Bret Lott says that no single writer meant more to him than Raymond Carver. He said he met Carver--met him in his work, that is--at a time when he was almost totally sure that he was never, ever going to be a writer, when he'd in fact been told as much. That assessment led to some soul searching, as it would for anyone.
But right about then he picked up What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a collection of Carver's stories, and read them. At that moment, he says, what he learned in Carver's minimalist style is that writing isn't about writing but writing is about the people in the stories. Writing sets up a mirror to life, not a mirror in which a writer can preen.
Bret Lott says he has been, from that time forth, deeply indebted to Raymond Carver.
But he also says he's deeply indebted to Flannery O'Connor, who taught him what writing was about. She also gave him--and all of us--a demonstration on how not to fudge about his faith, how to see writing as an act of hope and faith. Bret Lott says that Raymond Carver taught him how to write, and Flannery O'Connor taught him why.
We need rain here, and we got some in the last 24 hours--in fact, I think it's raining now. But yesterday, in the afternoon, when I showed him Siouxland, it was gray and drizzily; and even though there's almost a shockingly bright emerald spreading prematurely over the landscape all around us right now, the gray afternoon muted what otherwise, even in April, could have been bright with life.
No matter, every bit of his visit was a joy. He is a marvelous writer, a joy to be around, and an unabashed believer. When we drove through Siouxland, he loved the world around us, the land so ready for planting.
He left with a Dordt College t-shirt, some stroop waffles, a half dozen almond patties, and, I hope, some sweet memories.
But because I know him, I know the greatest prize he took home is a gift I gave him proudly and sincerely.
I told him that once upon a time I had Raymond Carver for a teacher, that it was after Carver had sobered up, that he was gracious and kind in his critique of his students' stories, mine too, and that I'll always remember him back then--summer of 1981--as a wonderfully warm-hearted human being. I will also always remember him because he was to me, as he was to Bret Lott, a teacher, not simply by what he did in class but by what he did on paper. Both of us--we're of a generation too--almost deify Raymond Carver.
I know that's a sin for a couple of believers.
But here's the gift. In the middle of a classroom yesterday, while Mr. Lott was holding forth robustly, I told him that for a writing class way back in 1981, when Raymond Carver was my teacher, there on the list of required reading was Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners. I first read that entire book when Raymond Carver required it.
My poor students had little idea of how great a gift I gave Bret Lott at that moment. He hemmed and hawed, stopped in his tracks, and I knew why. Why mince words?--both of us thought so much of the man we couldn't abide thinking that he might not have been a believer himself. Neither of us knows.
But I knew exactly what Bret thought when I told him that Carver required O'Connor. It was a link. It proved nothing at all, really, but to hear that news for him was like seeing a man he'd come to love and respect one step closer to a throne, a throne of grace.
This morning he'll get on a plane and go back to Charleston. He'll have a Dordt College t-shirt and some Dutch food and, I hope, an old leather brief case full of good memories.
This morning I'm thankful he was here, thankful he inspired our students, thankful he had a great time in Siouxland; but I'm most thankful that I could give him the gift I could. What'll carry him home to North Carolina most joyfully is the knowledge that Raymond Carver too loved Flannery O'Connor.
"People without hope don't write novels."