In a fiction seminar I took at Stanford summer school in the early 1980s, the teacher, Chuck Kinder, brought Raymond Carver to class. Carver was well over six feet with the quiet demeanor of a man much smaller. He had just published another story in Esquire and was thoughtfully upbeat.
He read to us “Neighbors,” initially published in 1971. The story is about a couple who, when asked to house-sit an apartment across the hall, experience a secret erotic life. The husband and wife always visit separately. The man tries on women’s clothing; the woman comes back with suspicious lint on the back of her sweater. The sentences were like Hemingway’s, short and declarative, subject-verb-object, but there was warmth that belied the rather cold tale he told. It was unlike any story I’d heard before.
Then Raymond Carver talked to us, a guy who seemed to have done everything in the writing world – attended the renowned fiction workshops at Iowa, spent two years as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, edited a literary magazine, and was a charmer to boot. If he could go from articles in Popular Mechanics to a story in Esquire, he told us, any of us could. He felt indebted to the writing life and wanted each of us to experience it firsthand. “Send your stories off and when you get them back re-read them and send them off again. And do a favor to whoever has to open the envelope. Pass up those metal clasps, they ruin our fingers.”
He said he sent his stories out not when they were finished, because they never were, but when he’d worked on them so much he just couldn’t stand to have them around any more. One sign that he was getting close to that point was when he found himself going back and forth on a manuscript change.
That made me re-think the writing process, but the thing that changed my life was Ray’s faith that good work would be published. “You hear about editors publishing each others’ work, or that you have to have gone to a certain school or whatever, it’s just not true. Thinking that way can be an excuse. Do your best work. That’s where to spend your effort. Then send it out. If it’s good, it’ll find a home.”
Later I would get to know him a bit and drive up to the state of Washington to spend a week as his student at Centrum, which was wonderful, but a lot of what he taught me sparkled through that first day.
Causes Kevin Arnold Supports
Poetry Center San Jose, East Palo Alto Police Activities League (EPA PAL), Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Yale Writing Conference, Gold Rush Writers