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Raymond Carver, Gordon Lish, and Special Pleading

The few days I spent with Ray Carver were unforgettable, his presence so quietly powerful that it shouldn't surprise me that so many who met him want to write about the experience.  On Amazon the search term ‘Raymond Carver' results in over five hundred books; reprints, anthologies, criticism, and  biographies.

When I met him in I was married to Bo Caldwell, whose second novel City of Tranquil Light (Henry Holt, September 2010) is selling briskly.  We drove to Centrum, the weeklong writer's conference in Port Townsend, Washington.  My workshop leader was Ray; Bo was taught by Gordon Lish.

One of Lish's shibboleths was ‘special pleading.'  If a participant's work had a line that hinted that teachers were underpaid, or if a character professed an anti-war sentiment, Lish would stop them and say, "uh uh.  Special Pleading.  Save that for the judge.  People don't come to fiction for special pleading."  Sadly, I adopted this term into my personal workshop arsenal to criticize my fellow student's work.

It seems to me now that all writing is special pleading.  I see Gone with the Wind as an extended special pleading for a woman who makes bad decisions about men.  How could a writer about people of color not include some special pleading about discrimination?   Why else pick up a pen?

I'm spending more time with the Bible lately and sometimes see it, too, as a document of special pleading for a certain way of looking at creation, existence, and God.  The Old Testament foretells the coming of a messiah and the New Testament asserts that this was surely Jesus.  So successful that we now view every date as either before and after the birth of Jesus.

To anyone I ever accused of special pleading, my sincere apologies.  I hope you ignored me.