"You've got to work with your mistakes until they look intended. Understand?"
“That morning she pours Teacher's over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window."
"I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark."
I love Raymond Carver and his spare, intense style. He writes about the life in between the action, illuminating the small dramas that inform our days; the glue that fixes us and ultimately keeps us together. In a life dedicated to short stories and poetry he often described himself as "inclined toward brevity and intensity" which is kind of understating it; but then understatement was his thing; "Get in, get out. Don't linger. Go on." was his mantra. Another stated reason for his brevity was "that the story (or poem) can be written and read in one sitting" which is why I always have Carver in the crapper and by the bath. "Minimalism' and 'dirty reality' doesn't do him justice. I find his working methods helpful to my approach when writing songs; "no tricks" he would say, shunning affectation:
I think that he would have been a great writing teacher. How clear and simple this insight is:
“V.S. Pritchett's definition of a short story is 'something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.' Notice the 'glimpse' part of this. First the glimpse. Then the glimpse gives life, turned into something that illuminates the moment and may, if we're lucky -- that word again -- have even further ranging consequences and meaning. The short story writer's task is to invest the glimpse with all that is in his power. He'll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things: of how things out there really are and how he sees those things -- like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise they may even sound flat, but they can still carry; if used right they can hit all the notes.”
You sense that he had a difficult relationship with his dad, also Raymond, which he details in this heartbreaking piece and poem, written after his father's death:
Among the pictures my mother kept of my dad and herself during those early days in Washington was a photograph of him standing in front of a car, holding a beer and a stringer of fish. In the photograph he is wearing his hat back on his forehead and has this awkward grin on his face. I asked her for it and she gave it to me, along with some others. I put it up on my wall, and each time we moved, I took the picture along and put it up on another wall. I looked at it carefully from time to time, trying to figure out some things about my dad, and maybe myself in the process. But I couldn't. My dad just kept moving further and further away from me and back into time. Finally, in the course of another move, I lost the photograph. It was then that I tried to recall it, and at the same time make an attempt to say something about my dad, and how I thought that in some important ways we might be alike. I wrote the poem when I was living in an apartment house in an urban area south of San Francisco, at a time when I found myself, like my dad, having trouble with alcohol. The poem was a way of trying to connect up with him.
Photograph of my Father in His Twenty-Second Year
I listened to people say consoling things to my mother, and I was glad that my dad's family had turned up, had come to where he was. I thought I'd remember everything that was said and done that day and maybe find a way to tell it sometime. But I didn't. I forgot it all, or nearly. What I do remember is that I heard our name used a lot that afternoon, my dad's name and mine. But I knew they were talking about my dad. Raymond, these people kept saying in their beautiful voices out of my childhood. Raymond.
Carver recognised that he was his father's son ("Booze takes a lot of time and effort if you are going to do a good job with it") and was a recovering alcoholic for most of his adult life; his writing was duly informed by the damage done. Understanding and agreeing with Hemingway's sanguine observation that "all stories end in death" Carver flourished in recovery, working with a new found energy garnered from the love and support of the poet Tess Gallagher.
And Carver did change his luck.
He learned to believe in hard work, good luck and the importance of leaving something behind:
"That's all we have finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones."
And did you get what