“That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say.”
From “On Writing” by Raymond Carver
“Words lead to deeds . . . They prepare the soul, make it ready, and move it to tenderness.”
I walked in the arroyo last week. It’s about two blocks from my house —a little bit of wildness that has endured as suburban neighborhoods developed around it.
I came back from my walk and grabbed the first book that caught my eye as I sat down to write in my writingshed: Call if You Need Me – the Uncollected Fiction and Other Prose, by Raymond Carver.
One of the reasons I am captivated by him is that he is of and from the West Coast. He went to Chico State — I lived in Chico around the same time (he started in 1958, I moved there in 1961). When he wrote about John Gardner, his mentor, taking them to sit on the lawn I could see the town and the campus. I was in junior high at the time and the college always seemed — well so college-like to me. Neither of my parents went to college, so it was an exotic setting to me.
He taught at the Iowa Writing Workshop in Iowa City — I attend the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and absolutely love Iowa City.
He got married at 19 and had two children by the age of 20. He became a raging alcoholic, relied on his wife to support the family, and treated her like shit – as alcoholics have a tendency to do. He had affairs himself, but nearly killed her by hitting her on the side of the head with a bottle when she dared to stray. They eventually separated and divorced.
He stopped drinking in 1977 and confronted the wildfire of his alcoholism, met the poet Tess Gallagher, who, I suspect was his soul mate, and went about his writing.
His early publication history is a bit of a horror story; his editor, Gordon Lish, edited his short stories without consent and then published them.
Carver wrote “Errand,” the short story about Chekov’s death from tuberculosis, in 1987. Shortly after it was published, Carver began coughing up blood. He was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer and died in 1988 at the age of 50.
So even I am wondering what Raymond Carver has to do with my walk in the arroyo.
I think it has to do with the distant sound of a train.
One of my favorite things when I walk through the Arroyo is hearing a train pass through — a distant sound. I feel life simultaneously passing by and standing still.
I start to wonder who is on it, where they came from, where they are going. Are they running away from something? On the way to visit a relative? Maybe there’s a hobo or two riding the rails to wherever.
Of course, mostly now, the trains are carrying containers that get filled in far away ports and then placed on a train at the port of entry. Carrying things.
Yet that sound makes memory present tense for me — untethers it from time — while also giving it the context of reflection.
I think that turning those memories into words is what writing is to me. My voice.
All writers benefit from good editors. They help us identify where our voice is not clear.
But for an editor to do otherwise — as Lish did with Carver — is to wipe clear the sensory memory of the writer. For writers to relinquish those memories, that voice, as the price for acceptance, is to participate in their own oppression.
Even when the editor making the changes is the one inside the writer’s head.
I wonder if our voice is the hobo and the Arroyo: both a bit of wildness in the mundane world that is part and parcel of our everyday life.
Carver nearly lost his life to alcoholism. When he stopped drinking he began to stand up for his voice.
I found St. Teresa’ quote in “Meditations on a Line from Saint Teresa” — I think it is a talk Carver gave about writing —which is in Call if You Need Me – the Uncollected Fiction and Other Prose.
He concludes the piece with this:
“Long after what I’ve said has passed from your mind, whether it be weeks or months, and all that remains is the sensation of having attended a large public occasion, marking the end of one significant period in your lives and the beginning of another, try then, as you work out your individual destinies, to remember that words, the right and true words, can have the power of deeds.
“Remember, too, that little-used word that has just about dropped out of public and private usage: tenderness. It can’t hurt. And that other word: soul — call it spirit if you want, if it makes it any easier to claim the territory. Don’t forget that either. Pay attention to the spirit of your words, your deeds. That’s preparation enough. No more words.”
In the end what we have is our words. They should be the right words. They should be punctuated so they say what we mean them to say, so they have the power of deeds, so they can prepare our own souls and move them to tenderness.
Two things. I wondered if hobos still exist. They do. They have a convention each year in Britt, Iowa. I want to go to it.
And . . . checkout the lyrics to Woody Guthrie’s “Hobo’s Lullaby.”