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Fires Essays Poems Stories By Raymond Carver

At 8am on 8 July 1980, Raymond Carver sat down to write a letter to his editor, Gordon Lish. He'd been up all night worrying about the book they were working on together, and by the time Carver had finished writing there were more words in the letter than there were in many of the short stories for which he was known.

"Dearest Gordon," it began, "I've got to pull out of this one. Please hear me… I've looked at it from every side, I've compared both versions of the manuscripts… until my eyes are nearly to fall out of my head." The trouble was, Lish's version was so far from what Carver had sent him that Carver felt it was unrecognisable.

The pair had worked together for years – Lish, a dashing, influential literary figure once known as Captain Fiction, had published Carver's first stories in Esquire magazine. (They had met in Palo Alto, when Carver was, as his wife later put it, a "practising alcoholic" working at a textbook publisher's.) Lish later became an editor at Knopf and championed many other writers whose styles were unlike Carver's – Don DeLillo, for instance, and Richard Ford. He went on to give writing workshops at which he managed, by all accounts, to be gnomic, crushing and inspiring in relatively equal measure. Lish's own fiction – he wrote stories and novels – is compact, antic and self-reflexive, with titles such as Wouldn't A Title Just Make It Worse?.

Carver was about as far from this world – both in content and style – as it was possible to be. His characters worked in diners and motels; they had amputated limbs and their families had left them, with or without furniture; their working lives, their cropped, half-understood thoughts had not been seen in fiction. Lish had edited Carver's first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and together they had composed a taut new voice full of left-field desire and hopeless dread. As Carver put it in the letter of 8 July: "You've given me some degree of immortality already."

But now Carver was desperate. This new collection, which he titled Beginners, was the first he had written since he thought he'd never write again – the first since he'd been sober, the first since he'd left his wife, the first since he'd met Tess Gallagher, already a well-known poet at the time and the woman with whom he was to spend the rest of his days. The collection meant a great deal to him. He pleaded incipient insanity as a way of asserting authorial control: "Now much of this has to do with my sobriety and with my new-found (and fragile, I see) mental health and wellbeing," he wrote to Lish. "I'll tell you the truth, my very sanity is on the line here." There were three stories in particular that were so cut back that he felt he could not live with them, whether or not they were objectively better: "Even though they may be closer to works of art than the original," he wrote, "they're still apt to cause my demise."

The letter is an incredible document, a missive from a man both indebted and imperilled, unsteady, spewing. It's at once a plea and a manifesto – it reveals the extent to which writing was connected to Carver's sense of self, and it reads much more like the characters he originally wrote, who, far from leaving things unspoken, say too much and still manage to scutter around the main point, which is perhaps only anxiety itself.

And there was a crucial difference between these stories and the ones they had worked on before – Tess. As he said in the letter: "Maybe if I were alone, by myself, and no one had ever seen these stories, maybe then, knowing that your versions are better than some of the ones I had sent, maybe I could get into this and go with it. But Tess has seen all of these and gone over them closely."

The book's publication went ahead, in Lish's form and under Lish's title – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It was received, in April 1981, to spectacular acclaim. It made Carver's name and remains his most famous book.

More than 20 years after Carver's death, Tess Gallagher has spent twice as long as his executor as she did as his lover. Carver, she says, dedicated that book to her with the promise that the original she had read and loved in 1980 would one day be published. Now, with the help of the Carver scholars William L Stull and Maureen P Carroll, Gallagher is bringing out the manuscript of Beginners. She describes the process as a "restoration", and says it has taken 12 years for Carver's words to be exhumed from under Lish's hand, so extensive were his marks. It makes the stories sound like the literary equivalent of the Sistine Chapel.

Tess Gallagher opens the door to her house in Port Angeles, Washington to the sound of wind chimes. She has the mischievous eyes and twinkling laughter of a good witch, and she leads us, the photographer and me, to a kitchen smothered in family photographs where she has baked us lemon and poppy-seed muffins. She imagines we must be hungry after our long trip to this watery, northernmost tip of the country. Gallagher was born in Port Angeles; Carver was born a few hours' drive away. She has said that the exposed, unornamented landscape inspired him, that it had something in common with the "forsaken quality" to be found in the lives of his characters.

She and Carver lived in this house for the last 10 months of his life (he died of lung cancer at the age of 50, in 1988). It is, as she says at one point, a "museum", and she doesn't tend to write in it herself, preferring to work in what she calls her "sky house", a secluded, teetering place on a hill up the road. But she has kept Ray's study more or less intact – the invitations on the mantelpiece, the casts of Tess's teeth, the childhood photographs, the keepsake from Chekhov's house in Russia. Even the aluminium mailbox at the end of the drive is as it was, with TESS GALLAGHER RAY CARVER stuck on it in capital letters. Everywhere in the house are portraits of the couple – Carver rugged and somber-seeming, Gallagher with a long mane of black hair, a neat painted mouth and eyelids like creamy, pale bells. Now her hair is silver and short, but before she had breast cancer six years ago she was a laid-back, bookish icon, who looked like a 1930s movie star who had studied to be a geisha and ended up in Haight-Ashbury.

They first met at a writers' conference in Dallas in 1977. Carver had been sober for five months. "He seemed very awkward and fragile," Gallagher recalls as we sit down in her book-scattered living room with cups of strong coffee, small dogs at our feet. "I was actually kind of apprehensive to meet him after hearing stories about him! You know, they called him Running Dog – he'd get himself into certain troubles and then he would have to run to get out of there. I remember he wanted to make a phone call and he asked if he could use the phone in my room, and I thought: Oh my God, I hope he doesn't make a pass at me!" She laughs loudly. "I'd be so sad to have to turn him down, he's so sweet! Thankfully, he just really did want to use the phone."

When they saw each other again a few months later, he had separated from his wife of 20 years, with whom he had a daughter and a son. (He'd met Maryann Burk when she was a 14-year-old waitress in the coffee shop where his mother worked. In an essay called "Fires" he describes, with shocking bitterness, the "oppressive and often malevolent" influence of his children, who "were eating me alive".)

Gallagher had been married twice before, to a pilot and to a poet. To hear her tell it, she had the feeling, twice over, that she couldn't, in some sense, save these men. The first had been to Vietnam and was changed by the war; the second was an alcoholic whose poetry found fewer readers than hers did. When she met Carver she was understandably wary, but things began on a different footing. "Ray was coming back from a death, really," she says. "He was a Lazarus. He was so bright, and so looking forward to the day every day. And I fell in love with that, too, I think – that here is somebody who loved life, and didn't want to live back in the rubble of past lives that had failed." But she says she fell in love with the writing first – "and then: 'Oh! Look at this man attached: my goodness, he's lovely, too!'" she laughs.

Gallagher worried that living with Carver might be like stepping into one of his stories, and sure enough, at first there were bill collectors at the door. But she took charge of that, and then she took charge of giving him space to write (in one house they lived in she gave him the study and wrote her own poems in the bathroom; in another she gave him the study and wrote at a picnic table in the park). Finally, she took charge of his fate itself.

"Listen," she told him, "I love you. But I did not come 4,000 miles across this country to get bad luck. My luck is good and I want it to stay that way. You'd better change your luck."

And so it went. But there was at least one sense in which being with Carver was like being in one of his stories: much was submerged, and some things were visible only to her. Gallagher remembers with great pleasure a day when her father, who didn't understand the quiet Carver at all, finally sighed and said to her: "Tess, there must be something about that man that just don't show."

At least since Carver's death, and long before lay readers were able to judge for themselves, as they will now be able to with the publication of Beginners, there have been whispers about Lish's impact on Carver. In time, it has risen in volume to a full-scale debate, along the following lines: if Lish edited Carver so heavily, then is what we think of as "Carver-esque" really Lish? And if Lish's gifts were such, why is his own writing not as well known as Carver's? When Carver's work became more expansive later in life, was that in fact a change of style or merely a change of editor? Did Carver worry that he would be unmasked? Did Lish worry – or hope – that Carver would be unmasked? Does it matter whose work it is at all, as long as the work exists?

One of the contentions is that the relationship between writer and editor changed over time so that Lish forced Carver to be more Carver-esque than he wanted to be. In one letter to Lish, Carver suggests as much, writing: "I know there are going to be stories… that aren't going to fit anyone's notion of what a Carver short story ought to be… But Gordon, God's truth… I can't undergo the kind of surgical amputation and transplant that might make them someway fit into the carton so the lid will close. There may have to be limbs and heads of hair sticking out."

On the other hand Carver was willing, even if a certain side of history casts him as a victim, and he did allow these stories to be published – indeed, in a letter written less than a week after the great missive of despair, Carver appears to give Lish carte blanche, saying only: "Please look at the suggestions I've pencilled in… even if you finally decide otherwise." Not only that, but Carver made a career out of these books, and he went on to write a third published by Lish. In that last instance, Lish edited lightly and offered up the edit with an ominous note: "To do less than this would be, in my judgment, to expose you too greatly."

When Lish spoke about the matter to the New York Times journalist DT Max in 1998, he told him of his "sustained sense of [Carver's] betrayal", and described Carver as a "mediocrity" he had discovered and made famous. When I contacted Lish for this piece, he sent a gracious reply, saying that he regretted what he had said about Carver already, and did not wish to say more.

What can we now see from the stories themselves? Often Lish's edits improve minimally, give shape to what's there, or alter a phrase so that it's actually more in keeping with the voice Carver has invented. But at other times the feeling is very different – the characters can be more brutal, for instance, and less is made of the women. Many stories are cut by 50% to 70%. Certain stories – "Beginners", one called "A Small Good Thing" retitled "The Bath" by Lish, and another called "Tell the Women We're Going" in both versions are different pieces of work altogether, with different plots and tone. A man murders two women instead of one; a couple never finds out if an injured son lives or dies.

More generally, Lish's edits become slices that depend on silence and suggestion, on the reverberations of the barely glimpsed. Carver's original characters did a lot more talking – they told drunken anecdotes, they wept, they felt, they contemplated, confronted, confessed. These differences are not stylistic – unless you consider earnestness and emotion to be a matter of style rather than heart or disposition. In the most changed of these stories, the edited characters simply would not behave the way Carver's original characters do; if they could, if they had the words or the taste to, there would, in a sense, be no story, since so much of Carver as we have known him until now is about what's unspoken. The edited characters well up; the original characters spill over.

Carver hated to be called a "minimalist", and he was called one often. One wonders if he disliked the term because he knew that minimalism was the aspect of his writing that was least his own. If you are a Carver reader who mainly associates his work with a certain style, then you may be surprised to find that the style itself – his sentences and paragraphs, the blunt, mid-air endings of his stories – was in many cases engineered by Gordon Lish. If, however, you take Carver's world as a whole – the brutality of intimacy, the unplaceability of anxiety, the mess any and all of us can make of love – you may think that Lish saw something in Carver, rather than imposing something else on him, and helped find a form to fit the content.

Then there is the strange, small, yet perhaps emblematic change: a ritual alteration of characters' names, so that Herb becomes Mel, Bea becomes Rae, Kate becomes Melody, Cynthia becomes Myrna, and so on. This habit in particular feels like an imposition, a suggestion that the editor knew the writer's inventions and his world better than he did himself. Here, you wonder how the relationship changed.

Was the relationship between Lish and Carver parasitic or symbiotic, and if the former, which way round? These are vexed questions of ownership and identity, and one might, of course, ask them of any artist's relationship with anyone else, spouses and friends as much as editors.

Gallagher, who says that she doesn't "necessarily feel that [Lish] is a villain", tells me that her interest is not in comparing the two versions. She just wants to show, as she puts it, "the connective tissue" between Carver's first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, and his later one, Cathedral. There was not as much of a leap as readers suppose. In this sense she is offering up Beginners as an item of interest rather than a finished piece of work – a bootleg if you will. She won't say – and she smiles and she recedes from the proposition – whether she thinks one or the other is better.

"I really love these stories," she explains, "and I don't wish to banish even the book Ray had to stand by, and which made him in a sense internationally known, and which gave him the footing to write Cathedral. It also is a very intimate part of the story. You cannot throw that book away – it's a very important book. And I think there will be readers who will like some stories better, because of course that book has the advantage of having an editor. We could not go back when this book was restored and clean up things that you would cinch up if you were actually a line editor working with him on what you were going to allow to be his book. So we cannot make a fair comparison on that basis. We can just say what kind of writer we prefer." She adds that Beginners could never have been published in Carver's lifetime. "Anything fractious, he'd go like smoke up the stairs."

This is a smart, nuanced line for Gallagher to take. After all, to seem to be intent on restoring the true genius of the original Ray while simultaneously reaping the benefits accrued to the other Ray might begin to look like a double standard. The only time she becomes remotely heated is when I mention the journalist DT Max, and ask why she didn't speak to him all those years ago? (Max reported that Gallagher had refused copyright to a scholar who had been in the archive and wanted to show the extent of Lish's edits.) She says she wanted readers to be able to judge for themselves. "The readers can make up their own minds; we don't need the journalists, really, to tell us."

Does everyone want a piece of Raymond Carver? It seems that the much-theorised "death of the author" hasn't protected him from posthumous attacks. When you read about these battles, you wonder whether they are not serial acts of appropriation. Even Carver's first wife has written a memoir, in which she writes of the early stories composed while she was married to Carver in a protective vein, saying she felt angry about Lish's changes. "I must say, as the first reader, I resented it when Lish boldly changed the title." (She also reports that Lish told her she could only help Carver by releasing him from the bonds of family life.) It all depends on what you think a "normal" relationship between a writer and an editor would be, what a "normal" marriage would be. Is there ever such a thing?

For her part, Gallagher describes her relationship with Carver as "collaborative". She helped him, and it was reciprocal. She began to write short stories after she met him; he wrote more poems. She believes that had he lived, they would have carried on in that vein, lending each other their native forms, "because we were very stimulating to each other". Since his death, she has built two volumes of poetry around his memory – Moon Crossing Bridge, which was an act of mourning, and Dear Ghosts, published three years ago.

Gallagher describes the way she would read "every story as it came from his pen", how they would sit side by side on the couch and go through each one, page by page. "In my companioning of Ray's work," she says, "I felt very free to give suggestions, and he wanted that very much. Sometimes he would say: 'Well, write it out how you would do it and I'll figure out my own key from there.' It would always come back in the key of Ray." In a book called Soul Barnacles: Ten More Years With Ray, Gallagher prints a page from Carver's typescript for the last story he ever wrote, "Errand". On it, she has written by hand her suggestion for the last paragraph. If you compare this page to the story as it was eventually published, you'll find that the very last words of Carver's very last story were Gallagher's.

She had referred, earlier in our conversation, to the latter stages of Lish's relationship with Carver as "appropriational". I ask if she feels there is any possessiveness in her own relationship with him.

"You can't possess a great writer," she replies. "They're out there for us all. Why would I want to possess him? I had him for 10 beautiful, amazing years, and I think he's his own gift, out there to the ages. I do not consider that I formed Ray – Ray formed himself."

He couldn't have done it without you, though? I suggest.

"I certainly think he couldn't have. That is true," she laughs. "Amen! Because he really had quite a chaotic life before, and I'm a very orderly person – I mean in my interior world," she adds with another giggle. "Don't look at my housekeeping!"

Now Gallagher has a new partner, Josie Gray, an Irish painter who had not touched a paintbrush until he met her, and whose naive gouaches are on display all over her house. She encouraged him in his work, and now she spends her mornings on admin relating to Carver's work or Gray's before writing in the afternoons. She divides her time between Port Angeles and her cottage in Ireland, for which she has a great affection, and where she spent time with Carver.

"Ray said: the great thing about living longer is that you get to know more of the story," Gallagher smiles as we start to think about leaving. "And I have gotten to know a lot more of the story that he and I were living. Some threads have dropped out of that story, but a whole new story began that still has all this interweaving with my life with Ray."★

Beginners by Raymond Carver is published by Jonathan Cape on 15 October at £16.99. To order a copy for £15.99 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6847

August 6, 1989

Raymond Carver: A Still, Small Voice

year after his death, the recurring image I associate with Raymond Carver is one of people leaning toward him, working very hard at the act of listening. He mumbled. T. S. Eliot once described Ezra Pound, qua mentor, as ''a man trying to convey to a very deaf person the fact that the house is on fire.'' Raymond Carver had precisely the opposite manner. The smoke could be filling the room, flames streaking across the carpet, before Carver would ask, ''Is it, uh, getting a little hot in here, maybe?'' And you would be sitting in your chair, bent achingly forward at the waist, saying, ''Beg pardon, Ray?'' Never insisting, rarely asserting, he was an unlikely teacher. I once sat in and listened while Carver was interviewed for two and a half hours. The writer conducting the interview moved the tape recorder closer and closer and finally asked if Carver would put it in his lap. A few days later the interviewer called up, near despair: Ray's voice on the tapes was nearly inaudible. The word ''soft-spoken'' hardly begins to do justice to his speech; this condition was aggravated whenever he was pressed into the regions of generality or prescription.

As I say, he mumbled, and if it once seemed merely a physical tic, akin to cracking knuckles or the drumming of a foot, I now think it was a function of a deep humility and a respect for the language bordering on awe, a reflection of his sense that words should be handled very, very gingerly. As if it might be almost impossible to say what you wanted to say. As if it might be dangerous, even. Listening to him talking about writing in the classroom or in the living room of the big Victorian house he shared with Tess Gallagher in Syracuse, you sensed a writer who loved the words of the masters who had handed the language down to him, and who was concerned that he might not be worthy to pick up the instrument. You feel this respect for the language - humility bordering on dread - in every sentence of his work.

Encountering Carver's fiction early in the 1970's was a transforming experience for many writers of my generation, an experience perhaps comparable to discovering Hemingway's sentences in the 20's. In fact, Carver's language was unmistakably like Hemingway's - the simplicity and clarity, the repetitions, the nearly conversational rhythms, the precision of physical description. But Carver completely dispensed with the romantic egoism that made the Hemingway idiom such an awkward model for other writers in the late 20th century. The cafes and pensions and battlefields of Europe were replaced by trailer parks and apartment complexes, the glamorous occupations by dead-end jobs. The trout in Carver's streams were apt to be pollution-deformed mutants. The good vin du pays was replaced by cheap gin, the romance of drinking by the dull grind of full-time alcoholism. Some commentators found his work depressing for these reasons. For many young writers, it was terribly liberating.

One aspect of what Carver seemed to say to us - even to someone who had never been inside a lumber mill or a trailer park - was that literature could be fashioned out of strict observation of real life, wherever and however it was lived, even if it was lived with a bottle of Heinz ketchup on the table and the television set droning. This was news at a time when academic metafiction was the regnant mode. His example reinvigorated realism as well as the short-story form.

Though he was a teacher for much of his life, Carver never consciously gathered a band of disciples around himself. But when I was knocking around between graduate schools and the New York publishing world in the late 1970's and early 80's, no other writer was as much discussed and mimicked by the writers one met at readings and writers' conferences. Probably not since Donald Barthelme began publishing in the 1960's had a story writer generated such a buzz in the literary world.

Having fallen under Carver's spell on reading his first collection, ''Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?,'' a book I would have bought on the basis of the title alone, I was lucky enough to meet him a few years later and eventually to become his student at Syracuse University in the early 80's. Despite the existence of several thousand creative writing programs around the country, there is probably no good answer to the question of whether writing can be taught. Saying that Faulkner and Fitzgerald never got M.F.A.'s is beside the point. Novelists and short-story writers like to eat as much as anyone else, and tend to sniff out subsidies while they pursue their creative work. For writers in the 20's, the exchange rate was favorable in Paris, and in the 30's there was the W.P.A., and a gold rush of sorts in Hollywood. The universities have become the creative writers' W.P.A. in recent years.

Carver was himself a product of the new system, having studied writing at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and at Stanford, and later earned a living teaching. It was something he did out of necessity, a role he was uncomfortable with. He did it to make a living, because it was easier than the other jobs he'd had - working at a sawmill and a hospital, working as a service station attendant, a janitor, a delivery boy, a textbook editor. Though grateful for genteel employment, he didn't really see why people who had a gift for writing should necessarily be able to teach. And he was very shy. The idea of facing a class made him nervous every time. On the days he had to teach he would get agitated, as if he himself were a student on the day of the final exam.

Like many writers in residence at universities, Ray was required to teach English courses in addition to creative writing courses. One was called Form and Theory of the Short Story, a title Ray inherited from the graduate English catalogue. His method in these classes was to assign a book of stories he liked each week, including contemporary and 19th-century authors as well as works in translation. We would read the books and discuss them for two hours. Flannery O'Connor, Chekhov, Anne Beattie, Maupassant, Frank O'Connor, John Cheever, Mary Robison, Turgenev and more Chekhov. (He loved all the 19th-century Russians.) Class would begin with Ray saying something like, ''Well, guys, how'd you like Eudora Welty?'' He preferred listening to lecturing, but he would read his favorite passages, talk about what he loved in the book he had chosen. He dealt in specifics, stayed close to the text, and eventually there would come a moment when the nervousness would lift off of him as he spoke about writing that moved him.

One semester, a very earnest Ph.D. candidate found his way into this class, composed mainly of writers. At that time, the English department, like many around the country, had become a battleground between theorists and humanists, and post-structuralism lay heavy upon the campus. After a few weeks of Carver's free-ranging and impressionistic approach to literature, the young theorist registered a strong protest: ''This class is called Form and Theory of the Short Story but all we do is sit around and talk about the books. Where's the form and the theory?''

Ray looked distressed. He nodded and pulled extra hard on his cigarette. ''Well, that's a good question,'' he said. After a long pause, he said, ''I guess I'd say that the point here is that we read good books and discuss them. . . . And then you form your own theory.'' Then he smiled.

As a teacher of creative writing, too, Carver had a light touch. He did not consider it his job to discourage anyone. He said that there was enough discouragement out there for anyone trying against all odds to be a writer, and he clearly spoke from experience. Criticism, like fiction, was an act of empathy for Ray, putting yourself in the other guy's shoes. He couldn't understand writers who wrote negative reviews and once chided me for doing so. He believed fiction and poetry were fraternal enterprises. Among the very few people that Ray vocally disliked were a poet who had refused to lend him $50 when his car broke down in Salt Lake City; two critics who had attacked his own work, and writers who had attacked any of his friends.

For a shy man, his gregarious generosity of spirit was remarkable. He kept up a correspondence with dozens of other writers, students and fans. He wrote letters of recommendation and encouragement, helped people get jobs and grants, editors and agents, accompanied friends in need to their first A.A. meetings.

One day when I berated him for going easy on a student I thought was turning out poor work, he told me a story: he had recently been a judge in a prestigious fiction contest. The unanimous winner, whose work has since drawn much praise, turned out to be a former student of his, probably the worst, least promising student he'd had in 20 years. ''What if I had discouraged her?'' he said. His harshest critical formula was: ''I think it's good you got that story behind you.'' Meaning, I guess, that one has to drive through some ugly country on the way to Parnassus. If Carver had had his way, classes and workshops would have been conducted entirely, by students but his approval was too highly valued for him to remain mute.

Once he sat through the reading of a long, strange story in his graduate writing workshop: as I recall, the story fleshed out two disparate characters, brought them together, followed their courtship and eventual marriage. After a series of false starts they decided to open a restaurant together, the preparations for which were described in great detail. On the day it opened a band of submachine-gun-toting terrorists burst in and killed everyone in the restaurant. End of story. After nearly everyone in the smoky seminar room had expressed dissatisfaction with this plot, we all turned to Ray. He was clearly at a loss. Finally he said softly, ''Well, sometimes a story needs a submachine gun.'' This answer seemed to satisfy the author no less than those who felt the story in question had been efficiently put out of its misery.

My first semester, Ray somehow forgot to enter my grade for workshop. I pointed this out to him, and we went together to the English office to rectify the situation. ''You did some real good work,'' he said, informing me that I would get an A. I was very pleased with myself, but perhaps a little less so when Ray opened the grade book and wrote an A next to my name underneath a solid column of identical grades. Everybody did good work, apparently. In workshop he approached every story with respect - treating each as if it were a living entity, a little sick, possibly, or lame, but something that could be nursed and trained to health.

Though Ray was always encouraging, he could be rigorous if he knew criticism was welcome. Fortunate students had their stories subjected to the same process he employed on his own numerous drafts. Manuscripts came back thoroughly ventilated with Carver deletions, substitutions, question marks and chicken-scratch queries. I took one story back to him seven times; he must have spent 15 or 20 hours on it. He was a meticulous, obsessive line editor. One on one, in his office, he almost became a tough guy, his voice gradually swelling with conviction.

Once we spent some 10 or 15 minutes debating my use of the word ''earth.'' Carver felt it had to be ''ground,'' and he felt it was worth the trouble of talking it through. That one exchange was invaluable; I think of it constantly when I'm working. Carver himself used the same example later in an essay he wrote that year, in discussing the influence of his mentor, John Gardner. ''Ground is ground, he'd say, it means ground, dirt, that kind of stuff. But if you say 'earth,' that's something else, that word has other ramifications.''

John Gardner, the novelist, was Ray's first writing teacher. They met at Chico State College in California in the 1960's. Ray said that all of his writing life he had felt Gardner looking over his shoulder when he wrote, approving or disapproving of certain words, phrases and strategies. Calling fouls. He said a good writing teacher is something like a literary conscience, a friendly critical voice in your ear. I know what he meant. (I have one; it mumbles.) After almost 20 years Carver had a reunion with his old teacher, who was living and teaching less than a hundred miles from Syracuse, in Binghamton, N.Y., and Gardner's approval of his work had meant a great deal to him. In the spring of 1982, I happened to stop by Ray's house a few minutes after he heard that Gardner had died in a motorcycle crash. Distraught, he couldn't sit still. We walked around the house and the backyard as he talked about Gardner.

''Back then I didn't even know what a writer looked like,'' Ray said. ''John looked like a writer. He had that hair, and he used to wear this thing that was like a cape. I tried to copy the way he walked. He used to let me work in his office because I didn't have a quiet place to work. I'd go through his files and steal the titles of his stories, use them on my stories.''

So he must have understood when we all shamelessly cribbed from him, we students at Syracuse, and Iowa and Stanford and all the other writing workshops in the country where almost everyone seemed to be writing and publishing stories with Raymond Carver titles like ''Do You Mind If I Smoke?'' or ''How About This, Honey?'' He certainly didn't want clones. But he knew that imitation was part of finding your own voice.

I encountered Carver near the beginning of what he liked to call his ''second life,'' after he had quit drinking. I heard stories about the bad old Ray, stories he liked to tell on himself. When I met him I thought of writers as luminous madmen who drank too much and drove too fast and scattered brilliant pages along their doomed trajectories. Maybe at one time he did, too. In his essay ''Fires,'' he says, ''I understood writers to be people who didn't spend their Saturdays at the laundromat.'' Would Hemingway be caught dead doing laundry? No, but William Carlos Williams would. Ditto Carver's beloved Chekhov. In the classroom and on the page, Carver somehow delivered the tonic news that there was laundry in the kingdom of letters.

Not that, by this time, Ray was spending much time at the laundromat, life having been good to him toward the end in a way for which he seemed constantly to be grateful. But hearing the typewriter of one of the masters of American prose clacking just up the street, while a neighbor raked leaves and some kids threw a Frisbee as the dogs went on with their doggy life - this was a lesson in itself for me. Whatever dark mysteries lurk at the heart of the writing process, he insisted on a single trade secret: that you had to survive, find some quiet, and work hard every day. And seeing him for coffee, or watching a ball game or a dumb movie with him, put into perspective certain dangerous myths about the writing life that he preferred not to lecture on - although he sometimes would, if he thought it might help. When we first became acquainted, in New York, he felt obliged to advise me, in a series of wonderful letters, and a year later I moved upstate to become his student.

Reading the dialogues of Plato, one eventually realizes that Socrates' self-deprecation is something of a ploy. Ray's humility, however, was profound and unselfconscious and one of the most astonishing things about him. When he asked a student, ''What do you think?'' he clearly wanted to know. This seemed a rare and inspiring didactic stance. His own opinions were expressed with such caution that you knew how carefully they had been measured.

For someone who claimed he didn't love to teach, he made a great deal of difference to a great many students. He certainly changed my life irrevocably and I have heard others say the same thing.

I'm still leaning forward with my head cocked to one side, straining to hear his voice.

Jay McInerney is the author of ''Story of My Life.''

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