Guest Post, Dan Pinkerton: The Long-Distance Writer

Daniel PinkertonThe finish line appeared before me like the gilded gate to some fabled city (only a slight exaggeration). In the recovery area I collected my medal and t-shirt, downed some Gatorade, reunited with my family, and now, a few blocks later, the Gatorade lay pooled by my running shoes. “Dad, it’s green,” my son pointed out. He was right. It looked like a vehicle with a bad radiator leak had just pulled away. My wife, realizing my state, went to fetch the car, so I leaned against the side of a building as my kids hovered around me on an overcast morning in Duluth. Race finishers and spectators strolled past, beginning the steep ascent from the harbor. They eyed the puddle of vomit, then me. Some understood my situation, I think, and some were confused or even repelled, but no one said anything. I herded the kids toward the far side of the alley, distancing us as though from the pooled blood at a crime scene.

This was my second marathon. The first had been a more low-key affair in my home city, little more than an experiment. I just wanted to see if I could finish without walking. Duluth had been a lesson in humility. For my kids the episode in the alleyway remains a fond memory, and four years later they still bring it up, that time they watched their dad spew greenish gunk like a guy in a sci-fi film. That morning I dehydrated myself to the point of sickness in an effort to better the time from my first marathon, ultimately finishing fifteen seconds faster. Months of training, often in wind, rain, snow, sometimes on ice-sheeted sidewalks. Entry fees, hours of driving, hotel and food and gas expenditures, and a race that left me pondering the efficacy of an IV, all culminating in this. Fifteen seconds.

Since that overcast day I’ve run thirteen more marathons, and as many times I’ve vowed, publicly and privately, never to run another. “Yeah, right,” my wife always replies, smirking. The smirk is galling but justified. As of the writing of this, I’ve registered for two more marathons and am eyeing two more beyond that. My wife is mystified by my perpetual cycle of training and racing. She, a non-runner, would prefer her getaways adorned with palm trees, white sand, and a steady parade of rum drinks with little umbrellas in them. She does not care to spend her few allotted vacation days in Wichita or Fargo or Toledo (all great marathon cities). She’d like for us to sit on our deck on warm Saturday evenings and enjoy a beer or two without me worrying about how it might impact my training run the next morning.

It would probably surprise no one when I say I’m uncertain marathoning has led to greater contentment, happiness, a newfound kinship with the almighty, or any of that rigmarole. I can’t even characterize the races as fun. If fun is rolling surf and suntan oil, marathons are, at least sometimes, white-out frostbite-inducing blizzards. There’s the nausea, the dehydration. I’ve been chafed to the point of shower yowling. I’ve been bone tired and plagued by body aches. I’ve suffered IT Band syndrome, shin splints, plantar fasciitis. During my last race I looked down to realize I’d bled through my shoe, which I later found to have been caused by two ruptured blisters. My toenails have blackened like overripe bananas, though not until recently did I actually lose one. It’s difficult to reconcile the swell of pride I felt when the nail came off in my fingers. I was quick to show the kids, knowing they’d appreciate this grim development the same way they admired my Linda Blair routine in the Duluth alleyway.

The pain I felt was primarily physical, and while there were tricks—training, Bodyglide, compression socks, electrolyte drinks—to diminish the discomfort, there was no way to circumvent it. The last few miles of a marathon become a study in pain management. This pain is different in character than the feeling that accompanies a 5K or 10K. The miseries of those races are quick and brutal, flash fires. The marathon is a slow burn. Throughout the race you’ve been consuming water, Gatorade, and energy chews or gels. This liquefied sugar combo leaves your mouth filmed with a sticky, unpleasant residue. Condensed sweat leaves salt on your skin in wavering lines like an EKG printout. At mile fifteen or sixteen, your feet start to ache, or your toes, maybe your calves or quads, maybe all of the above. Your sunglasses are sweat-streaked. Your singlet clings to you. You can’t seem to quench your thirst. In your head you’ve been splitting the race into manageable sums. Six miles down, only twenty to go. Ten miles, I’m at double digits. Thirteen miles, the halfway point! Sixteen miles, only ten left. At twenty or twenty-one miles, the steps grow heavier, ponderous. A simple incline from pavement to curb can seem taxing. As you sailed through the opening miles, you read the funny signs held by scattered spectators and you smiled, full of nervous energy and goodwill toward man (and woman). You high-fived a couple kids. Now your eyes are too tired to pass smoothly over the landscape, and instead you catch lurching snapshots. A volunteer sweeping up empty cups. A dog patiently licking its hindquarters. A discarded banana peel. The awkward form of a passing runner. A policeman waving traffic past. You hear a song, and its refrain loops endlessly in your head. You fixate. Why’s that guy with the weird gait faster than me? Is this what it feels like when convicts escape from prison? Where’d that juggler come from? You develop tunnel vision, eyeing only the road ahead. It isn’t focus but self-preservation, the way sailors jettison excess items from a sinking vessel. The scattered spectators slide away, becoming immaterial, except for those who call out something to distract you, maybe the name printed on your bib, and you’re grateful for those few seconds of diversion. You observe everything from a couch in the black-walled depths of your skull. Whereas with out-of-body experiences you’re lifted skyward to observe yourself dispassionately, here you’re being tucked more deeply into yourself. Meanwhile your mind keeps firing paltry distress flares. Go ahead and stop, just for a minute, it’s okay. No one will hold it against you. There’ll be other races. Walk through this aid station, lie down in that grassy area over there, take off your shoes and socks, rub your feet, find a t-bone and some beer.

This is your mind’s subterfuge, and you’ve got to short-circuit it somehow. You start counting each breath, each footstep. You get to a hundred and start over. Numbers, just numbers. Instinctive. Steps stretch out over distance and time in some unknowable, constantly shifting equation. Stay upright, press forward. Endure. Then the finish line, hastily erected to remind you how arbitrary the whole thing is. The gates of the gilded city.

I tried holding certain thoughts at bay:

  1. The distance, arrived upon (incidentally) so the runners in the 1908 Olympics might pass Queen Alexandra in her regal box seat.
  2. The time it took to cover that distance, whether five hours or three hours or fast enough to qualify for Boston. Ultimately, what did it matter? There were so many who ran the event faster. Why push myself to near-collapse when the end result reeked of mediocrity and obscurity? Even the elite marathoners, all but a handful, barely eked out a living. It was not a sport that commanded a following but rather an irritation for those motorists who happened upon closed streets on a Sunday morning.

Adam Alter wrote a piece on long-distance runners that appeared in the December 2015 issue of The New Yorker. The question Alter hoped to answer, or at least investigate—the question I’d been asked repeatedly, by others and by myself—was “Why?” Why put yourself through it? And voluntarily, no less. Why pay money for the privilege? Why, when the most someone like myself could hope for was perhaps a small gift certificate or a plaque or a pint glass? What caught my attention in Alter’s piece was the distinction he drew between happiness—what he defined as “a positive, momentary emotional tone” (i.e. fleeting)—and meaningfulness, “the sense that one’s life has broad value and purpose.” Alter pointed out the arbitrary nature of running and the paradox of trying to find meaning in something so inherently meaningless. The conclusion he came to, with which I agree, was that the event itself didn’t have any inherent meaning. Meaningfulness came from making, pursuing, and (hopefully) attaining a goal. Runners are goal-oriented people. We are planners, as evidenced by our spreadsheets detailing proposed races. When our plans don’t work out, which in running is about ninety percent of the time, we make new ones.

As one of the runners in Alter’s article explained (and I paraphrase), the goal should be a bit scary if it’s worth trying. I will never argue that the local charity 5K is a cakewalk, but as I grew more serious about running, I found myself less anxious the night before such events. These were my gateway drugs, and I was building a tolerance. I needed something to mainline. The marathon was the new opiate, providing the requisite level of fear. I slept fitfully the night before a race and woke with butterflies in my stomach, barely able to choke down yogurt or a bagel. That anxiety has not diminished, and I think it’s because with marathons there are no guarantees of success. My times have fluctuated, sometimes wildly, along with the state of my body. I’ve finished marathons feeling tired but unscathed, and I’ve finished with blisters, aching muscles, and an overwhelming urge to splatter an alleyway with recycled Gatorade.

Maybe it’s thrill-seeking, a way to quicken the heart rate, an activity to be lumped in with snowboarding and bungee jumping and motorcycling. Maybe a midlife crisis. But pain is the word I keep dancing around. I say I run marathons because I like setting goals, I like training and competing, I enjoy feeling like an athlete even in middle age. I crave the anticipation of the event before me, the jittery feeling. But I’m not really scared of failure, I’m scared of hurting. And if I’m truly honest with myself, I don’t just fear pain: I crave it. There are those of us who’ve reached the point where the pulse of our lives has slowed to a rhythmic beat. Monthly paycheck, mortgage, a job that requires us to spend the bulk of our waking hours tethered to a monitor. We need a jolt of voltage to free us from the waking dream. We seek out pain because after awhile even pain trumps monotony. The pain tells us we’re alive.

I don’t know how many marathoners are fiction writers or poets, but I’m guessing there are plenty, Haruki Murakami being perhaps the most famous example. I keep returning to his What I Think About When I Think About Running when I need to see how another writer approaches this inward and socially dubious pastime (by which I mean running, although creative writing might also qualify). Maybe now in the age of social media it’s easier to stumble across the writing/distance-running set, but I don’t think as a rule we do much self-promotion. While we like being patted on the back for our accomplishments, that’s not why we take up such sports. Most of us will never climb any podiums, but we keep toiling regardless, often under the apprehension we will fail (“Fail again. Fail better.”) but resolved to persevere anyway.

In fact, those looking for instant recognition are probably going to drift toward other pursuits, because the ones I’m describing here require long, slow trudging in isolated terrains. There are no YouTube shortcuts to overnight success. These are sports that take years, with progress coming in fits and starts. A story is taken by a prestigious journal and we think we’re set for literary stardom, only to endure twenty subsequent rejections and a plummet back to earth, back to the day job and the bills and the crippling self-doubt. The same is true of running. We set a personal record in March and expect our upcoming season to be filled with more of the same. Then we run a couple more races and find ourselves unaccountably slower. Then we over-train and pull a muscle. We can’t measure our success against other runners any more than we can determine the quality of our writing by the external reactions to it. We find our rewards in the process. I’ve come to enjoy the training, the lead-up, more than the race itself, to the point where the finish feels like a letdown and the week or two afterward I slip into a funk. In much the same way, the pleasure of writing for me comes with drafting and revising. Once the story or poem leaves my desk, making its way into the hands of editors, I’ve already squeezed every drop of pleasure from it. After the long courtship, I’ve lost interest, which is the way it must be.

And so I return to the question: Why do it? Why these particular pursuits, story writing and marathon running? Why, when success is so illusory? Why, when the apprenticeship takes years? Decades? When there’s no certainty you’ll ever master your craft? It all seems masochistic and a bit antisocial. The long, solitary runs; the hours spent at the keyboard while your loved ones are elsewhere.

I have no universal answers and can only attempt to describe my own mind. I lead what is in many ways a clouded existence. The work I perform at my day job is oftentimes unfocused. I’m distracted by the song playing on my headphones or the email I just received or the coworker stopping by to talk about his aphid problem or the latest Marvel movie. My home life is more of the same. The dishwasher needs to be loaded, the dog tore a hole in the window screen, my son is waiting for me to take him to baseball practice, my daughter is asking to play at the neighbor’s. Meanwhile I’m checking my Twitter feed and the Times headlines and fixing myself some cereal and wondering what I’m going to stream on TV later.

While running I might listen to a book or some music, but mostly I’m focused on my breathing, my form, my pace, to the extent that if you asked me what I thought about during my workout I probably wouldn’t be able to recall. It’s a mind-clearing exercise, spirituality without the handbooks and other paraphernalia. This becomes even more true in marathons, where these tertiary concerns slip away. In so many aspects of my life, I’m expending only a portion of myself, but with marathons and writing, the effort is absolute. It’s gratifying to finish a race and be able to say honestly that you pushed yourself to your limits. We often claim we did our best, often to salve the sting of failure, but how often is it the truth? In this sedentary age, where the act of walking to the vending machine seems greater than the reward, full-tilt effort is a rarity.

Writing offers that same opportunity. Whereas no piece of writing is perfect, just as no race is, there’s a thrilling sense of accomplishment when we’ve worked a story or poem to the point of comma-quibbling, brushing against the ceiling of our potential. I purposely use adjectives like “gratifying” rather than “fun” to describe the process. It’s mentally taxing, after all, but by that same token, I’ve always cringed when I’ve heard it called “work.” Anyone who’s spent even a single day laying sod or pouring concrete would agree that typing on a keyboard is something altogether different. If we wanted fleeting happiness, we’d go jet-skiing. When we write, we’re seeking what Alter described in relation to ultra-runners: meaningfulness, the ongoing passions and pursuits that shape our lives. Reaching the limits of our talents can be depressing, but only when we allow ourselves to gauge our efforts in relation to other people.

I avoid running groups and clubs, preferring the untethered feeling of solitary runs, where there’s no need to match anyone else’s pace or worry about making small talk or obsess about how loudly I’m breathing. In running as in writing, there is generally no collaboration. We might run with others from time to time, but the work we do is our own, just as with writing, where the ideas and the execution are ours alone. This increases the fear of failure because we’re solely accountable. Many teachers ask their students, with regard to a story or poem, what’s at stake. I don’t know that every piece of writing needs to answer this question, but I do imagine there should be enough danger in a good story or poem to scare its writer a little, a jittery feeling as the final sentences come about, the same way a marathoner feels on race morning. When we’re young, the risks occur naturally, when our relationships and financial standing and sense of self and burgeoning careers are all teetering. Writing isn’t a pleasant diversion or a habit formed over many years, like a callous. More often it’s the inflatable life vest on the plummeting airliner, a means of surviving in a world, adulthood, that is still largely uncharted. It’s a way of focusing, like counting to a hundred over and over to numb the pain that accompanies the final miles of a marathon.

If we’re fortunate, privileged, we might start to find what we’re seeking—a safe environment, a companion, steady work, health insurance—and the ground on which we stand becomes firmer. The uncertainty that characterized our youth starts to evaporate, but we keep writing, perhaps seeing it as a way to make money (yes, we’re still naïve) or advance our careers or because we’re compelled or because it’s something we’ve done ever since we were kids composing stories by hand in pencil, with great care, on lined sheets of paper. We send our most polished work to little magazines, ever hopeful. But here the purity of the act—whether putting words down on paper or running as fast as possible—gives way to the seeming randomness of the larger world. The arbitrary nature of the submission process can be maddening. Our best story is rejected by a third-tier journal only to be accepted later by a first-tier one. We send a batch of poems to an editor who takes the worst while declining the others. We vacillate between condemnation of the editor (obviously clueless!) and dejection over the incompetence of our own work. Maybe we’re the clueless one. Though I’ve tried to brush aside such judgments, considering them the opinions of editors whose tastes simply didn’t jibe with mine, I’ll admit they’ve had a cumulative effect on me, a wearying, calcifying effect. Maybe it’s just the accretion of so many rejections, but they’ve come to seem like stones in a wall separating me from the pleasure of writing. I’ve ignored my own advice to tune out the noise.

Even though the distances are arbitrary, there’s a truth to running. Each competitor in a given race must cover the same ground, so if someone beats you it’s not because of a third-party espousing his tastes or pushing an agenda, it’s because that runner was faster. I appreciate the simplicity in that. There are no referees interpreting rules, no coaches playing favorites, just sweaty folks straining for the finish line. It’s fair, it’s democratic. Effort prevails. I think this is why I find myself spending more and more time these days browsing running websites and magazines rather than literary ones. I’m more careful not to skip a track workout than a writing session. I’ve grown tired of watching writers jockey for position and trade favors and flatter and attempt to commodify something that isn’t much of a commodity. Running is what holds me aloft these days while writing feels at times like the ballast, the chore. I’m searching for a way to make it new and fun again, a way to filter the outside expectations, because there aren’t any, not really.

Guest Post, Dan Pinkerton: Carver


An old friend who was passing through Des Moines dropped by for a visit. This was about seven years ago. I was living at the time in a Fifties-era ranch house near the Firestone plant and I-80, in a dense residential area where nevertheless a mountain lion was killed a few years later within blocks of my children’s school.

On this particular afternoon my wife was out looking at paint or carpet samples—we’d just bought the house and were still in the process of renovating—and had left me in charge of our one year old. I picked him up when he cried, set him down when he cried harder, warmed a bottle, changed a diaper, made sure the safety gates were in place. From the look on my friend’s face, I could tell he was nervous around the child and casting about for an excuse to leave. We were discussing books, and he asked what my favorite short story was. I answered without thinking that it was Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral.”

My friend and I had met in grad school. We were actually more like acquaintances, sharing a few friends and seminar courses in common, crossing paths now and then, but early on we’d identified one another as readers. My friend, in fact, was sort of a pleasant-natured, unassuming polymath, dazzling in his range of references. Once I stopped by to find him sitting on the couch, the little wheeled table beside him cluttered with books borrowed from the university library. He had three or four open and appeared to be reading from them simultaneously, this while a film played on TV. A stack of video cases lay scattered on the carpet. His consumption of cultural artifacts—books, music, films—wasn’t systematic, it was ravenous.

So it made sense that my answer disappointed him. “Cathedral” was to many an anthology story, a learner’s story, a bike with training wheels.

“That story just seems a little…pat, don’t you think?”

“Well,” I said, articulate as always, “sure, I mean, um, I can see how you might, uh, draw that conclusion.” We talked a little while longer, though not much more was said about Carver.

Only one other memory from that afternoon remains, my friend’s offhand remark that I was “probably one of those people who gets up and writes for an hour every morning before work.” He had a quick, easy laugh, and even his serious comments were made with a half-smile that caused you to question his sincerity. And so he made the statement seem lighthearted, a joke, but every sentence that begins with you’re probably one of those people ends up denigrating you and the rest of those people.

Needless to say, he’d inserted the IV and the self-doubt was flowing on a steady drip. Maybe “Cathedral” was a paint-by-numbers story. Recently I read an essay of John Updike’s in which he lumped Carver together as a practitioner of various “minimalisms” with Donald Barthelme, Angela Carter, and Kurt Vonnegut. In Updike’s view, “These writers wrote out of a certain late-twentieth-century mood of burn-out, of humorous anti-romanticism; how much “point” will be left when that mood has evaporated?” Carver was regularly labeled a minimalist, thanks to Gordon Lish’s cuts to his early stories—and here the word “cuts” perhaps understates the point. They were more like disembowelments. I think it’s safe to say, now that we’ve seen the stories as Carver intended them, that he wasn’t a minimalist, at least not in the manner of, say, Diane Williams or Lydia Davis.

Is minimalism even inherently a bad thing? Maybe only when you preface it with you’re probably one of those people. Carver seemed to bristle at the term, perhaps because he felt he’d been unfairly ghettoized, or perhaps it had something to do with his relationship with Lish—the embarrassment of allowing himself to be bullied.

The whole thing about Carver and minimalism and Lish has passed over into the realm of folklore. In the recently published MFA Vs. NYC, it seems that either Carver or Lish is mentioned in every essay, as though this entire generation of fiction writers has either worn Carver like an albatross around the neck or held him up as a patron saint. His effect on workshops and “MFA fiction” has been pervasive. The old tale about he and Cheever in Iowa City waiting one morning for the liquor store to open is repeated like gospel. In MFA Vs. NYC a former student of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop even describes the liquor store as though it were some kind of pilgrimage site.

Updike’s other charge—beyond Raymond Carver being one of those minimalists—is more damning. Carver (and Barthelme, Carter, and Vonnegut) evoke in their work a particular tone or mood specific to the late twentieth-century, and once this mood evaporates, the writing will survive, if at all, merely as an anachronism, a testament to a bygone period. Of course the same could be said of Main Street or The Great Gatsby. Literary documents capture the pulse of a particular period more effectively than land deeds or census records. They may not give us data, but they give us the modes of speech and the cut of the clothes. Carver gives us the dirty realism of the Seventies and early Eighties, just as Updike gave us his account of the late Sixties free love movement in Couples. (And readers of Couples might argue that it could’ve benefited from a bit more minimalism.)

“Cathedral” is Carver’s most anthologized story, the one most often taken to represent his full body of work. It’s oftentimes the reader’s first hit of Carver, the gateway drug. I wouldn’t use such a metaphor if pot-smoking didn’t figure so prevalently in the story. If you recall, the narrator of “Cathedral” rolls a couple postprandial joints after his wife has retired upstairs. At this point, he’s still ambivalent about his houseguest (“I didn’t want to be left alone with a blind man,” he says) but the marijuana represents a turning point. When the narrator places one of the joints in Robert’s fingers, it’s the first time the two touch, apart from shaking hands on their first introduction. There’s an interesting physicality to the exchange. Robert’s openness to trying the drug is also revelatory to the narrator, who is mired in closed-off resistance, with a job he hates and anxiety-laden dreams. The narrator never goes to sleep with his wife but instead stays up as late as possible, narcotizing himself.

The main problem we have these days with “Cathedral” is not necessarily the story but rather its familiarity to us as readers. “Cathedral” depends for its success on the surprising bond that forms in the end between the blind man and the narrator. In that regard, it’s a little like an O’Henry story. Once we’ve seen how the magic trick works, it’s not quite so magical anymore. So is it still possible to love “Cathedral” once we’ve learned how the assistant gets sawn in half?


Back when we were in grad school, my classmate—the one I mentioned earlier—seemed shadowy and insubstantial; not aloof, exactly, just set apart from the tribe. Most of the students in the program were single. All of them stayed within a few miles of campus but my friend lived five hours away, commuting back and forth from Columbus, where his wife, whom none of us had met, was in med school. In her spare time, she did abstract paintings that were apparently highly salable. My classmate explained once how his wife designed the canvases while someone else did the actual painting. It was all a little confusing to me.

I tried not to make comparisons to my own wife, who grew up in the small town neighboring mine. Her father worked at the Firestone plant; my father painted ammonia tanks and stock-car frames for a living. My wife and I met at a gathering, which was a nice way of saying some kids got together one night to drink beer. She was in high school, cutting classes and occasionally shoplifting clothes from the mall. I was busy flunking out of my freshman year at Iowa. So maybe it’s apparent why Carver appealed to me in those days. Some readers approached his characters as though they were exotic zoo animals, but they never seemed all that unusual to me.

My friend’s writing was excellent. It had a polish and complexity to it that made ours appear rudimentary by contrast. Yet I started to get the impression he was just pulling the same worn manuscript from his drawer each semester and dusting it off for workshop. It was the same manuscript he’d submitted for entry to the program, the same novel fragment that won him a fellowship. For all his obvious and intimidating skill, he suffered from a disinclination to finish the thing and send it out. He would never be one of those writers who got up early to write for an hour before heading off to work. I suppose I may have been, but it didn’t much matter because I suffered from a different malady, flitting from project to project without ever finishing anything, the writer’s version of ADD.

I didn’t bother rereading “Cathedral” after my conversation with my classmate. I imagine he expected me to name something by Borges or Calvino, and in the years since his visit my tastes have taken a turn. I’ve come to regard certain realist fiction, like certain realist or photo-realist paintings, as an exercise in technique, lacking in imagination. Maybe this coincides with the birth of my kids and all the children’s books we’ve read together, where creativity is celebrated and the imagination provides a means of escape.

So when I recently reread “Cathedral,” I did so with a cringe, uncertain of what I might find. We paint these landmarks of our past with a rosy-hued nostalgia. How would I feel about Interview with the Vampire and The Stand if I returned to them today? How well a story ages says something about the story but also something about the reader. When I was nineteen, I hung out with a group of friends who’d grown increasingly preoccupied with getting fucked up. This was how I came to pass much of my freshman year—in a fog—which isn’t so unusual, particularly at a place like Iowa. My friends also happened to be readers, and when we weren’t drinking ourselves into stupors we were passing dog-eared books back and forth, heavily invested in the subgenre of literary debauchery. Most of the Beats fell into this category. Bukowski was revered, along with Jim Carroll, Denis Johnson, Hunter S. Thompson, Bret Easton Ellis. You can find these same names today on the shelves of nineteen year-olds looking for something shocking and subversive. I suppose Chuck Palahniuk would now be the ringleader of such a club. To the list I added Raymond Carver. I read his stories for the lurid details, never realizing they were meant as cautionary tales. The tragic characters struck me, perversely, as comical. At age nineteen I had never witnessed a marriage unraveling or a true alcoholic, as I later would, someone with a terrible disease who went into treatment and came out looking frazzled after shock therapy and Antabuse.


The other day I listened to a New Yorker podcast of Thomas McGuane reading James Salter’s fantastic story “Last Night,” and McGuane commented that many of the best stories start with big risks. This, I think, is true of “Cathedral.” Rather than choosing the wife’s perspective or even Robert’s, Carver tells the story through the husband’s “eyes”—paradoxically, since the husband suffers from a kind of emotional or empathetic blindness. Either the wife or Robert would’ve been more sympathetic narrators, but then we would’ve lost all the husband’s interiority, for he rarely voices his fear and envy of the blind man other than to make a racist remark about Robert’s recently deceased wife.

There’s an ugliness to the husband’s account that Carver must’ve known might repel his readers, and it starts in the opening paragraph when he points out Robert’s disability, also noting that Robert is his wife’s friend, not his. But Carver doesn’t drive the point home until the final sentence of the opening paragraph: “A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.” Few lines carry as much weight as this one. With a few quick strokes Carver establishes the story’s point of view, conflict, and tone, one that might best be described as passive-aggressive. The narrator doesn’t say “I didn’t want the blind man in my house,” which would be far too straightforward for such a study in repression. The sentence implies he has already accepted the blind man’s arrival. The passive sentence construction mimics the narrator’s passive state.

Carver sets events in motion—the advent of the blind man’s arrival—and then starts building the tension a line at a time, the way the cathedral on TV is constructed and later re-envisioned on paper. Carver’s sentences are short, declarative, reminiscent of Hemingway, who also seemed to specialize in narrative compression and repression. In his essay “Fires,” Carver acknowledges that his writing has been compared to Hemingway’s, though he doesn’t go so far as to say that Hemingway was a guiding influence. The distinction in “Cathedral” is that these are the first-person thoughts of a narrator who has difficulty expressing himself. The sentence structure mirrors his ennui. He’s tired of hearing about the blind man, how Robert ran his fingers over the wife’s face on their final day working together. Of course this is envy in disguise, which comes through again when the narrator describes the cassette tapes mailed back and forth between the wife and Robert, the intimacy of the conversations. The narrator is at turns bored, jealous, affronted, and judgmental, and his preconceptions about Robert threaten to spoil their first encounter.

Reading that opening section of “Cathedral” is like driving past a car wreck. We don’t want to see it and we can’t turn away. But the story is different than some of Carver’s earlier work, where the characters seem beyond saving, casualties of circumstances or their own bad choices. “Cathedral” could’ve followed its initial arc, the antipathy growing worse when the narrator met Robert until finally becoming unsustainable, presumably ending in the narrator’s failure to move beyond his own jealousy and preconceptions. Instead, ice starts to melt. The tension deflates, and what we end up with is a story of forged connections. The building of the cathedral signifies the narrator’s link with another human being.

Once you start looking at “Cathedral,” you see how unorthodox it really is. First, there’s that issue of tension. Freytag tells us we need to draw the conflict out as long as possible, but in Carver’s story it starts dissolving midway through. And there’s also all the exposition—Robert’s backstory and the circumstances leading him to the narrator’s house—frontloaded into “Cathedral.” Hemingway wouldn’t have done that. He would’ve viewed it as the portion of the iceberg meant to remain submerged. The exposition here could be seen as the narrator’s preconceived notions of the blind man: a monochromatic view. An interesting exchange takes place in the story when the narrator’s wife asks Robert if he has a TV. Robert responds that he has two—a black and white set and a color model—but he always turns on the color TV. This coincides, not incidentally, with the way the narrator has begun to view Robert. His observations grow more vivid.

In his essay in MFA Vs. NYC, Fredric Jameson makes note of Carver’s “lower-middle class minimalism.” He appears to use the terms “minimalist” and “miniaturist” interchangeably, but it seems that minimalism—as proposed by Hemingway or Lish, anyway—is a method of purposeful exclusion, while miniaturism involves an intense focus on a tiny area. Jameson likens it to model trains, where no detail is left out, and claims the miniaturist is therefore also a maximalist. Faulkner and his postage stamp of native soil is the example used. It’s hard to trace Carver back to Faulkner, but you can see the miniaturist impulse at work in the latter half of “Cathedral,” the Technicolor section in which the narrator has a chance to observe the blind man in person. “Cathedral” is a longish story that takes place over the course of a single evening in a single setting. It’s amazing how kinetic the story is, considering its external events, which essentially are these: three people eat a huge meal and lounge around afterwards. One gets tired and goes to bed while the other two watch TV.

The narrator mentions the way Robert touches his suitcase, “taking his bearings,” and later makes special note of the blind man’s eating habits, the way his eyes look, how he lifts his beard and lets it fall. His observations of Robert humanize him, the irony of course being that the narrator, blind this whole time, finally starts to see clearly at the end when his eyes are squeezed shut. In “Fires,” Carver describes his minimalism as being incidental, the byproduct of a poor memory for details.


My neighborhood was full of mature sycamore and locust trees, leaves swirling around untended yards. There were a lot of chained-up dogs, for sale or foreclosure signs, Harleys parked in front of tiny houses. We moved in at the height of the real estate bubble when prices were monumentally overinflated. Like every other new homebuyer, we fully expected to sell the house quickly and use the profits to upgrade before our kids reached school age. Then the bubble burst and we got mired in the La Brea of an underwater mortgage. We tried multiple realtors. We looked into rental schemes. We considered private schools (too expensive). We tried open enrolling and were turned down by our district due to our “socioeconomic status,” a euphemistic way of saying we were white and made too much money. The suggestion of our income would’ve been laughable if it weren’t so frustrating, because the truth was that between our mortgage and student loans, our car payments and credit cards and bills, we were pretty well broke.

We sent our kids to the local elementary in what felt like an awful surrender. We were heartsick with failure. Our school district was the worst in the city, possibly the worst in the state. There were bright spots—wonderful, dedicated, passionate teachers—but there were also a pronounced lack of resources and a large number of students for whom English was a second language. We showed up for our first orientation to find the doors locked. It was a janitor who finally notified us the orientation had been cancelled due to construction work at the school. The parents stood on the hot sidewalk outside, holding bags full of pencils and Kleenex and glue sticks. My wife started crying.

But you keep going, you keep trying, you make the best of things. Your house sits on the market. You drop the price. Then on a crisp fall morning, while you’re at work and your kids are in school, you find out a mountain lion has been roaming your neighborhood. The nearest mountains are twelve hours away. At this point the situation truly does become laughable. It would be disingenuous to call it a last straw because there have already been last straws. This is just another in a series of unlikely events you can’t quite comprehend. The cougar was spotted near the elementary, and the kids were brought in from recess. Deputies cornered the animal among some houses about a block and a half from yours. They shot and killed it, and the mountain lion was stuffed and placed on display in the DNR building at the state fairgrounds. People filed past with their corndogs and funnel cakes to take a look.


I have three novels in various drafts, though I’d be lying to say any of them is anywhere near completion. Occasionally I’ll open one of the files and tinker for a week or so until the hopelessness of the effort becomes overwhelming. I blame this on my compulsion to hop from project to project, the same sickness that causes me to spend my time shopping for new books when there’s already a tottering stack on my nightstand. My suspicion is that I’ve always had this “illness” but that it long remained latent, buried like a cicada that emerges after seventeen years to make a lot of racket. My brother, as a teen and young adult, started collecting LPs, comic books, pulp paperbacks, baseball cards, even box top cereal prizes, and when I came of age I was similarly obsessive in the way I accumulated books, CDs, and movies. These items became an outward manifestation of my intellectual insecurities but also served for me—and for my brother, I think—as a protective boundary. For two people who grew up with few possessions, gathering stuff around us made us feel secure.

Whatever its root causes, my flightiness is what will likely make me, forevermore, a writer of poems and short stories. When I was nineteen, a freshman at Iowa, I was drawn to Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson because they wrote about the downtrodden and irremediably fucked-up (adjectives I gladly self-applied at the time). Both authors had haunted Iowa City; both wrote poems and short stories. Carver, in “Fires,” blames his own turn toward poetry and short stories on parenting, claiming he never had the sustained period of time necessary to work on anything longer.

I always had it in my mind that “Cathedral” was my favorite short story, but the truth is that after I worked my way through Carver’s fiction as a student, I never returned to it. This was because I came to sour on Carver the person, as separate from his work. I realize it’s unfair and judgmental of me to say that, but after reading “Fires” I can’t help it; I simply lost interest.


I didn’t have children of my own when I first read “Fires,” but I still recall my feeling of slack-jawed shock on that initial pass-through. This was an essay purporting to be about Carver’s influences but was truly just a diatribe about his kids, who had the audacity of desiring to be clothed and fed. At various points he calls this influence—his children—“oppressive and often malevolent,” “heavy,” and “baleful.” “Nothing […] could possibly be as important to me, could make as much difference,” Carver writes, “as the fact that I had two children. And that I would always have them and always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction.” But he doesn’t end there: “I understood writers to be people who didn’t spend their Saturdays at the Laundromat and every waking hour subject to the needs and caprices of their children.”

In an incident central to “Fires,” Carver describes himself in a Laundromat in Iowa City, struggling to find a free dryer for his clothes. The episode is recalled with such specificity, with as much eye for detail as the latter half of “Cathedral,” that it belies the author’s earlier claim that he has a poor eye for details. You start to wonder if Carver merely has a selective memory. The clipped, closed-off, self-pitying voice in “Fires” comes to resemble the narrator’s voice in “Cathedral.”

The first time I read “Fires,” I imagined how I would feel if one of my parents had written it; I imagined the weight of responsibility I would feel for fucking up my father’s life, preventing him from doing what he loved most, keeping him from writing his novel (one of the criticisms most often leveled at Carver, which must have weighed on him during the writing of “Fires”). How might I feel about my childhood if my father said he would rather “take poison before [he’d] go through that time again”? I shook my head when I finished. What an asshole, I thought, dismissively.

After I had kids, my thoughts would return sometimes to “Fires.” The essay wasn’t quite so easy for me, as a father, to brush aside. Maybe Carver was simply expressing the sentiments of many writers who struggle to make time for their work. Maybe he was simply being more honest than the rest of us. Maybe I needed to come to terms with my own situation, because it was true in a sense that my kids were the reason I worked at a job I sometimes hated (we needed the health insurance). They were the reason I often wrote early in the morning or over my lunch hour: because evenings were reserved for laundry and picking up, helping with homework, dinner, and the bedtime routine. This was the real reason I’d become one of those writers, foraging for scraps of writing time. Yes, it frustrates me when I’m trying to write and my kids are running around the house screaming and fighting, shattering my concentration, interrupting me to ask for a snack or a new Ipod game.

But what Carver fails to acknowledge in “Fires” is that getting married and having kids are choices he made. He lets on as though he woke up one day in that Laundromat in Iowa City with this terrible obligation, as though it had been thrust on him. That, to me, is the ninety percent of the essay that remains underwater: the lack of personal agency. Carver got married early, he had kids early, and youth can be used to explain away some bad decisions, but they are decisions nevertheless. Kids can’t be blamed for being hungry or for wanting stuff. What kind of baggage is that to hang on your child? I don’t know the nature of Carver’s relationship with his kids, but I can’t imagine them being anything other than deeply hurt by his comments in “Fires.”

Carol Sklenicka, in her biography of Carver, briefly touches on the point. Carver’s son, Vance, as quoted by Sklenicka, tried to defend his father, claiming Carver “loved his family dearly,” but “when stress levels boiled over, he could despise us, find us burdensome.” Carver’s daughter, Chris, said that people she knew read the essay and formed unfair impressions of her. Carver wrote “Fires” when his children were twenty-three and twenty-four and no longer lived at home. Why was his resentment of them still so fresh in his mind at that point? Carver wrote the essay at Yaddo, where he had the solitude and uninterrupted time he needed to work on a novel; why was he squandering his time on a nonfiction screed about his children?

Why even bother writing an essay about influences when your sole point is to air some grievance about your kids? That seems a little too personal for an essay of this sort. While Carver does append a few comments about John Gardner and Gordon Lish, they seem cursory, tacked on, maybe even disingenuous given Carver’s sometimes fraught relationship with Lish. And if Carver was truly setting out to describe the factors that shaped his writing, why is alcohol never mentioned in “Fires”? In an essay on influences, there’s no reference to being under the influence. Drinking figured prominently in Carver’s life and is pervasive in his writing. How could it be more shameful to admit to an illness like alcoholism than to describe in print your dislike for your own children? Carver was a great writer, but still it takes a great deal of hubris to believe that the writing of stories, made-up tales, ink on paper, takes precedence over the children one has brought into the world.

My own two kids are young enough that I can still see them being formed. My inattention weighs as heavily on them as the moments I stop what I’m doing to play Barbies or Crazy Eights or backyard soccer with them. I’m not one who believes that everything happens for a reason. That’s just an easy way of shrugging off bad decisions. I believe in regret; I fear it. If it’s a choice between the moments I spend with my kids and the stories or poems I write, I choose my kids. No one will be hurt if I write fewer stories. My wife and a few others might even be spared the burden of reading them. But if I wake up to a quiet house after the kids have gone off to college, jobs, their own lives, and I have no good memories to fill the vacancy, that will be regret.