I’ve been working my way through a copy of Raymond Carver’s collected short stories. I had read a handful of his stories when I was in college and I found a writing style that I wanted to mimic.
That’s the thing with writers, especially when we’re still trying to find our footing…we feel a connection with certain writing styles and try our best to write the same way. Initially, I wanted to write like Tolkien. Then later, in my teens, I wanted to write like Stephen King (I’ll write about him another time). In my twenties, it was Carver.
Carver reminds me of Hemingway. Both used an economy of words when writing. They didn’t go into great detail about the setting or the way a character looked. They gave you a basic palette and you could fill in the rest with imagination. I can appreciate that restraint.
But the same applied to the stories themselves. They weren’t overly complicated, but they made you think, touched you in unexpected ways. “Cathedral” is probably his most famous short story. A blind man visits a married couple, the wife goes to bed, and the two men stay up drinking. The night culminates in the sighted man helping the blind man draw a picture of a cathedral.
It’s a simple story, but in between the lines one can read so much. To me, the story is about discovery, about taking down barriers, about not judging people until you get to know them. The protagonist in the story, the sighted man, goes through a change. He resents his wife’s relationship with the blind man, is uncomfortable with the blind man’s presence in his life, in his house. He doesn’t know how to conduct himself, feels awkward, just wants it to be over with. But after getting to know the blind man he realizes that this is a human being, a person with wants and desires and feelings, and they bond.
That was Carver’s way. I see his stories as vignettes on life, snapshots of broken people, dysfunction, the results of bad decisions. They aren’t necessarily sad stories. Some are, but most feel like a peak into another life, another moment in time.
To be honest, I also see Carver’s writing as having a masculinity to it, much like Hemingway. Not to say it’s dick-lit (as opposed to chick-lit), but most of the stories are from a male point of view, the men drink and smoke, the women are housewives or work as waitresses. I don’t think it’s intended misogyny. Carver was first published in the late nineteen-fifties and was extremely productive in the sixties and seventies. His stories are a product of their time. Much like reading Mark Twain. The language in the Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn novels weren’t intended to be offensive or to marginalize a group of people, it was the language and mentality of the time.
I’ve almost finished the collection of Carver stories. The last bit is a collection of essays he wrote on a variety of topics, so that should be interesting. But reading his work still inspires me to be economical in my writing. I’ve moved beyond trying to write like him. I have my own voice now, my own style when it comes to short fiction, and I’m happy with it. Reading Carver is reminding myself of something that inspired me, that showed me another way to tell a story, and that stories don’t have to follow a specific structure. Slice of life, real people, keep it simple. That’s what Carver has taught me.