The theme of this past January’s residency in Vermont was “What We Talk About When We Talk About Craft.” That construction has become a bit of a cliché—“what we talk about when we talk about X”—but the cliché happens to be apt if you fill in the blank with craft.
If you were a writer or a reader of a certain age—say, under 30, or even 40—in the early 1980s, and you were interested in short stories, Raymond Carver was a constant topic of discussion. He was the most prominent representative of a style that was also a constant topic of discussion. It was commonly called minimalism, though I always preferred the term miniaturism. “Minimalism” suggested minimalizing, whereas, at least in my interpretation, the power of the style was to reveal a new world, only in miniature. It relied on contrasts: the lean text and the rich subtext, the surface cool hiding a kind of hellfire, the emotional distance that, seemingly paradoxically, suggests a raw-to-the-marrow fear. In short (or miniature): greatest effects through fewest strokes.
Which is to say, craft.
Here’s an example of Raymond Carver’s craft. It’s the opening of the story “Why Don’t You Dance?”, which happens to be the first story in the 1981 collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard. The mattress was stripped and the candy-striped sheets lay beside two pillows on the chiffonier. Except for that, things looked much the way they had in the bedroom—nightstand and reading lamp on his side of the bed, nightstand and reading lamp on her side.
His side, her side.
He considered this as he sipped the whiskey.
I remember reading this story. I remember the moment I read “His side, her side.” I remember consciously recognizing the power of: two paragraph breaks, isolating what is really a sentence fragment; the comma cleaving that fragment, two words before, two words after; one of those words being the same both before and after—“side”; the difference being the adjectives, though the adjectives themselves are similar—“his,” “her.”
Two sides of a bed, two sides of a comma, separated by a gender.
Turns out that what I—what we, a generation of young readers and writers—had just witnessed was an editor at work. The stories that appeared in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love diverged from Carver’s original versions. And they did so because of the influence of—intervention of—Gordon Lish, Carver’s editor at Esquire before he became his editor at Knopf.
If you’re interested in the controversy that has long enveloped Lish’s editorial relationship with Carver, you can read about it in the Library of America edition of Raymond Carver: Collected Stories, which includes not only both versions of the entire What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (or Beginners, Carver’s initial preference for the title) story collection, but an essay about the contentious collaboration. Another longer story short: Carver was horrified when he got the edited manuscript back from Lish, objected to the changes, then, somewhat mysteriously, made his peace.
For the purposes of this essay, I’m not interested in authorial credit. I want to look at only what is on the page. Or pages, since we’re looking at two versions of the same material. Carver’s original opening of the story matches Lish’s version right up to the “His side; her side.” Then come the differences:
. . . nightstand and reading lamp on his side of the bed, nightstand and reading lamp on her side. His side, her side. He considered this as he sipped the whiskey. . .
What do they have in common? The words—that crucial balance between repeated nouns and similar adjectives. The comma.
Where do they differ? The paragraph breaks. The italics.
To my ear, to my eye, the Lish version of that passage is preferable, though maybe only because it’s what I read first: more poignant; more tragic; more menacing. Carver’s is more on-the-nose: those italics, for instance. But for the purposes of this essay, I’m not actually interested in my opinion, either.
Instead, I’m interested in thinking about the effects of craft choices—the nuances, the depths, the cool and the heat, the text and the subtext. Not just in Carver, but in everything I read and everything I write. The punctuation. The nouns, the adjectives, the verbs. The missing verbs! To listen to the emptiness between paragraphs and hear the clamor. To look at what’s absent and stare into the abyss. To think about every element of craft, and then think again, and then, with each least choice, to discover another new world.