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What It Used to Be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver

What It Used to Be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver

by Maryann Burk Carver

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Maryann Burk Carver met Raymond Carver in 1955, when she was fifteen years old and he was seventeen. In What It Used to Be Like, she recounts a tale of love at first sight in which two teenagers got to know each other by sharing a two-year long-distance correspondence that soon after found them married and with two small children.

Over the next


Maryann Burk Carver met Raymond Carver in 1955, when she was fifteen years old and he was seventeen. In What It Used to Be Like, she recounts a tale of love at first sight in which two teenagers got to know each other by sharing a two-year long-distance correspondence that soon after found them married and with two small children.

Over the next twenty-five years, as Carver's fame grew, the family led a nomadic life, moving from school to school and teaching post to teaching post. In 1972, they settled in Cupertino, California, where Raymond Carver gave his wife one of his sharpened pencils and asked her to write an account of their history.

The result is a memoir of a marriage, replete with an intimacy of detail that fully reveals the talents and failings of this larger-than-life man, his complicated relationships, and his profound loves and losses. What It Used to Be Like brings to light for the first time Raymond Carver's lost years and the "stories behind the stories" of this brilliant writer.

Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
If you think that right to the end she loyally gives Carver the benefit of the doubt, so do I. Ultimately the loyalty was all one-sided, and though she doesn't say so, Maryann Burk Carver leaves the impression that her husband was relieved, and glad, to see her go. The bright light at the end of the pier was glowing just for him, and a wife and a couple of children were too much baggage in his rush to get there. An instructive reminder that writers are rarely as nice, or as decent or as likeable as the characters whom they bring to life.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Though it's the relationship with Tess Gallagher during the last years of his life that most people remember, the majority of Raymond Carver's literary accomplishments took place during his 25-year marriage to his high school sweetheart. But while her story offers some biographical insights into how short stories like "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" were created, it's essentially a cliche-filled tale of the artist's suffering wife. During their honeymoon, he tells her that if he had to choose between her and writing, he'd take the writing. She doesn't get the hint, and time after time she winds up dropping out of college so she can support her family as Raymond struggles through creative writing programs and, later, alcoholism (years later, she recognizes her behavior as classic co-dependency). Their personal dramas, ranging from a string of crummy landlords to revelations of extramarital affairs, are presented in embarrassingly stiff dialogue, as are Maryann's occasional insights into Raymond's literary ambitions. "I like these people," he says of the working classes. "Maybe I'll be able to tell their stories as well as anyone." For all its intimate and frequently unpleasant details, her memoir doesn't explain how he succeeded. (July) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Some might argue that the life of great American poet and short story writer Raymond Carver (1938-88) was even more intriguing than his fiction, a mix of tragedy and triumph, although not in even doses. In this engaging memoir, his first wife artfully documents their 27-year marriage with clarity and insight. The reader is constantly reminded that the author was only a teenager when she married Carver, with whom she led a nomadic, unstable existence despite his intermittent literary successes. Poverty was an overwhelming presence in their lives, and Carver struggled with alcoholism, which only added to the couple's sense of instability. Ultimately, the two divorced, and Carver married poet Tess Gallagher, though the author remained a part of his life until the end. At its heart, this is a love story, yet it is also an accessible biography of one of America's best-known writers. Recommended for academic libraries and public libraries as a supplement to Carver's own works.-Valeda Dent, Hunter Coll. Lib., New York Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A bittersweet account of the author's hardscrabble life with her husband, the writer Raymond Carver. Divided into four decades, this memoir opens with her and her future husband's first meeting in 1955-she was 14 at the time-and moves on to their secret engagement, their marriage in 1957 and the births of their two children in 1957 and 1958. With a husband in college and two small children to raise, Maryann shelved her plans to become a lawyer and took on the task of ensuring that Carver would hone his talents as a writer. Their young family, she says, was not a burden on Carver, but rather his anchor, and it does seem that she supported him for years, while the circumstances they found themselves in gave the writer material for many of his gritty, realistic stories. In Sacramento, they lived for years on the edge of poverty, she as a waitress and he in mostly menial jobs while he slowly worked his way through college. The '60s brought Carver some recognition, but his youthful optimism was fading, as stability and economic security eluded his family. They were constantly on the move, with Carver never content and Maryann struggling to get her own college degree. She divides the '70s portion of her memoir into three threads that defined their lives then: teaching, writing and drinking. Both drank, but for him, the drinking developed into a disease, and his writing dried up for several years. The marriage devolved into physical violence, infidelity, separation, reconciliation and divorce, in 1982. Before that decade's end, Carver was living with the poet Tess Gallagher, later to be his second wife. (He died from cancer two months after their marriage, at the age of 50.) Writing here, hisfirst wife coats the bad times with matter-of-fact reminiscences, relating her past more by expressions of love for her husband and admiration for his talent. Raymond Carver fans will welcome this up-close, very personal glimpse into the life of the talented but troubled writer.

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What it Used to be Like

A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver

By Maryann Burk Carver

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2006 Maryann Burk Carver
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0268-7


Spudnuts and Roses

As the summer of 1955 began I was almost fifteen. I lived in Union Gap — a little town to the south of Yakima, Washington — and in June I was hired to waitress at a shop that sold spudnuts. It was my first real job.

I was so wound up the first morning that I bought a pack of cigarettes on the way in. I hadn't smoked in months, not since March when I left public school to attend a private one. I went into the bathroom of the local Texaco station and made myself sweetly dizzy as I lit and inhaled a Pall Mall fresh out of the new red package. Then I chewed some Juicy Fruit to get rid of the smell on my breath. Then I ditched the gum. At Saint Paul's School for Girls we learned that ladies do not chew gum in public.

The staff at the Spudnut Shop was just the owner, Mr. Ness, and Ella, another waitress. In her early forties, she was a tall, still-pretty Southern belle who loved to feed her sweet tooth with glazed spudnuts. (Spudnuts, by the way, are like doughnuts, except made from potato flour and more delicious.)

Old Mr. Ness had supposedly bought the business for his son. But he so loved tyrannizing everybody — lording it at the sink full of dirty dishes, getting in the way of customers' orders, and supervising our every move — that he hadn't gotten around to turning over the managerial reins. I soon learned that only when he'd left for the day could Ella and I relax.

When the coast was clear, straight into the jukebox went some of my hard-earned tips, five plays for a quarter. First I'd get Al Hirt from New Orleans going with his trumpet. Customers would turn their heads and smile. Then I'd play Nat "King" Cole's "A Blossom Fell" or Al Hibbler's beautiful "Unchained Melody." And oh! "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" from Latin mambo king Pérez "Prez" Prado.

One bright, sunny day the bell on the shop door rang out. A tall, dark curly-haired young man walked in. I happily went over to wait on the good-looking guy. Suddenly I had a strange feeling. As he looked at me, I thought with calm, powerful certainty, I am going to marry this boy.

He didn't seem aware of anything unusual. We smiled at each other. I found out he liked spudnuts and was addicted to Pepsi Cola. He ordered. I served him his order. We smiled some more.

The next day he was back. I had been hoping he would be, sensing as teenage girls can that he might be attracted to me. He came in and sat at a table. Ella saw him and looked as if she was going over to wait on him. So I hurried to get his order and practically bowled her aside in my haste.

"Hold it!" Ella said sharply in her Southern drawl. I stopped short, surprised — she'd always spoken charmingly to me. "I'll wait on him, Maryann." She explained: "That's my son, Raymond. I need to talk to him."


What a difference a day makes. Yesterday the boy was a handsome stranger from out of nowhere, like a knight-errant. Because, you see, he was destined to be my champion and marry me. Today, as any idiot could tell, he was simply stopping by to see his mother. Cancel the wedding plans. Hold the honeymoon. My other immediate thought — What was wrong with me?

I stood still a long minute. But I trusted my intuition and chose not to let my total embarrassment paralyze me. I just knew fate was at work here. Then it struck me — damn, I've already met my future mother-in-law. I looked over at Ella, who was chatting with her son and (little did she know) my future husband.

I learned that Ray Carver came into the Spudnut regularly for lunch, snacks, and endless Pepsis. He had a summer job in a grocery store down the street. He was two years older than I. And he had the nicest manners, the best of any boy I'd ever met.

Ray didn't call his mother "the old lady" or his father "the old man" the way a lot of teens flippantly did out of earshot. He referred to them as "Mom" and "Dad" or "my folks." I thought he was proud of his family, respectful, as I was of mine. He still went on family picnics and outings. I felt that he was a confident, mature person who wasn't ashamed of his background or upbringing.

One day while we were talking at the Spudnut, I asked him whom he loved the most in all the world. Without hesitating he said, "My dad. I love my dad the most." He was proud to be named after his father, I think simply because he loved him so much.

Though Ray was sometimes called Junior, his given and middle names were reversed: he was Raymond Clevie and his dad was Clevie Raymond. The reversal was apparently a birth certificate foul-up and not his parents' intention. Both father and son were called Raymond at home and the right one would always answer when Ella or James, Ray's brother, called, although anyone else couldn't hear the difference. What Ray came to hate was being called Junior by his extended family. His stubborn resistance eventually forced everyone to drop the habit. He was never Junior after that.

My summer days were settling into regular routines. After work I'd still be dancing in my head to exotic jukebox rhythms as I headed over to the grocery store to check for the latest True Story or Modern Romance. I could buy what I wanted now that I was old enough to have a job — but felt youthfully guilty about some of my choices. (So I hid the "trash" from my mother.) At the same time I was also devouring books on the Saint Paul's summer reading list for students, from Norah Lofts's Bless This House to classics like Joseph Conrad's Nigger of the Narcissus. I felt entitled to read whatever I craved.

Waitressing at eighty-five cents an hour — close to minimum wage in 1955 — I could finally buy the Jantzen sweaters and Pendleton skirts and jackets I wanted for school. I made a list of coordinated outfits, the "civilian clothes" I could wear when we students shed the uniforms that our Episcopalian boarding school required. Number one on my fall list: a white Jantzen skirt and sweater, red belt, red shoes, red purse, and round red earrings with centered clusters of rhinestones. I just loved clothes.

And I loved going to my job. Or at least I did until the morning when Mr. Ness made one too many petty jabs at Ella. She was in the middle of dishwashing. Ella whirled on him, fire blazing in her eyes: "I believe I've washed more dishes in my life than you have! I'm tired of trying to work with you breathing down my neck all the time!" She told the dumb-founded old man that he was welcome to the damn dishes, ripped off her apron, and sailed out the door. Gone.

I was stunned, but thoroughly awestruck. My mother, who was a teacher, did everything according to Hoyle, especially when she changed jobs. I admired Ella's spunk. Then it sank in — I'd have to handle the shop all on my own that afternoon. A further panicky rush of thoughts engulfed me. I was convinced that Ray would never come back. Why should he? His mom wasn't here. He could get his Pepsis other places. I'd never see him again.

The next day I watched the entire eight hours of my shift for Ray. He didn't stop by. My heart sank. The following day it was the same, and I reproached myself for having made something out of nothing. The mutual attraction I was so sure of was a figment of my girlish romantic imagination. Day three after Ella quit, I gave up. Live and learn. Get over it. More fish in the ocean. Sure.

Then Ray came into the Spudnut. I couldn't believe how overjoyed I was. But I acted cool, or tried to. I strolled out from behind the counter. There was another customer I had to wait on. Ray stood in my path, not a lot of open space to maneuver between the tables.

Without any special recognition I went to cross behind him. I don't know why, but I impulsively stepped closer. Close enough to touch and faintly graze my breasts on his back. He stiffened and leaned into me, pinning me for an instant, though it felt as if I were frozen and on display for a short eternity.

I had shocked myself down to my toenails!

My face burning, I broke away and all but ran to the back room, where I tried to compose myself. He's just another guy, I told myself. What am I to him? Just some kid, a nobody waitress in a white uniform. Be cool. Be cool, I told myself. ... Oh Lord, I'd left the other customer sitting there! I had to go back!

Or risk losing my job. What a fiasco. But I needed to keep my job. Resolute (barely), armed with my order pad and a smile, I went back out to face whatever fate had in store for me. Spudnuts, anyone?

DESPITE MY SELF-CONSCIOUS meltdown, Ray kept coming in to see me. I could tell he really liked me, but I started to wonder if the summer would end before he'd ever ask me out. I shocked myself once again by asking him, out of the blue, if he'd like to do something — us, together, somewhere, not the Spudnut?

Well, the next day he was going fishing with his uncle Fred. They'd be gone for a week. "That's why I haven't asked you out," Ray clarified. "I wasn't sure when." He looked at me more intently than usual.

Nine days later he was back.

But he'd been thinking about me out in the wilds and had come up with a plan. We could go to the drive-in. The one where teens from several Washington counties converged every night. Okay?


He drove up to my house in his dad's gray sedan, a '50 Chevrolet. I was ready. I dashed out wearing my black cotton skirt splashed with vivid swaths of pastels and a sleeveless rose-colored blouse. I was laughing to myself as I realized Ray had never seen me out of my waitress uniform. But now, now he sure saw me.

In a blur we were on our way. At the drive-in we sat close together in the car. I was so nervous that my hands were wet with perspiration. The double feature that night had Blackboard Jungle first up. There was a girl in it who looked and danced (I decided later) a lot like me. I was so excited to hear the movie's hot new song — "Rock Around the Clock" — by somebody named Bill Haley and the Comets. Customers had told me about this new music that was called rock and roll.

As the movie ran, Ray moved closer and put his arm around my shoulders. I felt both awkward and thrilled. Who needed to read romance magazines? This was the real thing.

At intermission I excused myself and went to the girls' room in the snack bar. As I threaded my way back between the parked cars in the dark, I got the usual crude remarks from faceless guys: "Hey, girl, over here!" "Shake it, but don't break it!" By the time I was back, the second feature had already begun.

Ray opened the door for me. He had begun to get worried and apologized for not escorting me to the snack bar. I felt a rush of gratitude and, unexpectedly, felt so very comfortable to be with him. After the experience of what to my mind was a creepy public exposure, I was touched by his kind concern. (My magazines hinted at the perils lurking at the drive-in.) As I flashed again on all those half-open car doors and the leering comments, I thought, It feels good to be home.

When Ray later dropped me off at home, he kissed me good night. I made a mental note to myself — oh my God, tonight Ray kissed me for the first time. Another sign we were destined for each other. I was amazed that my dreams and reality were magically becoming one.

After work the next day, Ray picked me up in the car. We drove up South First Street in the sweltering heat, past Layman's Market with the huge containers out front of cantaloupes and watermelons. Next came a motley jumble of small restaurants and seedy taverns until Union Gap was left behind us. Then we drove north as far as the Triple-X Drive-In restaurant on the outskirts of Yakima (the big city of forty thousand or so).

We stopped, ordered food. When it came, Ray said, "Here's your root beer, honey." He said "honey" just like my brother-in-law, Les Bonsen, did to his wife, Jerry. She was my older sister. The word hung in the air. It felt like a commitment.

For years afterward, whenever we were doing some ordinary task like washing the dishes or the like and Ray happened to say "honey," I would remember how thrilled I was on that hot afternoon in Yakima when he said it the first time. I'd remember the sweet expression on his face.

From then on we had to see each other every day. When Ray came into the Spudnut, it was hard for me to take my eyes off him and do my work. We would happily smile away at each other for no reason at all, and talk at my breaks or when there weren't any customers. Ray also liked to smoke. I asked him how long he'd been doing it. "A couple of years now." I could tell by the expression on his face that he wasn't showing off. He was pretty well hooked.

I knew smoking hurt my lungs. The pain had stopped when I was at Saint Paul's, where it wasn't permitted. But cigarette in hand and drinking a Pepsi, Ray was as handsome and sophisticated as a guy in a TV ad, the sort who wore those heavy-framed dark glasses while cool jazz played.

IN JULY, Ray took me on long drives north of Yakima over the dry rolling hills toward Ellensburg. Or we'd drive to the west on Tieton Drive. That's where the great orchards were, those miles and miles of apple, cherry, apricot, peach, and plum trees that had made Yakima the self-declared "fruit bowl of the nation."

One afternoon out on Tieton, we talked animatedly about how much fun it would be to travel someday. We could go places that fascinated us. Imagine — to the Middle East where civilization began and modern politics made it a powder keg. Or to Europe to see art in some of the world's most amazing museums. Like the Louvre! Or even to Russia to walk where Napoleon desperately tried to win against the czar's troops and the Russian winter.

We knew about foreign places only from reading. Ray loved books as much as I did. That really surprised me. We both read several hours a day, always a book out of the library in progress. Few other teens we knew liked to read at all. Spend precious free time buried in some book? Kids who did got called bookworms. But our shared passion meant that Ray and I couldn't have cared less what anybody thought of us.

When he was younger, Ray had read all of Edgar Rice Burroughs several times over. ("You Tarzan, me Jane," I had to tease.) His voice rose with enthusiasm as he told me about Burroughs. Ray clearly revered these books. And Buck Rogers. Ray had read everything in the series. Now he was busy with science fiction and fat historical novels by popular authors like Thomas B. Costain. (I let him know that I'd just finished reading Costain's The Silver Chalice.)

We discovered we were both enthralled with history. Again this was a wonder. No one we knew in public school could stand history, much less respond to it as we did. Ray was captivated by stories of Alexander the Great and knew all about his military campaigns. I had studied ancient history a year earlier, and before I knew it I was telling him about the Fertile Crescent and Hammurabi's code of law. That tumbled into a discussion of the Spanish Armada and the invasion of England. "In 1588 Queen Elizabeth I was triumphant over Philip II of Spain because she was so intelligent. No one expected a woman to have brains. Well, she showed them!"

"Of course having the British navy at her disposal didn't hurt either," Ray retorted. I laughed.

Then I asked him abruptly, "Ray, what would you like to do when you're older? You would be a fantastic history teacher." I could see him in front of a class of adoring students.

He nodded, unexpectedly serious. "I'm going to be a writer, Maryann. A writer like Ernest Hemingway. In fact, I'm going to be such a great writer, I'll be able to flip the bone to the world." He raised his hand, middle finger skyward.

My heart was pounding. This was the most exciting thing I had ever heard in my life. Conviction ringing in my voice, I said, "Ray, I'll help you!" Our eyes locked. It was a pact.

Trusting me more, Ray began to reveal other things about himself. But he was not easily forthcoming. Quite the contrary — he had private issues that took a long time before I knew much about them. I had no idea yet that from childhood on he'd had a serious weight problem. The year before we met, Ray finally made himself diet. Unlike the plans imposed on him by his mother or the family doctor, this worked. To stay trim Ray leaned on other habits, especially smoking, which took the place of food.

His fat-boy childhood had affected his personality and values. Always he sympathized with the underdog and the afflicted. However, for him it was important never to be called fat again. As for a wife — however smart, talented, or accomplished — she would also have to be a real trophy. When I eventually realized this need of Ray's, I was a little taken aback. My mother had always told me that physical beauty was skin deep. Good character counted for much more (and besides it was something you had control over).


Excerpted from What it Used to be Like by Maryann Burk Carver. Copyright © 2006 Maryann Burk Carver. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

MARYANN BURK CARVER is a teacher living on Lummi Island in Washington State.

MARYANN BURK CARVER married Raymond Carver when she was sixteen and he was nineteen. They were married for twenty-five years, and had two children, Christi and Vance. Maryann Burk Carver is a teacher living on Lummi Island in Washington State.

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