Raymond Carver, Remembered

For those who weren’t writing back in the nineteen eighties, it’s hard to imagine what a broad shadow Raymond Carver cast across the writing world. His work, and articles about him, seemed to appear everywhere, including The Paris Review, Atlantic, Poetry, and The New Yorker. In his final year, 1988, he was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Ray’s respect for the poor was highlighted in Ray’s quote in a New York Times Magazine profile by Bruce Weber: “Until I started reading these reviews of my work, praising me, I never felt the people I was writing about were so bad. . . . the waitress, the bus driver, the mechanic, the hotelkeeper. God, the country is filled with these people. They’re good people. People doing the best they could.”

Chuck Kinder, who had been a Stegner fellow with Ray, invited him to a class I was taking one summer at Stanford. Over six feet but with a markedly gentle presence, Ray seemed, at the same time, both reclusive and open. He had recently broken into Esquire with a short story called “Neighbors,” which he read for us.

In the story, a couple, when asked to look after an apartment across the hall, enjoyed separate, secret erotic lives when they visited their neighbor’s rooms. The man tried on women’s clothing; the woman returned with suspicious lint on the back of her sweater. Carver’s sentences were like Hemingway’s, short and declarative, subject-verb-object, but there was warmth in the writing that belied the tale he was telling. The sex was non-judgmental, without titillation. It was unlike any story I’d heard before.

After reading, Ray sat informally on a desk in the front of the class and talked to us. He seemed to have done everything in the writing world—attended the renowned fiction workshops at Iowa before his Stegner fellowship, edited a literary magazine, and was charming, accessible, and encouraging to boot. If Ray Carver could go from articles in Popular Mechanics to a story in Esquire, he told us flatly, any of us could. He felt indebted to the writing life and wanted each of us to experience it firsthand. Back then, when stories were submitted solely through the mail, he said, “Send your stories off and when you get them back re-read them, fix them up and send them off again. But do a favor to whoever has to open the envelope. Pass up those metal clasps, they ruin our fingers.”

He told us he sent his stories out not when they were finished, because they never were, but when he just couldn’t stand to have them around any more. Having never heard Leonardo Da Vinci’s pithy, “art is never finished, always abandoned,” I sat wide-eyed. Ray said one sign that he was getting close to sending his stories off was when he found himself revising a word change back to his initial choice.

The World According to Garp had been popular then and Ray used the title to tell us that every novel was a world according to its author. “Every word, every association, is yours,” he emphasized.

He was convinced good work would be published. “You hear about editors publishing each others’ work, and that you have to have gone to a certain school or whatever, but that can become an excuse. Do your best work. That’s where to spend yourself. Then send it out. If it’s good, it’ll find a home.”

We adjourned to a bar, the long-extinct Winery at the corner of El Camino Real and California Avenue in Palo Alto. This time was early in Palo Alto’s transition from college town to the world’s technology center; things were simpler then. Chuck and Ray knew the bartender, who quickly had drinks in front of them.

I was introduced to Maryann Burk Carver, Ray’s wife. I surmised she must have come in from a nearby town to join her husband, but after they said hello with a light kiss, they didn’t sit together. I ended up chatting with her at a little table in the corner. Later I would learn this was the woman who went to the head of the Iowa workshops to say they were dismissing Ray’s work too easily, the same Maryann who this seemingly gentle man would physically abuse. She was also the woman who, more than thirty years later, would write a well-crafted, generous memoir of her life with him, What It Used to Be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver. The title would have seemed absurdly pretentious back then. Except for the enthusiasm Chuck Kinder showed about Ray’s arrival, it seemed no one had any notion Ray would eventually be referred to as the American Chekhov.

Maryann was attractive, and as unprepossessing as Ray. If I had to characterize her in one word, it would be “genuine.” I was immediately drawn to her, and my respect for her has grown through the years. That day, as her bushy-haired husband knocked back drinks at the bar with the sun still bright in the window behind him, she thought this was great, this writing life Ray was living, something to which Maryann thought I should aspire.

Ray’s life changed dramatically not long after that. He quit drinking. His national reputation grew immensely. In one year, 1981, he was published in the Atlantic, the Hudson Review, the LA Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Nation, the New Republic, mentioned in Newsweek and New York magazines, written up in the New York Times, Saturday Review, and Time, and anthologized with a Pushcart Prize.

When my wife at the time, Bo Caldwell, and I learned he would be teaching at Centrum, a summer workshop at Port Townsend, Washington, we put in applications and were accepted. She drew Gordon Lish as her workshop leader. Gordon was cutting quite a figure in New York, calling himself Captain Fiction. I didn’t know that Lish’s edits of Carver were controversial, although much ink has been spilled on the subject since. I requested, and was assigned to, Ray’s workshop.

I bought two of his books, both collector’s items now: Furious Seasons (Capra, 1977), and Put Yourself in My Shoes (Capra, 1974). I didn’t spend much time with Furious Seasons, which seemed to be too much about fishing for my taste at the time, but the latter book fascinated me; I read it over and over. It was a chapbook with only one story, that of a man who leaves his day job to write and the strange way people react to him.  At a party, his host and hostess recited bizarre stories to the writer, tales that they think he should integrate into his work, each trying to outdo the other.

In addition to our morning seminars, the workshop leaders held private meetings to review manuscripts. The week before the conference I had typed out something completely new, some wet clay that Ray Carver might sculpt into greatness. He’d had it for a few days before I visited him in his apartment in officer’s quarters.

I still remember the bay view from the kitchen table where Raymond and I sat that afternoon. He started right in on my manuscript. I would have been devastated by even one word of Carver’s criticism, but he never gave any. Instead, Ray was overwhelmingly pleasant and curious about my work, which I attempted to dismiss with talk about the overcast Port Townsend skies we watched from the window.

He’d taken my work much more seriously than I’d taken it myself, examining every sentence to see if it was doing my bidding. He strongly believed sentences must do what the writer wanted them to do, and not anything else. The problem was I wasn’t sure yet what I wanted of the poor sentences. I think he must have noticed my reticence to defend the text, because a light went on for him. “So, Kevin,” he asked. “How many times has this been through the typewriter?”

“It’s pretty much a first draft,” I said. “I wish I’d brought something more finished.”

Almost ten years had passed since we’d met at Stanford. He’d joined AA and opened up to the existence of God. His stories had taken on a more hopeful tone. He’d separated from Maryann; a divorce was rumored. I wanted to discuss these things rather than my dashed-off manuscript, and he followed my conversational lead.

He told me he was headed to Tacoma the next day to see Maryann and the children they shared, a trip he didn’t seem anxious to take.

“I read a bit about your father,” I said. “My Dad’s broke too. It’s been a little different, because he had an education and some money once, but he’s broke now. I’m sending him small checks.”

He nodded sympathetically. “Raymond [his father] didn’t have a suit for his funeral. They put him in someone else’s sport coat.”

My situation quickly paled. “Fathers.” I shook my head. “We work so hard to go further than they did. I guess we have, though.”

“Don’t concentrate on anything like that if you want to write,” Ray said. “A writer has to write from . . .” He raised his hands as if they were growing out of the earth, with open palms and fingers spread. “. . . from, you know, from underneath.”

He whispered the word underneath in a way that didn’t invite comment, as if he were sharing a secret. Besides the organic connotation, I think Ray gave sociological significance to the word as well. He didn’t have much interest in characters “on top of things.”

Ray ended the session with a generous gesture that seemed breathtaking, especially considering the quality of the work I showed him. “When you have a story really, really, ready, you can put my name on it,” he said. “Tell the editor Ray Carver wants him or her to look at it. Only use my name with something finished though, twenty or thirty times through the typewriter at least. And get the editor’s name right, even if it takes a phone call.”

I never took him up on it. By the time I finally had a few things possibly worthy, it was too late. I smile when I imagine an editor today reading a cover letter that says, “Raymond Carver thought you might be interested in this.”

I took a snapshot of him that day, which I framed and mailed to him. He responded with a typically effusive thank you note.

Carver gained fame and fortune toward the end of his life. He won several awards, most notably the Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award. That gave him, for the first time, enough money to live on, and allowed him time to write. He found a solid partner in Tess Gallagher, whom he married five days before his death; his stories were published with some regularity in The New Yorker and translated around the world; and he was lionized whenever he read. I experienced this firsthand when, not long before Ray died, he was invited to Stanford as part of the Lane Lecture Series.

He looked a picture of health in a beige suit with a blue shirt and tie, ready to address the thousand people gathered in the theater. It wasn’t public knowledge yet, but some of us knew, despite his appearance, he was facing the tough odds of lung cancer. He read two stories from his later, fuller work. First he read “Cathedral,” the title story to the volume that brought nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Then he read “Elephant,” a story about a middle-aged recovering alcoholic. The narrator, who finally had his financial act together, found himself sending checks to his kids, his mother, and now his brother.

At the end, the protagonist saved a few pennies by walking to work. A fellow worker came by and picked him up in a late-model car he had just bought on credit. In the ending to this complexly crafted story about lack of money and redemptive trust, Ray Carver described the two characters “[screaming] down the road in his big unpaid-for car.”

People grew quiet as he read “Elephant.” When he read its last line, the auditorium was completely silent, stunned as if we knew what a presence we might lose. He laid the book down on the podium and looked up into the crowd of faces, a long, quiet moment, and then the room burst into applause. We rose to our feet. I’d heard he’d received scant attention when he’d been a student at Iowa and a fellow at Stanford, so it was wonderful to see him in such glory now. Ray made a purposeful exit, row by row. When he saw someone he knew, he would wait at the end of the row and his friend would come out for a hug. When he got to my row, he looked over invitingly as if to say, Kevin, come.

My wife, who would later earn a Stegner fellowship herself on her way to becoming a successful novelist, encouraged me to stand. In the intervening years we’d had two kids. I’d taken on more responsibility in my corporate job and published my first short story and two poems. Still, standing up just seemed too forward to me. All that had passed between Raymond and me were the photo I’d sent him and a note or two back and forth. So I remained rooted to the chair, smiling shyly. Ray shrugged and moved up to the next row, where a woman in a black dress and jangling silver bracelets leaped up to hug him. I watched him—kind, generous, and grateful—and I felt like one of the tongue-tied characters in one of his stories, incapable but aware.


Photo By: Raymond Carver signing books, New York City, 1988 (Bob Adelman/Magnum Photos)