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.

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