Obsessiveness is bad. No, wait, obsessiveness is good, if you're an artist. Actually, the truth lies between those two poles for writers and other artists who would live a happy life. For the intricate details of what was surely an unbalanced life, immerse yourself in Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life, a richly detailed new biography that Carol Sklenicka spent a decade writing. The book becomes more compelling the deeper you get into it.
One famous writer wrote about another: "The refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one's obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all." John Updike was quoted as having written that about J. D. Salinger, and I thought of it when reading about Carver.
Carver certainly risked excess. Fueled by booze and cigarettes and weed, distracted by financial troubles to the point of more than one bankruptcy filing, often irritated by the needs of his family, and longing to write all the time, Carver managed to produce a batch of lasting short stories. They encapsulate and turn into art bits of his own life and those of people he encountered, and they often convey a sense of the melancholy and foreshadowing of death caused by that very excessiveness. He died at 50 in 1988 of lung cancer.
A good biography of a writer ought to compel you back to the subject's work. They're two separate things: writers and their creations. Yet so much of a writer's life informs the work that it can be enormously enriching to see the puppet master behind the strings. If you're already familiar with the work, you may end up liking the author more, or perhaps less. Carver wasn't above lying (when applying for a tenured position, he lied about having earned an M.F.A.), and he wasn't above repeatedly betraying his first wife. When he knew he was dying, he wasn't generous in making arrangements for his original family and his mother, though he'd become successful by then and his future royalties would be worth a lot. Sklenicka details how his second wife Tess Gallagher fought hard to maintain full control of those rights.
Still, Carver sacrificed much, worked hard, and wrote persistently over the years. Sklenicka's biography made me sense, above all, the ambition to succeed woven through every aspect of Carver's life. I realized, not for the first time, that it can be very helpful to be a likeable and sociable person who knows how to make connections and how to use them.
For readers and writers with an interest in how famous works came into being, Sklenicka's book contains intriguing and surprising details about how Carver was edited by Gordon Lish. (Discussed here also.)
Click here to read one of Carver's best short stories, "A Small Good Thing."
Copyright (c) Susan K. Perry, Follow me on Twitter @ bunnyape