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Thursday, January 10, 2008

An Awful Thing

Vermont was a white cathedral swept clean by a winter storm, the first time I heard Ray Carver read his work, along with John Irving and Grace Paley.

I knew nothing of Carver till that January, 1978 at Goddard College. Carver was the last reader that evening. He got up, awkwardly, and read "Fat." Then he read "Why Don't You Dance?" The room seemed to go still after he finished.

I doubted I’d get accepted into his workshop – everyone seemed to want to study with him. The following day, though, I was in.

The frozen sunlight in Carver’s office that morning nearly blinded me. I felt lifted out of my real life, back home in Montreal. 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.

Sparing with advice; generous with encouragement, 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 that you don't mean." He’d been reading my work, so that line really hit me, as if it were aimed at me personally:

"And don't ever imagine drinking will make you a better writer,” he warned. The thought had never even occurred to me. I didn't even drink, I told him, and he seemed surprised.
We were miles apart, I could see that.

We said goodbye and I went home to my secretarial job and chronically ill mother. For the next six months we would work by correspondence, communicating every two weeks. I would send him my writing, reports on my reading, and he would send me comments and recommendations for reading.

On the bus home, I had started reading his first collection, "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" 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.These bleak rooms were not my world, and 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 over a year. Within a week, I had his response – the first of those 3-page single-spaced commentaries. He typed them the way he talked, piling up impressions, questions -- sometimes groping for phrases and worrying a topic until he had pinned it down right. He was concrete in his thinking, repetitive in a rhythmic way, like a character in one of his stories.

He said parts of the story I’d sent him – which had been short-listed 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, I tried to write about my life in Montreal, but the more I wrote, the less fascinating it began to seem. My characters often 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 I read a southerner called Barry Hannah for his gorgeous, natural style.

The first story of mine he read, and liked - "A Journal of Mona" – had been accepted by a Toronto magazine.

"Now that Mona's gone, I feel the need to reconstruct her," it began. It was about a self-conscious night club dancer who couldn’t get her act together.

"Write more about that world up there, where you're from," he 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 came from Port Angeles, Washington. I tried to imagine such a place, a blank far corner of America, gaping out at the Pacific. I couldn't see how people lived or how they wrote there. Montreal surrounded me with its gyrating mysteries which, on paper, lacked form and direction. A prisoner of layers and textures, I was trapped in a crammed mansion, but there was little natural light in there.

The second and last time I saw him was in June or early July – I had returned to Vermont to wrap up the semester.

I thanked him for all this letters and comments. It had been a great experience but I had decided I couldn’t afford to continue paying the high fees at Goddard. I was dropping out of the program.

It was hot. I wore a dress that looked like a nightie. He seemed worried about me. I had been working as a secretary at a college, taking care of my mother, writing in my spare time while trying not to be too influenced by Ray Carver.

Usually shy and taciturn, this time he was talkative. He was finally done with drinking, he said, 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 also from other towns in America – he was invited all over to give readings, lectures.

By then I had come to admire his stories, how they reveal a tiny cosmos feeding on deep currents of malaise. His characters often seem handicapped by a spellbinding ignorance -- a crippling fear of the vast unknown. Each 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.

I had noticed some of the other workshop students had started sounding like Ray Carver -- but none of them were. In his understated way, he could overwhelm you. It was dangerous. Silence in his stories suggested great depths underneath, but students were falling into the trap. Hoping if they imitated his style, they could also absorb his secrets, by osmosis.
He heard me out. "Never mind. They’ll never know what you know."

It sounded like a compliment, whatever he meant by it. I had no idea what I knew – only what felt true and false in the moment.

He still smoked, and his voice was muffled and hoarse. We sat in the noisy cafeteria for our 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 has abdicated the role.

His lips were moving inaudibly. I leaned forward. "You know, it's an awful thing –“ The rest of the sentence came out clear, but made no sense.

After a pause, I asked: "Did you just say, ‘It’s an awful thing to take a bite out of an old Arab?’”

”No,” he laughed. "No, I didn't say that.”

In retrospect, 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.” It also described what it felt like to study with Carver.

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 Ray Carver laugh.
Before we said goodbye for good, there was one further item of business. Because of all his moving from place to place over the semester, he’d mailed his evaluation a few days before he received my final package which was late. There was a sentence in his commentary that needed deleting, as it suggested I had not completed my work. He said I should contact the Records Office about that, and get it fixed.

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 that MFA program. If I enrolled, I’d have it made, he said.

I said I’d think about it.

I never did contact the office or get that comment removed, so it’s probably still there on my record. Maybe he was right the first time -- something was unfinished. It didn't seem to matter then. My mother was dying; I knew I would not go to Iowa. Anyway, where was Iowa? I was a city girl from Montreal where there was plenty that was fascinating to write about -- exotic tales that could light up all the diners of America. Or so I thought, not knowing what lay ahead.

A few years later, when he was very famous, I tossed our entire correspondence into a black plastic bag and left it on the sidewalk for the garbage men to collect. I still didn't want Carver’s influence -- or anyone else's -- in my life.

For a while, life got the better of my writing. For which, I think, I'm grateful.

Early in 1988 my first novel, based on that first short story -- was accepted. 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. I wrote to Carver for permission to quote from it, but never heard back. Soon afterwards, he appeared to me in a dream. Yes, he remembered me. No, he couldn’t be of much help. Then 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. Instead, I wrote personal essays, book reviews, 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. Hard as I try, I can’t think of a more awful thing than sitting down and finishing a story in one go, the way he did it.

1 comment:

Ruth-Claire said...

Very, very interesting. Thanks.