Updated: Feb 10, 2022
‘Stories ought to leave the reader with a great sense of strangeness and mystery, but never a feeling of frustration.’
As a writer, many things influence me. When I talk about influence, I mean the things that affect or inspire my writing. Those things that shape how and what I write. Music and alcohol affect the way I write the most. I never edit my work when I am under the influence of alcohol, or listen to music. I seek their affect when I am searching for the next psychotic action my character is going to take, a shift in plot that moves my story into strange and mysterious territory or the description of a new kind of creature on planet Z.
I don’t always drink or listen to music when I am writing and searching for inspiration. Sometimes I get my best ideas when I am least inclined to write. When I am stone cold sober - wanting to do anything other than write (even if it means washing up the dishes or emptying the garbage), at these times I really have to push myself and in doing so, I once found a girl who synchronised death.
Other writers have had a major influence on my writing. Thinking about that right now, the writer who comes to mind is Raymond Carver. My first encounter with Carver came when I attended a scriptwriting course at Darlington Arts Centre. I was given five different short stories to read by five different authors and asked to choose one of them to adapt into a script. As soon as I finished reading Carver’s short story – Neighbors, I felt a connection with the writing.
Bill and Arlene Miller are asked by their neighbors - the Stones, to look after their apartment while they go away for a ten day break. As the story develops, we see this regular couple progressively invade the Stone’s privacy as they delve further into their apartment and morph into psychosexual activity. I knew the Millers would not be a regular couple when I reached page 2 and read this passage:
Leaving the cat to pick at her food, he headed for the bathroom. He looked at himself in the mirror, closed his eyes, and then looked again. The medicine chest was open. He found a container of pills and read the label — Harriet Stone, one each day as directed. He slipped the pills into his pocket.
The more I read of Carver, the more I discovered he wasn’t a regular writer. One thing I liked about his writing was that he liked to leave gaps. He trusted his readers to use their imagination to fill in these gaps. I guess he thought - who can write like the imagination, if we ever gave it a pen?
His lack of free time dictated his writing direction, which was made up mainly of poems and short stories rather than novels. He was concerned with stripping down fiction to the least amount of words. Some called it minimalist writing, but Carver didn’t like this tag. Carver’s writing may be minimalist in style and structure, but in meaning and the affect it has on the reader, it is often profound and unsettling. At least to this reader.
His characters are usually ordinary middle class workers, alcoholics, down and outs, the unemployed. Those ground down by life.
I write stories about the people who don't succeed. These lives are as valid as those of the go-getters. I take unemployment, money problems, and marital problems as givens in life. People worry about their rent, their children, their home life. That's basic. That's how 80-90 percent of people live. I write stories about a submerged population, people who don't always have someone to speak for them. I'm sort of a witness, and, besides, that's the life I myself lived for a long time. I don't see myself as a spokesman but as a witness to these lives. I'm a writer.
I look around at the characters I see each day. Work colleagues, friends, family and strangers. Some of them are like Carver’s submerged population, but most can speak for themselves. A lot of them are in my stories, everyday people who walk amongst ghosts, psychopaths or Tau Nutrino’s. Everyday kind of people placed in these situations help to make strange and mysterious stories appear credible.
When Carver talked about dialogue in writing, he said quoted usual response - it ought to advance the plot or illuminate character. When he revealed that he liked dialogue - between two people who aren’t listening to each other, that really got me thinking differently about dialogue and what I wanted my characters to say to each other, or not. His influence on me is like whiskey over ice. It burns along neuron pathways, triggering a different kind of perception, where footsteps in the rain lead to more than beautiful lament.
‘Writers don't need tricks or gimmicks or even need to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to just stand and gape at this or that thing- a sunset or an old shoe - in absolute and simple amazement.’
It’s a relief to not have to be the smartest kid on the block. I never would have picked up a pen and paper if that was the case. And that old shoe he mentioned, I know absolutely what he means about gaping at it that way. His writing has left me gaping in admiration on many occasions.
Describing his work, Carver once said, ‘I began as a poet. My first publication was a poem. So I suppose on my tombstone I'd be very pleased if they put 'Poet and short-story writer - and occasional essayist', in that order.’
Raymond Carver's died in 1988 at the age of fifty. Although his death cut short his writing career, his influence still lives on today. If I could add something to his tombstone I think it would be this: His stories always filled me with a sense of mystery and strangeness, but they never once left me feeling frustrated. After reading his stories, it changed the way I write.
This poem by Carver is inscribed on his tombstone:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth
Raymond Carver ‘Principles of a story’ Essay,
Hemmingson ‘The Dirty Realism Duo’ Literary study,
Marshall Bruce Gentry ‘Conversations with Raymond Carver’
William L. Stull ‘Two Interviews with Raymond Carver’