More than any other writer, Raymond Carver (1938-1988) revitalized the American short story when in the last third of the twentieth century that genre had grown stale. Carver’s subject matter had never been a part of American literature before and his writing techniques were also unique. In the 1980s when he was most active he was referred to by a British literary critic as “the American Chekhov.” Another critic considered Carver “one of the greatest modern short story writers.” Poet Hayden Carruth wrote, “Among the great American writers of the 20th century, no question, Carver is the most endearing. He carries our humanity into the 21st.”
From the age of sixteen until his death, Carver’s goal was to be a great writer, and if need be, to sacrifice everything else to reach that goal. He married young and had two children before he was twenty. According to biographer Carol Sklenicka’ s Raymond Carver: a Life, Carver and his first wife Mary shared that goal “not to sell out Ray’s writing, to not have him get involved in some other career that would make him forget what he really was here on earth to do.”
“Mary had had a big dream that her husband was going to be not just a good writer, but a great one, and she was willing to waitress and sell encyclopedias, and do all this while he was back home drinking, dickering with his short stories…Whether you say her motives were religious or altruistic, she was completely devoted to having Ray become a great writer. She worked tirelessly to that vision and gave the best she had to give.” It was Mary Ann’s role to earn the money Carver needed to start as a writer’s tenuous career and to support him and see that “he got things done.” We will never know if Carver would have reached the success he did without her support.
Few writers have had such an impact on a genre of writing in America as Carver had on the short story in that era. He was not a novelist. Although he is best remembered for his eight books of short stories including What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral, he also wrote essays, plays, reviews, a screen play, and seven book of poetry, including A New Path To The Waterfall. Ten films have been made from his stories. About his poetry, the Times Literary Supplement found it “infused with a largesse of spirit that adds a new dimension to the impression the man left by the cool perfection of his stories.”
You cannot talk about Carver without mentioning his many troubles. Throughout his adult life Carver struggled with alcoholism, marital problems, divorce, and bankruptcies. Drinking calmed his anxieties and resentments and allowed him to have fun, but his need for booze became more powerful as it helped him to medicate his feelings. His private life was difficult and the strains destroyed his first marriage. As many artists are able to he had the ability to find literary material in the suffering he lived through. A stylist, he was able to relate his life’s conflicts to readers in direct, carefully-crafted stories and poems.
The Approach and Impact of John Gardner
A major turning point in Carver’s life and writing career was discovering the short stories of Ernest Hemingway and Anton Chekhov; another was his being taught and mentored in 1958 in a college class at Chico State University by John Gardner (1933-1982). In years to come Gardner, then twenty-six, would become an important and influential person in American literature. Carver said that a good writing teacher is something like a literary conscience, a friendly critical voice in your ear, and that after being taught by Gardner, all his writing career he sensed him looking over his shoulder when he wrote, showing approval or disapproval over words, phrases, and strategies.
Gardner would write philosophical fiction best sellers Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues and esteemed books for writers The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist and appeared on the cover of the New York Times magazine. When Carver met him, Gardner was an advanced thinker who worked day and night to refine his aesthetics and to communicate his sophisticated, yet practical knowledge to students. He believed that “Only a talent that doesn’t exist at all can’t be improved.”
In a relationship such as Gardner and Carver had “a master transfers the knowledge, expectations, and experiences of a science, art, skill, or philosophy to a protégé who may eventually establish a new frontier in the field, break existing records, and create new traditions” (Donna Rae Clausen). The process of matching a promising novice with an expert challenges the novice and provides encouragement in the development of his or her talent.
Gardner’s teaching, personality, and work routines affected Carver profoundly. Gardner believed that to be successful writers had to possess something on the order of what I call “inner skills of the artist:” certain psychological traits such as a sensitivity to language, accuracy of observation, the special intelligence of the story-teller, and a writer’s intuition.
He said, “Art depends heavily on feelings, intuition, taste. It is feeling, not some rules, that tells the abstract painter to put his yellow here and there, not there, and may later tell him that it should have been brown or purple or pea-green. It is feeling that makes the composer break surprisingly from his key, feeling that gives the writer the rhythms of his sentences, the pattern of rise and fall in his episodes, the proportion of alternating elements, so that dialogue goes on only so long before a shift to description or narrative summary or some physical action. The great writer has an instinct for these things” He believed he could help students develop those traits through his teaching.
Gardner would begin the school year by assembling his students on the lawn, ask them a few questions, and tell them he didn’t think that any of them had what it took to be a writer, that as far as he could see none of the students had the necessary fire. He said he would do what he could for them, that they were about to set out on a trip and they would do well to hold onto their hats. Starting the class that way was meant to intimidate students who weren’t serious.
Gardner thought that a novelist needed “an almost daemonic compulsiveness.” He was energetic and charismatic and his students responded. One student said “he was born with a quicker ratio to the passage of time than the rest of us.” Carver said that Gardner’s teaching “went right into my blood stream and changed the way I looked at things…He took my stories more seriously…I was completely unprepared for the kind of criticism I received from him.” He considered Gardner the teacher who first inspired him and intimidated him, teaching him to be tough on himself.
Carver said, “I was simply electrified…(Gardner) was out of a different cloth from anyone I’d ever met…He was very helpful…and I was at that particular point in my life when nothing was lost on me. And changed the way I looked at things…my life was pretty boxed in, but I learned things from him and even if I couldn’t put these things into practice immediately, the things I learned were longstanding and abiding.”
Gardner taught Carver that the best writers discover what they want to say in the process of “seeing” what their writing is saying, that writing was more than self-expression, and that the best writing had always come from a serious attempt to write in a particular form. Gardner believed in traditional plots and drew plot diagrams.
Gardner believed that art could have a moral impact (in 1978 writing the book On Moral Fiction), and was a believer in the importance to the would-be writer of what could be learned by a serious study of the best writers literature had to offer. Carver said that Gardner “was here to tell us which authors to read (such as Hemingway, Faulkner, and Henry James and Camus and Proust) as well as teach us to write.” He taught Carver to prefer plain words over pseudo-poetic words–(“ground”, not “earth.”)
Carver was sensitive to criticism, but Gardner always found something to praise to balance the criticism. He wrote “nice” or “good” in the margins from time to time. When Carver saw those comments his heart would lift. The single principle that Gardner applied to all the stories was “If the words and sentiments were dishonest, the author was faking it, writing about things he didn’t care about or couldn’t believe in. then nobody could ever care anything about it.” Gardner believed that writers should be aware of the battle that goes on in the writer between “those age-old enemies, the real and the fake.”
Possibly the lesson Carver learned from Gardner was that a serious and passionate writer might also be an unpublished writer. Carver was desperate to publish but the stacks of manuscripts in Gardner’s office gave Carver reason to hope and have patience in the years to come,
Gardner recognized that Carver had an exceptional talent, but was “desperately poor” and needed a place to work. He invited Carver to use his college office and typewriter on weekends. Carver and Gardner did not become personal friends. There was a five year difference in age and other differences between them. Gardner with a Master’s degree and Ph.D was far better educated.
Gardner, who was to die at forty-nine, was supportive of Carver’s writing, and applied pressure on him to excel. He deleted some of Carver’s words, phrases and sentences, and made it clear to him that the changes were not negotiable. Carver said, “We’d discuss commas in my stories as if nothing else mattered at that moment.” Carver became more and more committed to writing excellence. He said “conversation was fine, camaraderie was fine, making love was fine, raising a family was okay, but it interfered with his writing.” Through his perseverance he was eventually published prolifically.
Carver was to teach writing at universities when he became established and more widely known and his stores were being regularly published. Like Gardner Carver believed that to be successful writers must come to the role with certain traits. He said, “No teacher or any amount of education can make a writer out of someone who is constitutionally incapable of becoming a writer in the first place. “
Jay McInerney, one of Carver’s students, said of Carver, “He mumbled. I think now it was a function of a deep humility and a respect for the language bordering on awe, a reflection of his sense that words should be handled very, very gingerly.” Carver taught that literature could be fashioned out of “real life, whatever and however it was lived, even if it was lived with a bottle of Heinz ketchup.”
Carver didn’t believe that the work of a student should be negatively criticized. He was not there to discourage anyone. His harshest criticism was “it is good you got that story behind you.” Another of Carver’s students said, “He taught me passion and anger and focus.” Just as Carver received invaluable help and feedback from john Gardner, Carver, in turn, provided that type of assistance to his students.
In the spring of 1982 a student happened to stop by Carver’s house a few minutes after Carver had heard that Gardner had died in a motorcycle crash. Carver was distraught and couldn’t sit still and he talked about Gardner. He said that before he met Gardner he didn’t even know what a writer looked like, but “John looked like a writer.”
Every writer will benefit from feedback and active help. A writer of any level of ability should ask, “Am I getting honest feedback regularly from someone whose judgment I trust? Have I made arrangements to do that? If not, I must. Am I receptive to constructive criticism? If my mind is closed I won’t benefit.”
No one on earth has achieved anything significant without help.
© 2020 David J. Rogers
For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click the following link:
Order Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life eBook by David J. Rogers
Order Waging Business Warfare: Lessons From the Military Masters in Achieving Competitive Superiority