On Raymond Carver

I was first introduced to Raymond Carver’s fiction in a “Craft of Prose” class nearly 15 years ago when my professor, Alan Davis, distributed photocopies of Carver’s “Popular Mechanics.” We read and discussed the story, and I was shocked by the drama’s high stakes, and even more so by the story’s matter-of-fact ending line: “In this manner, the issue was decided.” We talked about the parallel with the Old Testament story of Solomon trying to determine the true mother of an infant when two women both claimed they were the rightful mother.

A year later in a “Fiction Seminar” was Carver’s “Cathedral,” a story that has become one of my favorites to teach. Something beautiful and transcendent happens in that story, just as in the much darker “A Small Good Thing,” heart-wrenching as it is. (Side note: it’s such a better story than “The Bath,” the version first published but not before it had been gutted by his editor, Gordon Lish.)

Two summers ago I read Carver’s Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories. I was reading his (and others’) stories while also working on revising my own short stories. I felt simultaneously inspired and dejected–in awe of the craft and the character; in despair of my own seeming inability to create something faintly comparable. It’s a humbling yet instructive experience to read and learn from a master as you devote yourself to your own stories.

I recently read a collection of critical essays called New Paths to Raymond Carver. With pieces written by various critics, the book is a great read. Like the best criticism, these analyses cultivated in me a yearning to read the objects of the criticism. I joked to my wife that I wanted to (somehow) spend a week doing nothing but reading Carver.

Over my years of reading and studying Carver’s writings, I’ve learned much about dialogue, pacing, story structure, characterization, and even humor. The writing’s strong without preventing me from caring about the characters and what’s at stake for them. Some of my stories have been inspired by his work, not so much the scenarios, but more so the portrayal of characters that are not overly successful people. One of the things I appreciate (among many) about his work is his depiction of people (often) who are down on their luck in various ways, and he does so while avoiding authorial smugness.

Lastly, a statement from his essay “On Writing” is on a 3 x 5 notecard in my brain: “I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover.”

I apply this to my own work, I preach it to my students, and I consider how that applies to my daily interactions with people.

On Blogging

I started this blog in 2010, coinciding with my first semester as a full-time English professor, and now I’m in my sixth straight year in the same field but at a different institution, and in a different state. I initially viewed my blog as a place to share my thoughts about writing, about reading, about place. Since then, I’ve written about other subjects, too: teaching, editing, running, music.

Not counting this post, I’ve written nearly sixty posts in this space since I began, but I didn’t develop consistency until 2015 when I posted more than in my previous five years combined. 2015 was my “Year of the Blog” you could say. With 2015 speeding toward a conclusion, I began anticipating 2016, and while doing so, I received an opportunity to begin blogging every week for Altarwork, a wonderful site created and curated by the super-nice Jason Ramsey. (See the “Blogging” tab above for links to my pieces there and elsewhere.)

Before I said yes to the possibility, I talked it over with my wife. It sounds exciting, I told her, but the weekly “deadline” felt potentially intimidating. She wisely told me that if I did it, there would be less time with other writing projects. I had considered this possibility, but it was affirming to hear my wise wife tell me this in her own words.

As someone who writes in multiple genres, often focusing on one for several weeks or months at a stretch, I thought this would be an opportunity for a similar extended genre focus. All of this to say that much of my writing energies the past six weeks have been directed there exploring subjects that I haven’t (and probably won’t) address in the space I’ve created here at plainswriter.com.

I’ve discovered the weekly “posting” to be an enjoyable endeavor, not (yet) panicking or scrambling for material about which to write. Because I don’t keep a journal–have never really been able to keep one despite at least a dozen attempts–a blog post is really my “polished” (to some degree) journal entry.

The writing process has steadily become more standardized even though I have not set out to construct a certain process. I jot down an idea in my notebook. The next day I return to that idea and jot down a page or two of impressions, sometimes a working title. The following day I sit with my open notebook beside me and begin typing on the computer. I piece together a draft, moving from one topic to the next without concern for coherence or clarity. Later that day, usually after a few hours doing other tasks, I return to the draft and straighten it, polish it, and send it for review. A few days later, I begin the process again.

As I am steadily generating more content with my Altarwork posts, and even with all of my posts here since, I treat the posts as second or third drafts of personal essays. There are ideas in the posts I purposefully leave undeveloped with the intention of returning to these posts at some later point to deepen them. Until then, however, I keep writing, exploring subjects, learning more about myself, and hoping to communicate with my readers, wherever they might be.