Raymond Carver, tedium and (re)writing
Yesterday I found myself with a bit of time to spare on Marylebone High Street. Daunts Books beckoned and I found myself asking for The Paris Review interviews. The first thing I was aware of was that I knew these interviews are freely available on the internet, just like Raymond Carver's, here - but I felt compelled to buy the book (£14:99). I read Raymond Carver's 'The Art of Fiction' almost immediately, whilst waiting for a friend to arrive. I haven't read much of Carver - although I was very taken by Cathedral, a collection of short stories. The interviewer referred to another interview he gave, in which, when asked why he preferred the short story form, said something about some tedious goings-on. He shed light on this. The tedious goings-on was the constant scrabble for money. Carver really is an example of a man, from a working-class family who, although graduating from high school, first spent six months at the saw mill his father worked at. Of course, Carver hated it. He married at 18, worked as a janitor and continued writing. The short story was the best form because it was simply quicker to get through and finish. I suppose it also meant additional income for the cash-strapped Carvers. The American market for the short story at this time was much more better paying. But the tedium was also shorthand for alcoholism. Of course, we know he got sober in alcoholics anonymous in 1976, something that he says was his greatest achievement. But apart from this fortuitous development it was also clear that Carver was not, as is commonly supposed of 'great writers', an innately talented writer. I would say very few are. What he excelled at was the art of re-writing. His first drafts (plural!) were - his own word - terrible. And so he would write at least twelve, often twenty, drafts - about 50 for his poems. It heartened me, his honesty in revealing that he didn't just type up a short story and that was it. It was serendipitous that I bought the interviews when I did. About an hour after reading it, as my friend and I strolled down the high street, I received an email from my PhD supervisor, Professor Norma Clarke, who said that the endlessly revised opening sections to my novel-in-progress were hugely improved, and that the emotional dynamics made sense. But what put the biggest smile on my face was that she said she had read through these sections whilst enduring the tedium of an airport but that she barely noticed this tedium, and wasn't that what fiction was meant to do. So, the path is lit up again. I have less than three months left and it won't come a moment too soon. The past three years have been difficult. Of course they have. I have held down a demanding job, taught creative writing to undergraduates, and studied and written a c90,000 word PhD. Of course I want to see Mary Burns published. The mark of a PhD is that it has reached a publishable standard and that it (my critical component) contributes to new knowledge; but I know that that does not mean it will be - despite the endless re-writing. So I shall plough on - trying, for this last stretch of the bumpy road - to balance the scrabble for money to keep the roof over my head and the journey of this writer.