5 Lessons on writing from Raymond Carver: The Short Story

Five lessons on writing from short story master Raymond Carver

1) In an introduction to Where I’m Calling From, Ray Carver quotes a line from Babel’s Collected Stories:

“No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put just in the right place.”

2) Of course, this applies to all writing! Later he quotes V.S. Pritchard’s definition of a short story as

“something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.”

3) First the glimpse, he writes:

“Then the glimpse given life, turned into something that will illuminate the moment and just maybe lock it indelibly into the reader’s consciousness. Make it a part of the reader’s own experience, as Hemingway so nicely put it. Forever, the writer hopes. Forever.”

4) In his introduction to The Best American Short Stories 1986, which he edited, Carver lists 5 elements he considers important to a short story:

choices, conflict, drama, consequence, and narrative.

5) And last but not least, Carver believes:

“in the efficacy of the concrete word, be it noun or verb, as opposed to the abstract or arbitrary or slippery word–or phrase or sentence.”

“Little Things” aka “Popular Mechanics” aka “Mine” by Raymond Carver

carversite: raymond carver story

Little Things by Raymond Carver

Early that day the weather turned and the snow was melting into dirty water. Streaks of it ran down from the little shoulder-high window that faced the backyard. Cars slushed by on the street outside, where it was getting dark. But it was getting dark on the inside too.

He was in the bedroom pushing clothes into a suitcase when she came to the door.

I’m glad you’re leaving! I’m glad you’re leaving! she said. Do you hear?

He kept on putting his things into the suitcase.

Son of a bitch! I’m so glad you’re leaving! She began to cry. You can’t even look me in the face, can you?

Then she noticed the baby’s picture on the bed and picked it up.

He looked at her and she wiped her eyes and stared at him before turning and going back to the living room.

Bring that back, he said.

Just get your things and get out, she said.

He did not answer. He fastened the suitcase, put on his coat, looked around the bedroom before turning off the light. Then he went out to the living room.

She stood in the doorway of the little kitchen, holding the baby.

I want the baby, he said.

Are you crazy?

No, but I want the baby. I’ll get someone to come by for his things.

You’re not touching this baby, she said.

The baby had begun to cry and she uncovered the blanket from around his head.

Oh, oh, she said, looking at the baby.

He moved toward her.

For God’s sake! she said. She took a step back into the kitchen.

I want the baby.

Get out of here!

She turned and tried to hold the baby over in a corner behind the stove.

But he came up. He reached across the stove and tightened his hands on the baby.

Let go of him, he said.

Get away, get away! she cried.

The baby was red-faced and screaming. In the scuffle they knocked down a flowerpot that hung behind the stove.

He crowded her into the wall then, trying to break her grip. He held on to the baby and pushed with all his weight.

Let go of him, he said.

Don’t, she said. You’re hurting the baby, she said.

I’m not hurting the baby, he said.

The kitchen window gave no light. In the near-dark he worked on her fisted fingers with one hand and with the other hand he gripped the screaming baby up under an arm near the shoulder.

She felt her fingers being forced open. She felt the baby going from her.

No! she screamed just as her hands came loose.

She would have it, this baby. She grabbed for the baby’s other arm. She caught the baby around the wrist and leaned back.

But he would not let go. He felt the baby slipping out of his hands and he pulled back very hard.

In this manner, the issue was decided.

“Little Things” from Where I’m Calling From: The Selected Stories Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Tess Gallagher.

The story appeared as “Mine” in Furious Seasons And Other Stories Capra Press, 1977 and as “Popular Mechanics” in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Knopf, 1981.

“Your Dog Dies” by Raymond Carver

YOUR DOG DIES

by Raymond Carver

it gets run over by a van.
you find it at the side of the road
and bury it.
you feel bad about it.
you feel bad personally,
but you feel bad for your daughter
because it was her pet,
and she loved it so.
she used to croon to it
and let it sleep in her bed.
you write a poem about it.
you call it a poem for your daughter,
about the dog getting run over by a van
and how you looked after it,
took it out into the woods
and buried it deep, deep,
and that poem turns out so good
you’re almost glad the little dog
was run over, or else you’d never
have written that good poem.
then you sit down to write
a poem about writing a poem
about the death of that dog,
but while you’re writing you
hear a woman scream
your name, your first name,
both syllables,
and your heart stops.
after a minute, you continue writing.
she screams again.
you wonder how long this can go on.

thanks to Rodger at Carver’s Dog for reminding me about this poem and for providing the link