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“That’s all we have, finally, the words…”

I’ve just finished reading What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a collection of Raymond Carver’s short stories.

Carver’s work is sometimes classified as ‘dirty realism’ – a term coined by Bill Buford of Granta magazine, who defined it as writing about the under-belly of society in a sparse and minimalistic style.  The first time I came across the label, I thought it sounded quite cool, but now I think it depends on the direction from which you are viewing the subject matter.

The characters are ordinary people, with mundane jobs, not very much money and lots of problems.  I suppose as a single mother, eking out a precarious existence from my grindingly boring day job, I would be perfect material for a ‘dirty realist’ short story.  I hope there is nothing derogatory meant by it.  I actually doubt it, as Raymond Carver had been there, done that and bought the t-shirt when it came life in the under-belly – studying for a degree while working night shifts, with a wife also struggling to combine motherhood with dead-end jobs… and then came the alcohol.

As Carver quite candidly said about that period of his life: “I made a wasteland out of everything I touched.”

Which brings me to autobiography; Carver’s view was that all stories should have a connection to real life and he was more than willing to use his own and other people lives as the inspiration for his work.  The collection opens with “Why don’t you dance?” in which a man whose marriage has failed brings out all of his furniture onto the front yard and sets it up as though it were indoors, exposing his private life to his neighbours in a strangely symbolic gesture.  The spark for this story was an anecdote told to Carver by a writer friend, about a barmaid he knew who had done the same thing.  He also recounts that “A Serious Talk” began with the memory of something once said to him:

“That’s the last Christmas you’ll ever ruin for us!” I was drunk when I heard that, but I remembered it. And later, much later, when I was sober, using only that one line and other things I imagined, imagined so accurately that they could have happened, I made a story—“A Serious Talk.”

However, a word of warning from Carver, to writers planning to plunder their own lives for subject matter – if you’re going to write autobiographical fiction, you’d better have the skill and the talent to pull it off.

Carver had a great deal to say on the subject of writing and if you are a writer it is well worth seeking out his interviews and essays.  Even if his style is not to your taste, his plea for you to find your own unique and unmistakable signature, rather than trying to emulate other writers, seems like excellent advice.  Although, ironically, the first thing I wanted to do when I finished reading “What we talk about…” was to write a short story like Raymond Carver.

The collection is wonderful.  I enjoyed some stories more than others, but they all felt very authentic to the characters and their situations, while managing one quite a few occasions to completely take me by surprise.  I don’t want to give any spoilers but “Tell the Women We’re Going”, “After the Denim” and “The Bath” in particular, did not end how I expected them to.  It was really refreshing to come across a writer who could do this – to make you think you know the characters, but then get them to do something completely unnerving or pathetic or heartbreaking, but still seem true.

Carver makes writing look incredibly easy.  His pared down, simple style, his focus on the mundane and the ordinary, all trick you into thinking that his writing must have been effortless.  However, he worked twelve to fifteen hours at his desk and the economical style came from judicious editing and the intense concentrated effort of telling a tale in “clear and specific language”.

Carver had a quotation by Ezra Pound pinned on the wall next to his desk: “Fundamental accuracy of statement is the one sole morality of writing”.

He was also a stickler for punctuation.

I’ve come across the quote below many times, often curtailed after the seventh word, but when you see it in full, you can see where Carver’s priorities lay:

“That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places.”

This is quite depressing for me, as my haphazard and sub-standard education means that I was never taught the basics of grammar or punctuation at school.

The final thing I would say about Raymond Carver’s work is that he knew exactly what to leave out.  This is often referred to as the ‘ice-berg’ technique and was inspired by Ernest Hemingway:

“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.” Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon.

The things Carver left unsaid, the things that I had to try to work out for myself, make his work intellectually and emotionally engaging.

The things he said, broke my heart.

Further reading:

“On Writing” by Raymond Carver from The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. 6th Edition. Ed. Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.

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