- It Was All About Story
We were in a wooden schoolhouse on the grounds of a nineteenth-century military fort on the outskirts of Port Townsend, Washington. Two towns over is Port Angeles, a mill town like Port Townsend, populated by mill workers, loggers, fishermen—the kind of people Raymond Carver wrote about in his stories.
Slouch-shouldered, he ambled in looking up through his thick eyebrows at us, a group of fifteen writers of all ages from all over the country. He was a big man—nothing small about him, beefy hands, wide shoulders, a head of tousled brown hair, and shaggy sideburns that defined a strong jaw line. The high pressed-tin ceiling did nothing to diminish his size. There was an awkward silence, those first few moments, till a hand shot up and a voice said, "Mr. Carver?" and was duly cut off: "Whoa, I'm not comfortable with that. It's Ray," he said, "please." He spoke softly and mumbled, so we moved our chairs closer to his. He coughed and shuffled some papers, but once he got warmed up there was no stopping him. He was in his element as he talked about craft, using models of the authors he'd admired: Hemingway and John Gardner, his mentors, whom he'd assign for our nightly reading, together with authors such as John Updike, Anton Chekhov, Barry Hannah, Isaac Babel, Joseph Conrad. "A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line," he said, quoting Conrad. He was less concerned with theories about writing than with specific ways in which to improve a story.
The year was 1980. Summer. We spent glorious sunny days holed up in an old musty schoolhouse critiquing the manuscripts of our peers, attending readings at the little theater, going to meals together (topped off by lime Jell-O with marshmallows), and, in what little free time we had, reading our latest work to one another to the background noise of a typewriter clacking behind a closed door—some ambitious student fired up by Ray's lecture. We were housed in a barrack with tiny spartan rooms furnished with metal beds ("linens not provided"), desks, and bare light fixtures that echoed throughout the building each time the toilet was flushed. The reader would pause, look out the wavy-glass window at the trees on the parade ground, the dog chasing a Frisbee—it gets dark late in July in the Pacific Northwest—and continue reading when the plumbing had quieted. Except for the few who would slip out to watch the sunset on the beach, we would go back to our rooms and read our assignments, the purple printouts that Ray had passed out to us in class that morning.
Then it would be our turn. We'd be on the chopping block. The students [End Page 451] whose work we had read the night before were up. Carver would lean his bulk back in the chair, listening. We followed along on our copies of the story, the print barely legible due to worn-out typewriter ribbons, the letters e and o clogged up. There was a long story this day, and we'd glance up at Ray, his expression unchanged, placid and noncommittal. When the reading was over, the bolder ones among us added their comments, some more astute than others, but it was not the thoughts from our fellow students that we jotted down; it was Carver's. He would wait till we'd talked ourselves out and then proceed with some crucial remarks on how to improve the story. I remember Ray never said an unkind word about anyone's story. Ray was like that—gentle, couching his comments in the form of suggestions, like on Amy's story, the woman from Oregon: "Maybe he talks too much," meaning the main character. Even when calling the dialogue dead, he did so in a manner that did not offend, speaking in a soft voice.
He treated everyone's manuscript with equal respect—novices and published writers alike—including Craig's story, which would eventually turn into a novel that...