carver.jpgPhoto by Pink Moose
“Never write a line you don’t mean,” said Carver Read an earlier version of this piece at carteblanche.org.
I knew nothing of Raymond Carver until January 1978, when he and John Irving and Grace Paley read their work at Goddard College in Vermont. Carver was the last reader that evening. He stood up awkwardly to read “Fat” followed by “Why Don’t You Dance?” and when he stopped, the room seemed to go still.
Everyone seemed to want to study with him and I doubted I’d get into his workshop. The following day, though, I was in.
The frozen sunlight in Carver’s office nearly blinded me on that winter morning when we had our first conversation. We talked about what I would do over the semester. We talked about writers we both liked: Kafka, Isaac Babel, Milan Kundera, Rainer Maria Rilke. He was generous with encouragement and sparing with advice, and he seemed to see that we all had to find our own way in this business. Whatever business that might be.
“Never write a line you don’t mean,” he said. “And don’t ever imagine drinking will make you a better writer.” I didn’t drink, I told him. He seemed surprised.
We said goodbye and I went home to Montreal to take care of my mother, who was chronically ill, and to work at my job as a secretary. On my way, aboard the Greyhound, I started reading his first collection of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, published two years earlier and nominated for a National Book Award. By the time I reached Montreal, I’d had a taste of what it might feel like to be born suicidally depressed. Maybe I should have chosen another mentor, I thought. His bleak rooms were not the same as my bleak rooms. I had to force myself to finish the book.
In Vermont, Carver had said, “Always try to write a story in a single sitting. Even if it’s only a first draft, put it all down. When you get to the end, you’ll know.” I sent him a piece I had been working and reworking for more than a year, and within a week I had his response—the first of many three-page single-spaced commentaries, which he typed the way he talked, piling up impressions and questions—sometimes groping for phrases and worrying a topic until he had pinned it down. He was concrete in his thinking and repetitive in a rhythmic way, like a character in one of his stories. He said parts of my story—which had been shortlisted for a prize in Toronto—were interesting, but overall he found the piece “mawkish.” He advised me to get to work on something new.
For the next six months, Carver and I worked by correspondence, communicating every two weeks. I would mail him my writing and reports on my reading, and he would send me comments and recommend new readings. During that time I tried to write about my life in Montreal, but the more I wrote, the less fascinating it seemed. My characters babbled and did inexplicable self-destructive things, and I had no idea why. Carver commented that I was stuck at the surface, not going deep enough. I needed time to find my real material, he said. I’d just have to allow my life to unfold. He recommended that I read a southerner called Barry Hannah, for his gorgeous natural style.
The first story of mine that Carver liked, “A Journal of Mona,” had been accepted by a Toronto magazine. “Now that Mona’s gone,” it began, “I feel the need to reconstruct her.” It was about a self-conscious nightclub dancer who couldn’t get her act together.
“Write more about that world up there, where you’re from,” he had said at our first meeting. “It’s sophisticated and fascinating. Don’t be tempted to get involved with theory, though—it will distract you. Just write your stories.”
Carver told me he was heading out to Port Angeles, not too far from Yakima, Washington, where he grew up. I tried to imagine such a place, a blank far corner of America. How could people live there? How did they write? Montreal surrounded me with its gyrating mysteries—which, when I tried to put them on paper, lacked form and direction. I was trapped in a mansion crammed with layers and textures, but with little natural light.
The second and last time I saw Ray Carver was in early July, when I returned to Vermont to wrap up the semester. I thanked him for all his letters and comments. It had been a great experience, I said, but I could no longer afford to continue paying the high tuition at Goddard and I had decided to drop out of the program.
It was hot. I wore a dress that looked like a nightgown. He seemed worried about me. I had been working as a secretary, taking care of my mother, writing in my spare time and trying not to let my writing be too influenced by Ray Carver. He was finally done with drinking, he told me, having fallen in love with a poet named Tess Gallagher. That was why some of his letters to me had been mailed from Texas, where she lived. And from other towns in America, where he had been invited to give readings and lectures.
By then I had come to admire his stories, how they reveal a tiny cosmos feeding on deep currents of malaise. Many of his characters seem handicapped by a spellbinding ignorance, a crippling fear of the unknown. Each seemed to be a living pebble in the desert of the greatest country on earth. I told him I could never write like that, and wouldn’t even try. I’d leave it to him to squeeze the world into a space the size of a diner.
Some of the other workshop students had started to sound like Ray Carver, I told him, but none of them were. In his understated way he could overwhelm you, and it was dangerous. Silence in his stories suggested great depths, but students were falling into the trap, perhaps hoping to absorb his secrets by imitating his style. “Never mind,” he said. “They’ll never know what you know.” It sounded like a compliment, but I had no idea what I knew—only what felt true and false in the moment.
Carver may have stopped drinking but he still smoked, and his voice was muffled and hoarse. We sat in the noisy cafeteria for that final conference. I had to strain to hear what he was saying. He was a mumbler; I was a jumbler. His words dissolved before they reached my ears. Several times I asked him to repeat himself—he acted as if communication were a frustrating, painful thing, not his forte. He was really a very shy man, built large like an extrovert who’d abdicated the role.
At one point, when his lips began moving inaudibly, I leaned forward to hear. “You know, it’s an awful thing . . .” he said. The rest of the sentence rang clear as a bell, but made no sense.
I asked: “Did you just say, ‘It’s an awful thing to take a bite out of an old Arab’?”
It could have been an opening line for a Ray Carver story, like “A man with no hands came to take a photograph of my house.”
“No,” he laughed. “No, I didn’t say that.” He started to repeat what he’d actually said, then stopped to laugh some more. And so our last meeting dissolved in wave after wave of silly giggling. At least I’d made him laugh.
Before we said goodbye for good, I brought up one further item of business. Because he had moved around so much over the semester, he’d turned in his official evaluation a few days before he received my final package. One sentence in the evaluation suggested that my course work was unfinished. He told me to contact the Records Office and get that note deleted.
He said he could get me a scholarship to Iowa, if I wanted to go there. He thought I should. All the best young writers graduated from the MFA program at Iowa. If I enrolled, I’d have it made, he said. I said I’d think about it.
I never did get that comment removed, so it’s probably still there on my record. He was right—something was unfinished. And my mother was dying; I would not go to Iowa. Anyway, where was Iowa? I was a city girl, from Montreal, where there were plenty of exotic tales to be written, that could light up all the diners of America. Or so I thought.
A few years later, when Carver was very famous, I tossed our entire correspondence into a black plastic bag and left it out on the sidewalk for the garbage truck to collect. I didn’t want Raymond Carver’s influence—or anyone else’s—in my life.
Early in 1988 I sold my first novel, based on that first short story. The publisher asked me if I knew someone who could write a blurb for the back cover. I found a paragraph from Carver’s 1978 evaluation, which had survived the purge, and wrote to him for permission to quote from it. I never heard back, though he appeared to me in a dream one night. Yes, he remembered me. No, he couldn’t be of much help. He waved as if to say, Good luck!
A few months later, I heard he was dying of lung cancer. Come to think of it, I never wrote a short story after that. I wrote personal essays, book reviews and novels.
“Never write a line you don’t mean.” The few times I repeated that advice to my students, I tried not to make it sound like a death sentence.
“When you get to the end, you’ll know.”
He did. I’m not quite there. Not yet.