Re-Vision: A Tribute to Raymond Carver
When I first heard about the workshops at Centrum, acceptance into the program was competitive. Initially, I didn’t get in. But then someone had to cancel, which left an opening and Centrum called to ask if I could fill that space! I was so excited. Robert Smith (not his real name) was teaching the workshop that year. I bought his books and read them carefully. I made arrangements for people to take my responsibilities and caught the ferry a few weeks later, still absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity.
But Robert was NOT thrilled at my presence. He was outright hostile. He wouldn’t look at me, and when I tried to participate in the class, he cut me off. He did that repeatedly, so I quit trying and sat quietly in the back, soaking up what I went there to learn.
One day, as I passed his desk, Smith said, “Prostitutes hate men.” I looked at him, startled. Was he talking to me? Yes, he was. It was the only time he looked at me. I sat down, stunned. Of course, I had a hard time focusing during the class. I was busy analyzing his statement. Did he think I was a prostitute? I had graduated from Gonzaga University and had taught junior high. I was a bookworm, wore comfortable jeans and baggy sweatshirts, little or no makeup. What? I had never laid eyes on Robert Smith before Centrum, but the first time he saw me, he recoiled. Although his attitude toward me felt personal, I decided it wasn’t. I must have reminded him of someone who betrayed him. I had to leave that insult lay right where it was, and get as much out of the workshop as I could. As part of the workshop, we got a private hour-long conference with Smith. He passed around a sign-up sheet. Every time I picked a slot, it got scratched out.
One night at dinner, a fellow student named John sat down with me. He said, “Wow, Smith really has it in for you. What did you do to him?”
I told John about how I got into the program and that Smith seemed embarrassed to have a sub-standard student in the class. He didn’t want the other students thinking he had chosen me and my bad writing. John laughed. “You don’t believe that, do you?”
“I don’t know what to think. Smith finally agreed to give me my one-on-one,” I said. “I had to insist on it, as I paid for it. I will be allowed to meet with him while he does his laundry.”
“You’re kidding,” John said.
“I am not kidding. We’re meeting in the laundromat.”
Of course, Smith tore apart the story I submitted. He shredded every sentence, word-by-word. When one of the students tried to say something positive, Smith slammed the manuscript on his desk and said he’d wasted enough time on it. I sat through the rest of that class, then headed quickly to my room. I thought I could handle criticism. I had dealt with plenty of it in my studies at Gonzaga, but this was over the top. I needed to cry and didn’t want anyone to see me. But John walked just as quickly to intercept me. “That was brutal,” he said. “Let’s go into town for dinner tonight. I have someone you need to meet.”
So that night, we went to town to eat and then to a bar where John introduced me to Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher. I didn’t know anything about either of them. John told them about Smith. Across the table from me, Carver shook his head. “I’ll be teaching out here next year,” he said. “You need to come to my workshop. In the meantime, send me the story Smith shredded. I don’t know if you’re a writer, but this is not right.”
Tess Gallagher had purchased a package of cigarillos. They came in a gorgeous, filigreed, silver box. Each cigarillo was wrapped in silver cellophane. “Here,” she said. “Have one of these. Relax. Just don’t inhale.” Both of us fondled the silver-cellophaned cigarillos before we opened them and lit up. Of course, I inhaled and then felt dizzy. It certainly took the edge off my mood.
At my interview with Smith, he barely spoke. I knew I shouldn’t have insisted on having it, but by then, I was angry and cantankerous. I didn’t care how famous a writer he was. In the silence, I helped him fold his laundry. I didn’t know what else to do. Finally, I asked, “Do you know someone who looks like me?”
He glared at me over a basket of dirty clothes he’d been sorting. “You should go home,” he said. “You should bake pies and iron.”
I left Centrum, thinking he was right. If I didn’t remind him of someone, then the other possibility was that he recognized something immoral, wrong, unbalanced, or deceitful in me, some trait that would keep me from becoming a writer. On the drive home, I decided I would send my story to Carver, get his response, and go from there.
Above all, Carver was generous. He sent me ideas for revision – RE-VISION, the art of seeing again, in a different way. This WAS his creative talent. I don’t think Smith had that capability. I revised that story and work-shopped at Centrum with Carver the following summer. He was a fabulous teacher, getting into the stories and the students’ heads to try to better understand and improve. Sure, he had negative things to say, but always suggested revisions to the story that would lead the writer to discover what he meant to say.
The story I work-shopped with Carver became Milk River, published in Writers’ Forum and anthologized in HIGHER ELEVATIONS. Craig Lesley, who was another student in the Carver workshop, used Milk River to teach the use of voice at Oregon State University.
Before Carver died, he came to Seattle to give a reading at Elliott Bay Book Company. I was gratified to see that we filled the room in the basement there, AND the restaurant next door. The place was packed, standing room only. I knew Carver had lung cancer, but I thought he was recovering, or he wouldn’t have scheduled a reading. How wrong I was. The instant I saw him, I felt a knot of tears rising in my throat. He looked gaunt and puffy at the same time, the effect of radiation and chemotherapy. He had that vacant, low-energy look of someone near death. And he moved as if each step took enormous strength. All through the reading, he coughed and apologized. He was horrifically sick and yet he read with such humility. He wanted to please us. Respectfully, he wanted to give us one last gift. At the end, I went to hug him. He was saying goodbye to each of us. When I held him in my arms, I realized he had shrunk, and he was fragile. We looked into each other’s eyes and said goodbye, a moment I treasure. I was swallowing hard to keep from crying. I wanted to tell him how much his help meant to me, but I couldn’t talk over the tears in my throat. I had waited too long. He said, “You take care, Ellie. You take care.” I sobbed into my steering wheel all the way home. He should have been in bed, but he used the last of his energy to give a reading. I have never witnessed anything more generous.
Two months later, I got the call from a friend: Carver had died. I went to bed. I had lost everything. A month earlier, I had filed for a divorce. I was taking care, just as Carver had asked. I’d spent twenty years trying to make my marriage work, struggling with my life and every facet of denial that could possibly exist. If I took care, as Carver asked, could I stay where the dissension had drifted to paralysis? When I thought about this, I remembered looking into Carver’s eyes and feeling his fragility. Life is fragile. After I filed for a divorce, everyone in my life was angry with me. My children, my family, the people I thought were my friends. They all loved my husband. He was so charming. So now Carver was gone, and soon the house we lived in would be gone. I had no job, no money.
After a few hours, I got out of bed, poured a cup of coffee, and started reading Flannery O’Connor’s The Habit of Being. Carver had recommended her and I had read everything else she wrote, except this large book. By the time I was done, I had changed my view, accomplished a personal revision. Flannery wrote on the day she died. She chose the same kinds of characters I like to write about. What do we have to learn from characters who are clothed in goodness and don’t make mistakes? And where is the truth in that kind of writing?
Soon after that, I started writing MILK RIVER, the novel. An acquaintance got me a job as a contractor. I found a place to live, eventually my family came back to me, and I made new friends. I had not lost everything. I just lost Carver. Why was that tiny relationship so important? I spent a few hours in a bar, a week in a workshop, and a couple of hours at a reading. That’s the extent of my exposure to Carver. Yet, after I met him, I was like a stone skipping over water. The trajectory of my life changed suddenly. He took the time to make comments on that initial story, which led me to believe that there was some value in my writing. And then, he didn’t say goodbye, he said, “Take care.” Which he probably said to everyone. But those two words made me stop. I had not been taking care. I was unconscious. You can’t be a writer or even be truly alive if you are unconscious. In my case, choosing to be conscious was painful. But I am here now. I am conscious and I am aware of how powerful words are.