Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group
What It Used to Be Like

What It Used to Be Like

A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver

Maryann Burk Carver

St. Martin's Press




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.


Chapter One

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...


Praise for What It Used to Be Like

“Ray Carver had a brilliant and heartbreakingly brief career. Eighteen years after his death, we still miss him like crazy. Maryann Carver, his first wife, tells the story of how she and he fell through the ice with honesty and considerable courage.” —William Kittredge, author of Hole in the Sky and The Best Short Stories of William Kittredge

“The marriage between Ray Carver and Maryann Burk, which commenced when they were teenagers and lasted twenty-five years, was absurd, tenacious, and sometimes cruel. There was much partying and aimless wandering. Unfathomable decisions were made. Yet the marriage was also the bedrock beneath a small earthquake in the American short story. A humble agent transubstantiational in its effect. This is a dear, sturdy, disarming memoir that proves, at the very least, that even dead eighteen years, the masterful Ray Carver knows how to keep the love of a good woman.” —Joy Williams, author of The Quick and the Dead and Honored Guest

“A testimony of a marriage as well as a portrait of an artist before becoming 'The Author.' It is the story of the hunger for education, the necessity of art, in the lives of the working poor. I hope it helps dispel myths about working-class writers, about the creative/destructive spirit, about violence and love. For folks who live paycheck to paycheck, for readers whose books are all stamped 'Property of the Public Library,' this story is only too familiar.” —Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street and Caramelo

“Good writers write what they know, but great writers show us what they know to be true. Raymond and Maryann Burk Carver dared to be great in America and, in the end, both paid a terrible price. 'It's an amazing life, and amazing life,' Raymond Carver once said. Indeed it was. And it will break your heart because, like all great stories, it is true.” —Diane Smith, author of Letters from Yellowstone and Pictures from an Expedition

“Raymond Carver is one of the very best writers of the late twentieth century. He met his first wife, Maryann Burk, when he was seventeen and she was fifteen. Her memoir of their nearly twenty-five years together is an incredible account not only of their relationship but also of Carver's development as a writer. It is indispensable to anyone who cares about Carvers' work.” —Stephen Dobyns, author of Mystery, So Long

“Legendary writer Raymond Carver's struggle for recognition, his alcoholism, and his relationship with fellow writer Tess Gallagher in the years leading up to his death at age 50 are well documented, unlike his 27-year marriage to Maryann Burk Carver. Now, at long last, Maryann tells her story. She was a bright 15-year-old with her eye on law school in 1955 when she met Raymond, who at 17 already wanted to be a writer. Madly in love, the young couple married when Maryann became pregnant just before her high-school graduation. Soon they had two children--so much for law school. Maryann worked full time while Raymond attended college, wrote, and worked. Poor and intrepid, they lived an exhaustingly nomadic life. As she relates her compelling tale of love and sacrifice with candor and dignity, Maryann portrays a great American writer, illuminates a key chapter in the history of American literature, and presents powerful testimony to the dark side of both creativity and working-class life. Her exacting memoir also presents an unsparing chronicle of entrenched sexism, as well as the boundless joys and demands of marriage and parenthood.” —Booklist

“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, his first 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.” —Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

Maryann Burk Carver

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

Maryann Burk Carver

From the Publisher

St. Martin's Press

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