Raymond Carver was an American short story writer and poet. He is often considered one of the country's greatest writers. Here is a Carver poem.
The people who were better than us were comfortable.
They lived in painted houses with flush toilets;
Drove cars whose year and make were recognizable.
The ones worse off were sorry and didn't work.
Their strange cars sat on blocks in dusty yards.
The years go by and everything and everyone
gets replaced. But this much is still true -
I never liked work. My goal was always
to be shiftless. I saw the merit in that.
I liked the idea of sitting in a chair
in front of your house for hours, doing nothing
but wearing a hat and drinking cola.
What's wrong with that?
Drawing on a cigarette from time to time.
Spitting. Making things out of wood with a knife.
Where's the harm there? Now and then calling
the dogs to hunt rabbits. Try it sometime.
Once in a while hailing a fat, blond kid like me
and saying, "Don't I know you?"
Not, "What are you going to be when you grow up?"
I chose this poem not because it is my favorite, but because it is short and as good an example as any of Carver's characteristic style. Carver died in 1988.
For context, that is one hundred years after Paul Guaguin arrived in the sleepy French city of Arles to visit Vincient Van Gogh. Guaguin, married with five children, had grown successful enough as a painter to quit his job as a stockbroker. He took to carousing, drinking, and eventually contracted syphilis from not his wife. Under these circumstances he spent several weeks with Van Gogh. The trip ended over a heated argument about the color yellow (as can happen), Van Gogh pulled a straight razor (perfectly appropriate) and Guaguin traveled briskly back to Paris to plot his escape from familial responsibilities He would eventually move to Tahiti and sleep with teenage girls while also sometimes painting them.
After Guaguin's departure, Van Gogh used that straight razor to cut off his own ear. This led to him being institutionalized (or as contemporary artists' might say, he was invited to a forced residency) at which point he painted his masterpiece Starry Night. And guess what, he used the yellow he preferred right out of the tube so fuck that asshole Guaguin anyway.
|Later that narrative was re-written as the text for a collaborative artists' book distributed in JAB 46|
"No. There is no Bobby Henion. I mean there is a Bobby Henion. I knew him when I was in sixth grade. But he never stabbed me. It's fiction. You know. I made it up, to make a point." The other artists from the exhibition snickered or commented that they wondered if the story was true or not. The instructor was taken off guard, took a second to regroup, started again with a different tone.
"So why is it important to lie to your audience?"
I don't remember exactly what happened. I was fairly capable in a critique and was able to answer the question without letting on that I felt a bit unfairly attacked. But it did get me thinking about the use of the first person voice, about the way it feels confessional or biographical, the way that a few personal facts peppered in can really confuse the lines between fiction and non-fiction. I leaned in to that hard.
Recently I read an unpublished manuscript by a published novelist. It was written in first person POV. He's an incredibly accomplished writer, the manuscript was clean, nearly flawless. The plot was tight and smart. the dialog was good, it moved, it ended strong. At one point it felt like it might take a predictable course, but it didn't. Honestly I wish I'd written. I told him so in the written critique. But here's the thing, I found myself thinking the protagonist and the author were one and the same. Or at least, I noted the ways the lines seemed to blur due to the POV. It made me wonder about my writer friend, about his background.
I remember once in a writers' circle someone passed around a story in second person point of view. It read a little like this: You reach into the shower and let the water run while you take off your makeup. It went on, the female protagonist touching her body, sometimes pragmatically, sometimes while thinking of her lover. And then: You feel a lump in the side of your breast. I felt very uncomfortable. Not with the content, but with my lack of choice. I was on this ride. It wasn't happening to someone else. It was my female body and my lump in my breast. And wasn't ready to have that experience from that angle. Honestly, I know now, I knew then, that putting me in that position was part of the point.
What does all this mean? Well, because I'm locked down like 90 percent of the country, I had a little time to kill in my home. I grabbed an old collection of Carver poems and started reading. I saw the way he used first person, the way he used his real history, or moments that felt like actual reminiscence to fill his poems with an easy honesty, a lived authenticity, and a convincing artifice. Because ultimately all art is a framing exercise: You choose where to point the view finder, where to direct the gaze of the viewer, or the attention of the reader. Really what I realized is how deeply those poems and stories I devoured one after the other over the course of a couple weeks my Freshman year of college had latched themselves to my endoskeleton to seep back out fifteen years later when I started writing under pressure and an in earnest. I learned I lie to my readers about as much as it takes to make my point, about the same amount as Raymond Carver. Or as I like to think of it, just enough and no more.