Between Stories: A Memoir of Raymond Carver

Originally published in Philosophy and Literature 22 (October 1998): 457-67. © 1998. All rights reserved.

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 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 literature. I expected to find Pynchon’s hero Benny Profane and the Whole Sick Crew; nor was I disappointed. The class of 1974 was dominated by writers: Charlie Haas, a witty but brutally unkind young poet from New York (he ended up in Hollywood); his confederate Joshua Baer, a tall condescending poet of no apparent talent who immediately snagged the best-looking girl in the college, obliging her to walk three paces behind him because he’d heard that his revered Ezra Pound did the same (he married her and disappeared from literary view); John Kucich, a darkly brilliant lapsed Catholic from the Bay Area who wrote lovely autobiographical stories before abandoning a distinguished prose for tenured radicalism (he became a Victorianist at Ann Arbor); Robert McDowell, a poet who developed slowly from impenetrable obscurity to verse and criticism of sharp intelligence (he quit academe to found Story Line Press, leading publisher of the New Narrative poetry); and Mark Jarman, the best of us, a preacher’s kid and ex-football player who reflected upon his Southern California upbringing in lines of a formal and thematic complexity unusual among college students (a professor at Vanderbilt, he is perhaps the best narrative poet now writing).

Whatever else was true about the Sixties—and it was the Sixties at least until Watergate—that age valued literature to a degree which has not been reached since. We burned to be writers because we believed that literature was the most important of human pursuits. We displaced our hatreds and rivalries into literature, advancing the cause of Robert Lowell against Robert Creeley and the Black Mountain poets, meeting the challenge of Gary Snyder with W. S. Merwin, defending ideas and propositional utterance in poetry, or insisting upon the poem as a "field." Readings were regular and well-attended events—Lawrence Ferlinghetti filled the Stevenson College dining hall, Robert Bly turned his back on the audience that had arrived early to get seats and invited everyone to reassemble at his feet on stage—and student readings, featuring five or six poets, were popular. Nor were we long-haired soulful types who affected Angst to score with the chicks. We were working writers. We wrote all the time. We stayed up late into the night, writing, writing. The only time we stopped writing, in fact, was to argue about writing or to hurry off to a writing class. Ignoring Yvor Winters’s advice "To a Young Writer," we wrote too much and did it ill.[4]

I was first introduced to Ray when he phoned to ask whether I had any interest in starting a literary magazine with him. During our freshman year, Kucich and I had put out a single issue of a self-promoting little magazine to which we gave the name Monastery Mountain Review. The name was juvenile—it was my invention—but was intended as a reply to those who enjoyed referring to Santa Cruz as "the biggest hippie brothel on the West Coast." We had a monastic conception of what we were about. We saw ourselves as votaries to the writing life, and Santa Cruz was our Benedictine retreat. For us it was no hippie brothel. We were less interested in getting stoned and laid than in quiet. We were straining to overhear the whisper of literary greatness. We were working day and night to reinvent ourselves as writers. In the nick of time, Ray came to our assistance.

Ray proposed a magazine with nationwide distribution which would also showcase Santa Cruz talent, although he suggested a policy against running anything by the editors. It smacks of vanity publishing, he said, and undermines a magazine’s credibility. Ray also recommended the name Quarry. (There was an abandoned stone quarry on the Santa Cruz campus.) The first editorial board was comprised of Ray, Kucich, me, and Paul Skenazy, a recent PhD from Stanford who has since made a name for himself as a reviewer. Our art editor was Marcia McGrath, a painter on the College V faculty who pretentiously signed herself marcia/maris. She was slim and sexy and available, though, and so we promptly waived our editorial policy where she was concerned. Our first issue carried several of her pen-and-ink drawings. It also contained "Murderers," a story by Leonard Michaels which has found a place in the canon of American Jewish short fiction,[5] plus an autobiographical essay about editing by Gordon Lish, who had just accepted the first of Ray’s stories to appear in Esquire, as well as poems by Jarman, Richard Hugo, John Haines, and others—some rather okay, the majority of them mediocre. This is the dirty secret of the little magazines: in any twelve-month period there is not enough good poetry written in this country to fill the Best American Poems at year’s end, let alone the dozens of quarterlies that must continue to appear or risk nobody’s noticing. Even so, the sorting must begin somewhere, and thus the little magazines contribute to the cultural work of literary criticism. Despite the bad poetry, we took our place in the honorable tradition of John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review or Lincoln Kirstein’s Hound and Horn. But if we did so the credit largely goes to Ray. It was his influence that transformed Quarry from an undergraduate production to a magazine of some (if limited) distinction.

Ray got a kick out of the editorial meetings at which we defended our selections and attacked everyone else’s. He never tried to pull rank. If any of us were unyielding in our disapproval of something he liked, Quarry rejected it. Or if any of us were willing to go to the mat on behalf of a piece, Quarry took it. We published a poem about witnessing a suicide by Gary Ligi because I championed it, and the essay by Lish because Ray was loyal to it (or, rather, to him). When the first galley proofs arrived, we found that Ray had listed himself as chairman of the editorial board. He had not consulted the rest of us, and Kucich, Skenazy, and I resented this offense against participatory democracy. How was Ray to know? He was not afloat in the political currents of the Sixties. He meekly agreed to strike the word chairman, although in the magazine’s own institutional memory Kucich, Skenazy, and I were soon forgotten and Quarry came rightly to be considered Ray’s achievement. The three of us ought to have recognized what we owed to him.

As a classroom teacher, Ray was nothing special. He subscribed to the twin ideas of creative writing pedagogy: student work, mimeographed and handed around in advance, provided the text for study and discussion; and in the name of establishing a "community of writers" which offered its members "communal criticism," students dominated the discussions. Ray said little. Occasionally he called upon a student to speak. He saw himself as merely the senior member of the class. One day he read "What Is It?"—his first Esquire story—and anxiously awaited comments. I asked about his writing habits, but he was little more helpful than Philip Roth’s E. I. Lonoff:

I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.[6]I recall only two firm principles that he enunciated. The first, quoted in the name of his friend William Kittredge, was that dialogue should be written as a series of non sequiturs. Human beings do not really respond to one another, Ray believed. The second principle was not advanced as such. I learned it only because Ray drummed it into me. Any passage that invites underlining—any sentence that rises to the level of sententia, although Ray would not have put it like that of course—must be canceled. Ray was impatient with my penchant for ideas, my attraction to the likes of Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld. He quietly dismissed them as monologists who like to hear themselves talk. Stories are written in Other People’s Voices (the title of an anthology he assigned in one course), not in the writer’s own.

Despite the difference in our tastes, Ray and I became friends. He was not happy in those days. He had just turned thirty-three, and he spoke with irony of the Crucifixion, which is popularly supposed to have occurred when Jesus of Nazareth was thirty-three. Ray was an indoors man—drawn shades, dim rooms, pointless afternoons—even something of a recluse. I did not perceive this about him immediately. My first impression, derived from an early story that I found in the Western Humanities Review, was that Ray must be something of an outdoorsman. I assumed that he preferred hunting and fishing to talking books and ideas. I was at least partly right, although how Ray could have aimed at a deer through those thick glasses is something that never occurred to me. He also moved slowly, without grace, always reminding me of Delmore Schwartz’s "Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me":

That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
Amid the hundred million of his kind,
The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.[7]
Ray smoked and drank heavily. He rarely smiled. I came upon him one night in the parking lot of a convenience store, sitting alone in his car, windows up, chain-smoking. When he rolled down the window to greet me, a stale-smelling cloud filled the space between us as if the air were being let out of his solitude. "What are you doing here?" I asked. Ray shrugged. "I needed to get away," he said. I recognized the auguries of a bad marriage. And since Ray reminded me of my father—the same stature and dark tousled hair, similarly bespectacled and grudging with speech, the same need to get away—I asked no further questions. Although I visited Ray and his first wife Marianne at their home, I never witnessed any of the shouting matches or dishware-throwing contests that other friends from the Santa Cruz years have described. Ray was naturally reserved, but I knew how to get him to talk—as I say, he resembled my father. He seemed quietly pleased by my interest, showing me his study at home, asking me to try out the chair, to contemplate the view. He seemed to want my approval. And this need for approval showed itself as a reluctance to commit himself to definitive statements, final-sounding judgments. He was more interested in his friends than his rivals. Still, I was able to wheedle his literary opinions from him: he loved the Russians, particularly Chekhov’s stories and Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Notebook; he found the "serious" writers of the previous generation—Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, Wright Morris—dull going; but allusive "magical" writing like Nabokov’s or John Hawkes’s also turned him off; he preferred the flat, the stripped-down, the unassertive. Yet though I drew him out on nearly every other aspect of his life, I never asked Ray about the sources of his unhappiness. It was not so much that I respected his privacy as I wished to protect the relationship between us.

You see, I was his first star pupil; he expected far better things from me than I have delivered. We were both trying to write a novel—his was Augustine, which he used to talk about all the time. I was sorry to learn recently that only seven pages of it survive. My guess is that he destroyed an entire draft when he left Santa Cruz. It would have been a central text in the Carver oeuvre. Although I may invite skepticism to say as much, I believe that Ray is something of an Augustinian figure. At the heart of his mystery lurks an unsayable Other, who eludes all efforts at definition. If Augustine’s writing is unintelligible apart from his longing for God, Ray’s is meaningless apart from the human connection that his characters long for, but eludes them. I may only be projecting. These were also the subjects of my novel. Under Ray’s tutelage, I had given up my attempts to imitate Bellow and Rosenfeld and had begun to quarry my own experience. Ostensibly about coming of age in the antiwar movement, my novel assumed as its theme (perhaps the theme of my life) what I have taken to calling "the necessary friction." The psychological theorist Karen Horney says that the inevitable friction of closeness to another is necessary for human growth. My reply is that the friction may be necessary, but the closeness is not inevitable. Nor is the growth! Ray shared my pessimism about intimacy. In his late story by that title, the memory of having been intimate with him makes a writer’s ex-wife want to "puke."[8] My own pessimism revealed itself early on. Like everyone else at Santa Cruz I taped a representation of myself to the door of my dormitory room. My choice was a stanza from a wedding song by Delmore Schwartz:

And no one comes, none will, we are alone,
And what is possible is my own voice,
Speaking its wish, despite its lasting fear;
Speaking its hope, its promise and its fear
The voice drunk with itself and rapt in fear,
Exaggeration, braggadocio,
Rhetoric and hope, and always fear. . . .[9]
Something like this is also Ray’s characteristic theme. And perhaps its most characteristic development is the story "Put Yourself in My Shoes," for the main character of which Ray borrowed my name. For all I know the story may even be a tribute. The phrase that serves as its fulcrum was also my gift to Ray. "How are you?" he asked one day when I dropped by uninvited for a chat. "I’m between stories," I snapped; "how do you think I am?" The story may be an effort to answer this question, because it subtly transmutes my quip: "He [Myers] was between stories, and felt despicable." I made my own later use of the phrase in a story that I wrote for Elkin which I called "Between Cities." And perhaps this is the leading indicator of the difference between Ray and me. While I have passed my entire life between cities, Ray lived his between stories. His was the life of a writer; mine has been the life of a diasporic Jewish intellectual, tied down to nothing but ideas. Ray was no intellectual; he had small use for ideas. Of all the writers I have studied under—him, Elkin, J. V. Cunningham, Howard Nemerov, Joseph Epstein—he was the least "brilliant," the most ordinary. Yet he was just as much of an exile, unsettled and placeless, as any diasporist. If the intellectual is an exile because he lives between cities, Ray was an exile because he lived—and lived nowhere else than—between stories. And to live between stories is to be without a home.

This is the theme of "Put Yourself in My Shoes."[10] Myers is home alone on a late winter afternoon. Not writing, he is running the vacuum cleaner when his wife Paula calls. I still remember Ray’s telling me that the first sentence of the story had come to him from nowhere. His face, which normally masked his emotions, was boyishly bright with excitement. He was not sure what it meant, but he knew it was the opening sentence of a story. Ray’s principle of composition, also a religious principle when you think of it, was to remain open to the remarkable in the ordinary. As Myers drives to a bar to meet Paula, "He tried to see everything, save it for later." And then the central line: "He was between stories, and felt despicable." Displaced, homeless, really without close human attachment—he and Paula speak to each other as if they are relatively distant acquaintances—Myers is alert for possible sites of narrative. To incorporate the physical world into fiction, to "save it for later," is to inhabit it; or at least as close to habitation as the homeless can get.

On Paula’s suggestion, they pay a surprise visit to the Morgans, whose house they had sublet several months before when the couple was in Germany. Although their dog knocks Myers down, the Morgans ask him and Paula in. Myers notices, however, that the husband is not smiling. He and his wife have been—Morgan pauses to choose the exact words—"very curious about the Myerses." Upon learning that Myers has quit his nine-to-five job to devote himself fulltime to writing ("He writes something almost every day," Paula says), Morgan tells a sequence of stories that "maybe [Myers] could use." First he tells of a son who brained his adulterous father with a can of tomato soup. Myers grins when he hears the story. Then Morgan tells about the woman who returned the purse that his wife had lost in a German museum. All that was missing was $120 in cash, but before the woman could go, she fell down and died. When they opened her own purse to look for identification, the Morgans found $120 in cash. "Fate sent her to die on the couch in our living room in Germany," Mrs Morgan says. Myers begins to laugh. He repeats the line Fate sent her to die on the couch in our living room in Germany, and laughs harder. "If you were a real writer," Morgan growls, "you would not laugh."

And so Morgan comes to the third and final story. He asks Myers to consider the possibility of a couple who sublets another couple’s house, bringing in a cat in clear violation of the lease and in complete disregard of the homeowner’s asthma, unlocking a private closet and using the linens, opening boxes marked "Don’t Open," breaking dishes, rummaging through the attic. "That’s the real story, Mr Myers," Morgan says. "And it doesn’t need a Tolstoy to tell it," Mrs Morgan adds. Myers is delighted. He laughs merrily. Morgan demands an explanation, but Myers just laughs. His despicable mood has lifted. Even the Morgans’ dog can sense the difference. Instead of trying to knock Myers down again, he yelps in fear and jumps away. As they drive off, Paula tells Myers that "Those people are crazy." But he does not answer. Her voice comes to him across a great distance. He is at the very end of a story.

Every retelling of a story, biblical scholars remind us, is an interpretation of it. I need say nothing more. But I will say a little more. "Put Yourself in My Shoes" is about homelessness. "I don’t want to go home," Paula explains in trying to persuade Myers to visit the Morgans. And when they arrive, Myers is struck by the domesticity of the scene: the lighted windows, the snow on the roof, the blinking lights of a Christmas tree. The Morgans accuse the Myerses of "invading" their house, but the truth is that they are unhappy with the Myerses’ efforts to make it their own home. Myers should have known better: the writer is at home only in stories. To search for a haven from exile—the cozy intimacy of family life, symbolized by the Christmas season—is to betray the writer’s real search, which is for something to write about. His responsibility is not to share the human drama, but to dramatize it. And he is in permanent exile, because he cannot rest even in the stories he has found. His place is to reach their "very end," and to move on.

Ray’s most immediate forebear is not Hemingway, as everybody thinks, but Kafka. Hemingway is the spokesman for expatriation, but this is very different from exile, which is a condition of mind—something you learn from Kafka. There is a difference between the expatriate’s flight from commitment and the exile’s inability to find commitment. And this is the lesson I learned from Raymond Carver. Writing is a temporary surcease from exile. It is not a search for one’s "voice" or "subject"; it is not the invention of a "self" nor even of a "world." These are the concoctions of critics, who study the scattered places where the writer momentarily relented from his unrelenting search for some place to relent from his unrelenting search. The word writing is a progressive verb. The writer is distinguished by his progressive activity, not by what he has written. Nor by the kinds of things he has written. Someone who has written stories is not necessarily a writer, nor is someone who hasn’t. Even though I have published only one book, even though I no longer write "creatively," I am merely between stories. That is, I have become fully a writer, because I am fully committed to nothing else. Raymond Carver made me so. His understanding of the practice, which he taught to me, has made me so.

When I left Santa Cruz in 1974, I fed my novel to the flames and have never written another. Nor did I ever see Ray again, although he gave a reading at the Chicago Circle campus of the University of Illinois while I was an adjunct lecturer there a decade and a half later, struggling to finish my PhD. He was famous and I was a failure; I was ashamed to face him. I thought there might be time for me to return as a success; I did not know that even then he was dying. Now I regret that I did not go to see him. I will never be able to think of him as the famous Raymond Carver, our age’s Chekhov. I will always think of him simply as Ray, the graceless shambling man smelling of tobacco, who always encouraged me and never seemed to be too rushed to sit and talk about reputations and magazines and literary futures. He was not striking nor brilliant, but he was one of the kindest men I have ever met. He taught me to accept where I am and what I have since become.


[1] D. G. Myers, The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing since 1880 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), p. xiv.

[2] Michael Oakeshott, "Education: The Engagement and Its Frustration," in The Voice of Liberal Learning, ed. Timothy Fuller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 70.

[3] Lawrence H. Conrad, Teaching Creative Writing (1937), quoted in The Elephants Teach, p. 116.

[4] “Write little; do it well./ Your knowledge will be such,/ At last, as to dispel/ What moves you overmuch.” Yvor Winters, "To a Young Writer," in Collected Poems (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1978), p. 135.

[5] Leonard Michaels, "Murderers," in Writing Our Way Home: Contemporary Stories by American Jewish Writers, ed. Ted Solotaroff and Nessa Rapoport (New York: Schocken, 1992), pp. 192-96.

[6] Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1979), pp. 17-18.

[7] Delmore Schwartz, "The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me," in Selected Poems, 1938-1958 (New York: Doubleday, 1959), pp. 74-75.

[8] Raymond Carver, "Intimacy," in Where I’m Calling From: Stories (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988), pp. 444-53.

[9] Delmore Schwartz, "Prothalamion," in Selected Poems, p. 47.

[10] Raymond Carver, "Put Yourself in My Shoes," in Where I’m Calling From, pp. 94-112.