Sunday, March 14, 2010

So many good stories so close to home

I entered the creative writing program at Colorado State University just a few weeks after Raymond Carver died Aug. 2, 1988, in Port Angeles, Wash.

As a late-blooming M.F.A. student, I knew very little about Carver. Other writers spoke of him in hushed tones. I wanted to be be able to utter similar hushed literary tones. So I read "Cathedral." Such a story! I read everything of Carver's I could get my hands on. "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please." "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" "So Much Water So Close to Home." I was fortunate that Gordon Lish had discovered Carver and guided him through the publication of several collections.

One day I came across a different version of "So Much Water So Close to Home." I brought this up in one of my classes. The only answer I got was that Carver rewrote his stories because, like many writers, he wasn't pleased with the published version. I could forgive that -- and moved on. Carver's powerful minimalist stories played a part in my switchover from budding novelist to short story writer.

Twenty-some years later, I read the March 13 The New Republic article Mr. Coffee And Mr. Fixit by Christopher Benley.

It raises a big problem concerning Carver. Lish shortened most of the stories, eliminating Carver's wordier story-telling style. Religious references were curtailed as were hints of a happy ending.

These edits may have illuminated Carver's themes of honor/dishonor and conflicted human relationships. But maybe not. At the heart of every Carver story is the mysterious element that makes me feel that I have been punched in the gut -- and punched hard. Hundreds of us writers influenced by Carver's straightforward style tried to recreate the story's feel. We failed. We didn't live Carver's life and our aesthetic and instincts were all wrong. Stories were technically sound but heartless. We had to find other ways to tell our stories.

Were students at writing programs all over the country betrayed by Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver? Were we pushed in the wrong direction by Carverite writing profs?

Possibly. It is a strong-willed young writer who knows his/her style and is willing to defend it in the face of withering workshop critiques.

According to TNR article, the Library of America's Carver collection features conflicting versions of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love' (Carver's story was called "Beginners" and was a longer and much different story the the Lish-edited version). I look forward to reading them and again trying to discover what made him tick. I'm interested in seeing if they have the same sort of gut-punch impact they had on first readings.

Meanwhile, I write like Mike. With just a touch of Carver.

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