- Between Stories
It beggars understanding how one person can teach another to write. And I should know; I did the book on the subject. In it I acknowledged “my own teachers of creative writing: Anne Steinhardt, the late Raymond Carver, and Stanley Elkin.” 1 What I got from them, however, is not entirely clear. Author of Thunder LaBoom (a novel based upon her own experience as an exotic dancer) and How to Get Balled in Berkeley, Annie may have left a deeper impression on my fantasies than my writing—despite the fact that I skipped her last class session, which was held in the nude in her hot tub. That was too Sixties even for me. (Steinhardt now plays bass for the eight-woman Bay Area band Pele JuJu.) Stanley died in 1996. The Dick Gibson Show, his novel about talk radio, is a book I admired so deeply that I enrolled in graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis for the sole and complete purpose of studying under him. I wound up writing a masters thesis on The Dick Gibson Show with Stanley himself as my thesis director—surely an academic first of some kind. When last in St. Louis, I phoned his friend William H. Gass to ask where Stanley was buried; I wished to leave a stone on the grave. According to Gass, the corpse had been cremated. There was no grave. There was no place to leave a tangible clump of memory and respect.
Of all my writing teachers, Raymond Carver’s influence has been the most profound and the hardest to define. If the philosopher Michael Oakeshott is right that a teacher is “the custodian of that ‘practice’ in which an inheritance of human understanding survives and is perpetually [End Page 457] renewed in being imparted to newcomers,” 2 then Ray was the man who taught me how to write, because he did not instruct me in the techniques of fiction—the tricks of the trade—but rather embodied the practice of writing in his own life. This notion that teachers might be living examples of what they teach was mocked by the linguist Roman Jakobson when Nabokov’s name was put forward for a post at Harvard (“What’s next? Shall we appoint elephants to teach zoology?”). I turned the tables by inscribing Jakobson’s mockery in the title of my book: the first philosophy of creative writing is that elephants are hired to teach the zoology. Somewhat more definitively, the idea is that writing is not an abstract body of knowledge but a concrete activity best taught by someone fully committed to it. “The teacher should be himself a writer,” declared an early creative writing textbook. “He need not have attained fame, or even have published his work. But his knowledge of the problems of writers, and his sympathy with them, will proceed out of his own continued endeavor to write.” 3
When I first met Ray, he had neither attained fame nor even begun to publish his best work, but he was fully committed to the practice of writing. The year was 1971—the year of the Pentagon Papers and Calley’s conviction for the massacre at My Lai. The Vietnam war was winding down (Nixon had announced a speed up of troop withdrawals in April); so was the counterculture. Ray was hired to teach at the University of California, Santa Cruz, by James B. Hall, an innovative administrator who was himself a story writer. Hall had gathered a remarkable group of avant-garde artists: George Hitchcock, editor of the one-man little magazine Kayak and author of the delightfully surrealist novel Another Shore; William Everson (the former Brother Antoninus), who with his full gray beard and mane of gray hair looked every inch the bard or vates; the filmmaker Tim Hunter, who later directed River’s Edge. I had enrolled at Santa Cruz the previous year. The campus was organized on the residential-college system, like Oxford or Yale, and since I burned to be a fiction writer, I requested assignment to the arts college. As yet unnamed, it was known as College V in the campus...