A Month of Short Stories 2015, Day 1 – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day 1 – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver.

Read it online here:

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

This podcast has an audio version, read by the author. The actual story starts at the 6 minute mark.

It is no accident that I am opening the month of short stories with a Raymond Carver story. I have been reading his work a lot over the last year and I have decided that his stories are the stories I would write if I could.

Today’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a classic, arguably his most famous. It is especially well known now – because it is a stage version of that simple story that is being developed and staged during last year’s Oscar Winning Best Picture, Birdman.

Birdman opens with the quote that is on Raymond Carver’s tombstone:

“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”

The plot of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is simple enough. Four people, two couples, sit around a table drinking and talking. There is a lot of drinking in Carver’s stories, and a lot of hopelessness. In this story one couple talks about her ex-lover, who never was able to get over her and was cursed with an unstable mind. It lead to his death.

Was this love? Or was it madness? Or was it both? Or is there even a difference?

Those are only some of the subtle and complex questions the story brings up – it is overflowing with ideas and questions, despite its short length.

That is one thing I love about Carver’s stories – the efficiency and the brevity. It is genius to be able to say so much in such a small space.

In researching and reading deep about how he worked I did discover one interesting fact. Carver didn’t write with quite that much brevity. His editor was relentless in driving him to down his word count – to cut his prose to the bone.

For example, once you’ve read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love – then go to this story, Beginners, from the New Yorker. It’s the same story, in draft form, before editor Gordon Lish had Carver chop away at the prose.

It makes for a very different story. I like the short version better. The stuff that has been exorcised – it’s all fluff, things you know anyway… or at least will know once you think about it. There is genius in brevity.

Thinking about Carver’s short stories and about movies… there is a well-known film, Short Cuts, directed by Robert Altman, that strings together several Carver stories, but not today’s. I watched the film to see if it gave me any more insight into the writing.

I was disappointed… even though the movie was well-done. It was more of an Altman movie than a Carver one. For example, it was moved from the Northwest to sunny Los Angeles. These stories need overcast skies, I think. Altman’s natural humor is sprinkled throughout – which dilutes the agony of the characters too much, I think.

Even though I haven’t said very much, I don’t think I’m going to say any more. Brevity…. well, you know.