failed, Williams decided to bend the rules: “I was severely handicapped when it came to writing at length,” she says. “Perhaps that’s how I found my own voice.”

On first look, Williams’ short stories appear like flash fiction, a genre defined by its brevity. Several of her stories, for instance, “Defeat” and “Common Body” from Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty sustain themselves with just two, compact sentences. However, to term it so would be simplifying the beauty of Williams’ art: “Genres are important to marketers, and no one else,” she says.

What is important to Williams is art that is produced with absolute passion for art itself, and with the urgency to convey something relevant and valuable. In this, she finds the work of Croatian naïve painters to be a defining example. Bearing no formal training, this group of artists’ lack of desire for money, fame or recognition is fascinating to Williams: “Theirs was a work purely created out of joy for working out something vibrant and meaningful. They were not looking for applause,” she says, “This is exactly what it is to be an artist.”

A great deal of madness comes with that territory, according to Williams. Rejection, disappointment, and suffering are familiar demons in the lives of writers and artists, and it takes a certain sort of persistent craziness to keep going: “Art is the delivery of insanity and sanity.”

On the subject of her own art, Williams divulges several writing tricks. Her short stories (which are often mistaken by readers as prose poems) are enigmatic and bursting with flickering imprints of condensed human emotions, but appear to be structured with no logical consistency. To Williams, however, magic is the key. Like playing tarot cards, Williams pretends her hands have magic and blindly points to stories arranged on her desk: “However haphazard the order, there is a logic to its magic.”

The first story, Williams insists, has to feel welcome and not forbidding. Titles, as well, have to be equally brilliant. Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty is chock-full of extraordinary titles like “The Wedding Mask Door Pull,” “Chicken Winchell” and “I Like the Fringe,” just to name a few. “It’s the first word you see,” she says. “And you hope to put together a spectacular arrangement of words.”

Williams’ words are often commonplace, but structured syntactically so that the effect created inevitably jolts the reader. When explaining this, she refers to the Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte whose paintings pull the viewer into a scene of familiar comfort but disturb them the more they look at it: “I think it’s necessary to lure them into a trap,” she says, “I want to create that sensation that makes the reader think, “This is not what I thought.”

Sometimes when dining out, Williams finds herself more engrossed in taking notes instead of conversing with her dinner partner. That is how her stories are born – out of everyday experiences. Collecting perspectives of others and writing outside of her own sensibilities is not the easiest task, but enjoyable nonetheless: “I like trying out different emotions,” she says, “Like an actor trying out different roles.”

At the end of this seminar, Williams’ left the audience full of undergraduate and graduate students with invaluable gems for creativity and inspiration, but the most impact was made by her unwavering emphasis on persistence and hard work.

“For most of us aspiring to be writers, that really rang true,” says Caitlin Hayes, a third-year graduate student in the master’s of fine arts fiction program.

Schutt, the first author to open the Spring 2013 Raymond Carver Reading Series with excerpts from her novel Prosperous Friends, echoes her thoughts: “It’s not necessarily the gifted people who end up with a book deal, but the ones with stamina who face rejection and keep writing.”

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