When I first heard about the workshops at Centrum, acceptance into the program was competitive. Initially, I didn’t get in. But then someone cancelled, which left an opening and Centrum asked if I could fill that space. I was so excited. Robert Smith (not his real name) taught the workshop that year. I read his books carefully and revised the stories I planned to take. I caught the ferry a few weeks later, absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to attend this workshop.
But Robert was NOT thrilled at my presence. He was outright hostile. He wouldn’t look at me, and when I tried to participate in the class, he cut me off. He did that repeatedly, so I quit trying and sat in the back, soaking up what I went there to learn.
One day, as I passed his desk, Smith said, “Prostitutes hate men.” I looked at him, startled. Was he talking to me? Yes, he was. It was the only time he looked at me. I sat down, stunned. I couldn’t focus on the class because I was busy analyzing his statement. Did he think I was a prostitute? I‘d graduated from Gonzaga University and taught junior high. I was a bookworm, wore comfortable jeans and baggy sweatshirts, little or no makeup. What? I’d never laid eyes on Robert Smith before Centrum, but the first time he saw me, he recoiled.
Although his attitude toward me felt personal, I decided it wasn’t. I must‘ve reminded him of someone who betrayed him. I had to leave that insult lay right where it was, and get as much out of the workshop as I could. As part of the workshop, we got a private hour-long conference with Smith. He passed around a sign-up sheet. Every time I picked a slot, it got scratched out.
One night at dinner, a fellow student named John sat down with me. He said, “Wow, Smith really has it in for you. What did you do to him?”
I told John about how I got into the program and that Smith seemed embarrassed to have a sub-standard student in his class. He didn’t want the other students thinking he had chosen me and my bad writing. John laughed; “You don’t believe that, do you?”
“I don’t know what to think. Smith finally agreed to give me my one-on-one,” I said; “I had to insist on it, as I paid for it. I’ll be allowed to meet with him while he does his laundry.”
“You’re kidding,” John said.
“I am not kidding. We’re meeting in the laundromat.”
Smith tore apart the story I submitted. He shredded every sentence, word-by-word. When one of the students tried to say something positive, Smith slammed down the manuscript and said he’d wasted enough time on it. I sat through the rest of that class, then headed quickly to my room. I‘d dealt with plenty of criticism in college, but this was over the top. I needed to cry and didn’t want anyone to see me. But John walked just as quickly to intercept me. “That was brutal,” he said; “Let’s go into town tonight. I have someone you need to meet.”
That night, we went to a bar where John introduced me to Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher. I knew nothing about them. John told them about Smith. “I’ll be teaching here next year,” Carver said; “Come to my workshop. In the meantime, send me the story Smith shredded. I don’t know if you’re a writer, but this is not right.”
Tess Gallagher had purchased a package of cigarillos. They came in a gorgeous, filigreed, silver box. Each cigarillo was wrapped in silver cellophane. “Have one of these,” she said, “Relax, but don’t inhale.” We both fondled the silver-cellophaned cigarillos before we opened them and lit up. Of course, I inhaled, and then felt dizzy. It certainly took the edge off my mood.
At my interview with Smith, he didn’t speak. I knew I shouldn’t have insisted on having it, but by then, I was angry and cantankerous. I didn’t care how famous he was. In the silence, I helped him fold his laundry. I didn’t know what else to do. Finally, I asked, “Do you know someone who looks like me?”
He glared at me over a basket of dirty clothes he’d been sorting. “You should go home,” he said; “Bake pies and iron.”
I left Centrum, thinking he was right. If I didn’t remind him of someone, then the other possibility was that he recognized something immoral, wrong, unbalanced, or deceitful in me, some trait that would keep me from becoming a writer. On the drive home, I decided to send my story to Carver, get his response, and go from there.
Above all, Carver was generous. He sent me ideas for revision – RE-VISION, the art of seeing again, in a different way. This WAS a facet of his creative talent. I revised that story and work-shopped at Centrum with Carver the following summer. He was a fabulous teacher, getting into the stories and the students’ heads to better understand and improve. Sure, he had negative things to say, but always suggested a path forward.
After all these years, I can still see Carver leaning back in his chair, saying, “Is X the right word? Should it be Y with such-and-such connotative value? What are you aiming for?” Carver was the master of choosing every word carefully so it could function in the story on more than one level. He revised stories that were already published because he thought they didn’t say exactly what he intended.
The story I work-shopped with Carver became Milk River, published in Writers’ Forum, anthologized in HIGHER ELEVATIONS, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Craig Lesley, another student at Centrum, used Milk River to teach the use of voice at Oregon State University.
Before Carver died, he gave a reading at Elliott Bay Book Company. The place was packed, standing room only. I knew Carver had lung cancer, but I thought he was recovering, or he wouldn’t have scheduled a reading. The instant I saw him, a knot of tears rose in my throat. He looked gaunt and puffy at the same time, the effect of radiation and chemotherapy. He had that vacant, low-energy look of someone near death. He moved as if each step took enormous strength. All through the reading, he coughed and apologized. He was horrifically sick and yet he read with such humility. He wanted to please us. We sat without moving, entranced, and hung on every word. He wanted to give us one last gift.
At the end, I went to hug him. He was acknowledging every single one of us. When I held him in my arms, I realized he’d shrunk, and he was fragile. I swallowed hard to keep from crying. I wanted to tell him how much his help meant to me, but I couldn’t talk. I had waited too long. “You take care, Ellie,” he said; “You take care.” I sobbed into my steering wheel all the way home. He should have been in bed, but he used the last of his energy to give a reading. I have never witnessed anything more generous.
Two months later, I got the call from a friend. Carver had died. In the middle of the day, I went to bed. I’d lost everything. A month earlier, I’d filed for a divorce. I’d spent twenty years trying to make my marriage work, struggling with my life and every shade of denial that could possibly exist. If I took care, as Carver asked, could I stay where the dissension had drifted to paralysis? After I filed, everyone was angry with me: my children, my family, the people I thought were my friends. They all loved my husband. He was so charming. Now Carver was gone, and soon the house we lived in would be gone. I had no job, no money.
After a few hours, I got out of bed, poured a cup of coffee, and started reading Flannery O’Connor’s The Habit of Being. Carver had recommended it and I’d read everything else she wrote, except this large book. By the time I finished, I’d changed my view, accomplished a personal re-vision. I saw my life in a different light. Flannery wrote on the day she died. She chose the same kinds of characters I like to write about. What do we have to learn from characters who are clothed in goodness and don’t make mistakes? And where is the truth in that kind of writing?
Soon after that, I started writing MILK RIVER, the novel. An acquaintance got me a job as a contractor, I found a place to live, my family came back to me, and I made new friends. I had not lost everything. I just lost Carver. Why was that tiny relationship so important? I spent a few hours in a bar, a week in a workshop, and a couple of hours at a reading. Yet, after I met him, I was a stone skipping over water. The trajectory of my life changed suddenly. He didn’t say goodbye, he said, “Take care.” Which he probably said to everyone. But those two words made me stop. I had not been taking care. And I will always be grateful to Carver, the master of choosing words carefully, for one last lesson on the power of words.
Ellie Anderson wrote technical documentation and taught creative writing in the Pacific Northwest. She has published a number of stories in little literary magazines. This is her first published essay. She lives in Bellevue, Washington with her husband, Shane and a stray cat named Mooch.