Imitation of Raymond Carver


Write an Imitation of Raymond Carver’s

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love?”


Carver’s story ends with a heavy moment when all the characters seem to realize that Mel (who has been fantasizing about murdering his ex-wife) is really as bad as Ed (Terri’s ex-husband). This isn’t explicitly stated, but the tone shift is what draws us out to the end of the story. The story has that poetic punch at the end that we’ve talked about in class. 


Let’s try to imitate it. Use your current story or think of a new situation, in which the characters have a tone shift, where they are thinking about something they aren’t saying.


1. Write the pivotal line of dialogue, where one character expresses something that completely changes the tone. In the Carver story, this is:


“She’s vicious,” Mel said. “Sometimes I think I’ll go up there dressed like a beekeeper. You know, that hat that’s like a helmet with the plate that comes down over your face, the big gloves, the padded coat? I’ll knock on the door and let loose a hive of bees in the house. But first I’d make sure the kids were out, of course.”


Let’s try to imitate it the dialogue here exactly:

Write a two-line piece of dialogue, followed by (character name) said. Then the idea the character has or thing they say that will change the tone—a fairly simple line of dialogue. Then an explanation of that sentence, ending as a question? Then another simple declarative sentence that really moves us into that second tone. Finish with a line of dialogue that tries to soften the tone shift a bit.



“She’s happy,” Dad said. “But sometimes I find her sitting in the bathtub. She’s let all the water drain out and she’s sitting there, her hair wet, stuck to her shoulders, shivering, her lips blue, and I think she’s crying, but I can’t really tell? I ask what she’s doing she says, “Go away, Charles. Leave me.” But I make her get out and wrap her in a towel and then she seems fine.”


2. Write an action to go with this announcement.


He crossed one leg over the other. It seemed to take him a long time to do it. Then he put both feet on the floor and leaned forward, elbows on the table, his chin cupped in his hands.


So, to imitate this, write a simple action. Then write a sentence that starts with “it seemed.” Then write a sentence that describes a new action, starting with “Then.”

Example: He took a drink of his coffee. It seemed like he was hiding in the mug. Then he set it down on the table and curled both hands around it, staring into it, his eyes shining.


3. What follows is another line of dialogue from this character that seems to acknowledge the unspoken thing and then seeks to change the subject.


“Maybe I won’t call the kids, after all. Maybe it isn’t such a hot idea. Maybe we’ll just go eat. How does that sound?”


Now let’s try to imitate this. Start the dialogue here with three lines that begin with “maybe” and then a question.


Example: “Maybe I won’t wake her up now. Maybe she’s tired. Maybe we’ll just order some food in today. Would that be okay?”


4. Next we see the other characters each reacting to this tone shift in their own way. Nick (the narrator) agrees but then offers a different idea: he wants to keep drinking. Laura asks for something to eat. Terri agrees to get her something to eat, but then she doesn’t move. This shows us that what Mel said has really struck her. Then Mel responds by deliberately spilling the gin out on the table. Then Terri asks, “Now what?”


To imitate this, write your characters responding in a similar way. Keep the speech tags as said.



“Sure, Dad,” I said. “Or I could cook something. I could make those club sandwiches you like.”

“They won’t have avocado,” Rob said.

“What? It doesn’t matter. They’ll have deli meat. Mom always has deli meat.”

“I could go out for an avocado,” Rob said. “The grocery store’s not far. It’ll take me ten minutes. I’ll go.”

“Or I could get delivery,” I said, fumbling with my phone. “Pizza? Chinese?”

“I’ll make peanut butter and jelly,” Dad said.

But he didn’t move. 

Rob stood up. “I’ll get an avocado.”

“There’s no bread,” Dad said.


5. The story ends with the narrator’s perception being heightened and the language becomes more lyrical, ending that poetic punch I mentioned.


I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.


Let’s try write something like it.


Example: He was crying now. I was crying. Rob was, too. We kept crying as we moved toward each other, Rob squeezing hard on Dad’s shoulder, me kneeling next to him, clutching his hand. We stayed in that position, crying ourselves empty, until, from the other room, we heard Mom wake.



    I remember the way Izzy's soft smile flashed fast at everyone she met except for me. The graduation lingered as one by one the students finally held degrees of varying nature. We picked ours up. With paper held high roaring applause told us how to feel. Together a new life began, a definite achievement to begin what I did not see as anew. The tunnel with the light seemed so far back then, my pride only sprouting with hesitance.

    Meanwhile, Fraudline's happiness - limited, shallow, and bounded - spins in the dryer. The joy she embraced could so easily be reused time and again.

    She was right to embrace what she could. She was right to grant me pride where I shamed it beyond recognition. But I was right to feel the solitary dread as those I saw daily will remain no longer to become anything better than what were then.

    - Tomio

    1. I like the image of the happiness spinning the dryer. Nice. Nice, line by line imitation.

  2. “I don’t care anymore.” Lisa said, “This presentation doesn’t matter, the grade doesn’t matter. I’m done.” She looked like she could have flipped the table, but she didn’t. She instead sat there head carefully placed in her hands. From the sound of her breathing I thought it was frustration. Maybe I should have gave her a reassuring touch on the shoulder? Though I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries. She lifted her head once more, “Sorry, I’m going through a lot.”
    Lisa let out a sigh and started packing away her tablet. It seemed to lack any of her fine motor movements she usually had. Then she sloppily zipped up her bag, with the zipper catching a few times on the inner fabric. Which only added to her sour mood.
    “Maybe I’ll go home and take a nap. Maybe I just need a little coffee. Maybe I just need to binge on some tv to take my mind off of everything. You guys don’t mind if I leave early?”
    “Yeah,” I said, “It’s been a long week so I don’t blame you.”
    “It’s only Wednesday” Lisa said.
    “Like she said, long week.”
    “I’m going then.” Lisa said shouldering her bag. “I’ll email you if I have any questions.”
    “We have 30 more minutes here.” I said to the remaining members.
    “I’ve lost my drive to work.” Jack said.
    He closed his laptop and pulled up his headphones.
    Aaron resumed typing. “I’m going to keep working on formatting the reference slide.”
    The three of us sat in the room all staring at something different. Jack focused on the wall, I stared at my empty screen, and Aaron focused on his slides. The only sound that could be heard was the fans, Aaron’s graceful typing, and the music coming from Jack’s headphones. It was very faint making the barely audible lyrics sound similar to English, but alien.

    1. Ooh, nice poetic punch at the end here. Great job making the exercise work into your story!

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    1. (Realized I made a typo.)

      “Mother was distant,” Grandma said. “Sometimes I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her. Anything to make her angry, you know? I’d shake her and she’d have to react. I wouldn’t hurt her of course.”
      She tilted her head to the side. It seemed to bend far beyond where it should. Then she rolled her shoulders back and sighed as they popped, her posture relaxing.
      “Maybe I should eat something. Maybe I’m just hungry. Maybe I should get started on dinner.”
      “I could eat,” I said. “I bought some beef from Nijiya Market today, and sliced it thin like you like for okazu.”
      “You pre-sliced the meat?” Mom asked.
      “I did,” I said. “I figured Baachan would want to make something easy.”
      “I’ll get it out of the fridge,” Mom said.
      But she didn’t get up. She did not move, not even to brush her hair out of her face.
      Grandma sagged into the couch. She sighed.
      “I’m tired,” Grandma said.
      Mom said, “It’s ok.”
      I stood, and helped my mother to her feet. I could feel the bones in her wrist shift under her skin. I felt her skin wither and thin under my fingers. I could feel her aging under my watch, her joints growing stiff and arthritic. I guided her to the couch.

    2. Lovely close here. Really nice. I loved how you worked the exercise into your previous story.

  4. “She’s happy now,” Grandma said. “Sometimes I know getting out was for the best, but she’s my baby. You know, I always wanted the best for her, but I just thought that the best could be here with family at least? I wonder if it was all worth it sometimes. I ask myself, “Did I do enough? Did I show her a life doesn’t have to always have a purpose?” Living is enough. And I want her to know that.”

    Grandma grabbed the champagne glass with a shaky hand. It seemed to take her forever to let it meet her lips. Then she didn’t let the liquid touch her tongue, she lowered it just as slow, placed her hand on the table, and stared off into the people dancing in the middle of the room.

    “Maybe I won’t come to visit you both in California. Maybe it’s best I stay put. Maybe I am too old to travel. Would you be mad?”

    “I love California,” I said. “We could see whales at Sea World. Or go to the beach and collect sand crabs.”

    “The smell of ocean air is magical,” Grandma said.

    “We could drive together. You don’t have to fly if you’re scared, it’s not far. We’re just by the Blockbuster,” I said. “Not that far.”

    “My bones hurt all the time. I don’t know,” Grandma said.

    “I fall asleep and it makes it faster,” I said.

    “My bones hurt, maybe later.”

    We were the only silent ones. A tear slid down my grandma’s cheek. Even with the drum of music and people’s feet marching along in some dance, I could hear the single tear like a tap on a brass bell. Silently deafening. I stayed there until my mom stumbled over to the table with a drink in hand, saying we were leaving because Aunt Sugar was leaving too.


  5. “He’s deceitful.” Jess said. “Sometimes I imagine I’ll go up to him when he’s alone in the basement. You know, the one that he’s ‘working in’ in all the time? I would be surprised if he was actually there. If he is, I’ll grab two fistfuls of the glossy black locks atop his head -- the very top, but close to his forehead-- and rip it downwards to expose his true flesh. I expect to find a completely new human unknown to me beneath his skin. In fact, I’d be surprised if he bleeds. But first I’d make sure that he was actually there.
    She turned away from the window. It seemed hard to pull away from. Then she lowered herself to her knees and curled up, arms around her shins, chin to her chest.
    “Maybe he still loves me, after all. Maybe I should be more understanding. Maybe we’ll stay in tonight. Is that okay?”
    “Sure, Jess,” I said. “Or we could go to that art store you like.”
    “They close in twenty minutes,” Michelle said.
    “So? We can get there in time to look around at least. They always let us stay past closing.”
    “I could pick up paints from my house,” Michelle said. “I don’t live far. It’ll take me five minutes. I’ll be back soon.”
    “Or we could just drive,” I said.
    “We can take my car,” Sandy said.
    But she didn’t reach for her keys.
    Michelle stood up. “I’ll go get my paints.”
    “What’s the point,” Sandy said.
    I could feel the floor creaking as Jess rocked herself ever so slightly. I could feel the house settling beneath each one of us. I could feel the essence of all of us enveloping our minds, constantly fidgeting, until the sun rose.

    - Elizabeth S.

    1. Lovely poetic punch at the end, here. Really nice work.

  6. “It’s fine,” Steven said. “This is a normal amount of blood. I don’t think there is any reason to call the cops, don’t you think? The blurry vision is from the knock to the head, not the bleeding. I think if I just sit here for a second, I’ll be just fine.”

    He gingerly pressed the towel I gave him up to the side of his head. It seemed to turn red entirely quicker than possible. Then he tried to sit up, but wobbled and tipped forward onto his face where he could see his ear laying under the futon.

    “Maybe you should call 911. Maybe I probably deserve it for breaking in. Maybe they can reattach it. Hey, do you think you could get me a cup of water?”

    “Um, ok,” I said. “Actually, I think I could find some vodka to disinfect your ear.”
    “Are you kidding? This guy just broke into the house,”Sheila said.
    “Well, yeah. But we know Steve. I mean, Christ, how long have we known Steve?”
    “I don’t think we have vodka,” Sheila said. “I have gin. Do you think that would work?”
    “”What? Gross, I don’t know,” I said as I opened all the drawers. “Sheila, where are those little zipper bags?”
    “What do we need that for?” Sheila said.
    Steve wasn’t moving anymore.
    Sheila opened the lazy susan behind me. “Oh right, for the ear.”
    “I don’t think it matters anymore,” I said.

    My heart was fluttering rapidly. Behind me, Sheila’s heart sounded more steady. As I stepped closer to Steven, the anticipated beat was absent. I leaned over his body, and even though it seemed to soon, the body seemed too cold. Sheila hugged me from behind, but her warmth did little to stop my shivering.

    -Logan O.

    1. Oh my heck I LOVED this. Great job. I want to see this story!


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