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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 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.
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 clich -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.