That tightrope moment in writing when stories either plummet or remain

Any story that’s going to be any good is usually going to change.

Seesaw

I’ve been reading Alice Munro again. There was a point when I suddenly became afraid of the day I’d read all her stories and no more were going to come, so I stopped buying her collections and tried to leave it. But you can’t leave Alice Munro, which is odd because at the beginning I couldn’t get on with her writing at all. This was when I was starting out myself, submitting stories to competitions – reading as much advice as I could about how to create a winning entry: opening with a bang, giving your characters conflict. But that’s not how to write a real short story, something that drifts through your brain so that the sense of reading it is more like an experience than any actual awareness of words being involved, which is why I realise Alice Munro has such a gift.

Trees

Comma Press have some guidelines on their website: ‘short stories are all about their endings. A short story IS an ending. If that’s not in place, there’s nothing there.’

Their advice about the stories they don’t want manages to give a healthy, necessary education as well as suggesting the way a writer might find a way through rules to their own voice.

This is what Alice Munro did for me. It was ‘Walker Brothers Cowboy’ and I remember a blood transfusion of relief, replacing the hemmed-in sensation that the formulaic ways to write a short story had left me with. The grey of denial has been lifted. I could now love Alice Munro’s work and at the same time admit my own limitations – allowing myself a possible chance to finally write the kind of stories I’d always wanted.

I have a feeling of how I want these pieces to be – though I still spend a great deal of time, waiting for the words to come. It feels like skimming off that frothy junk when boiling jam, knowing there is no shortcut or fast forward – you simply have to wait by the pan, watching what comes to the surface, discarding, watching, discarding, watching until finally you can put it in a jar. But, even then, you may have to wait a few months to give the jam its first tasting, and you may discover there’s too much lemon rind, but at least the next time you know to be a little lighter when adding zest.

As Alice Munro says in an interview with the Paris Review:

I could be writing away one day and think I’ve done very well; I’ve done more pages than I usually do. Then I get up the next morning and realize I don’t want to work on it anymore. When I have a terrible reluctance to go near it, when I would have to push myself to continue, I generally know that something is badly wrong. Often, in about three quarters of what I do, I reach a point somewhere, fairly early on, when I think I’m going to abandon this story. I get myself through a day or two of bad depression, grouching around. And I think of something else I can write. It’s sort of like a love affair: you’re getting out of all the disappointment and misery by going out with some new man you don’t really like at all, but you haven’t noticed that yet. Then, I will suddenly come up with something about the story that I abandoned; I will see how to do it. But that only seems to happen after I’ve said, No, this isn’t going to work, forget it.

 Broken down van

Last year, I went in search of Alice Munro. It was a pilgrimage of sorts – I hoped to connect with the spirit of her stories and thus find a way of understanding mine. Walking through Goderich, along the snowy Meneseteung trail (past the salt mines), I journeyed through the landscape, which possibly bore ‘Meneseteung’. This is a story that looks back at the life of Victorian poet Almeda Roth, but also allows Alice Munro a presence as well, giving a sense of a writer’s urge to discover, create – and even a glimpse into that tightrope moment in writing when decisions are made, and stories either plummet or remain.

All notion of form falls away when I’m reading Alice Munro. I’m not looking at a certain way of portraying life, techniques – spotting a use of suspense, or a trick to lure my heart into the story. I am simply looking, passing through. There’s nothing to snag on, no cheap tactics. ‘An editor who thought nothing happened in William Maxwell’s stories, for example, would be of no use to me,’ Alice Munro said. ‘There also has to be a very sharp eye for the ways that I could be deceiving myself.

Her stories are rather like dreams. There is often something significant about the last part because it’s the moment you most often remember – but there is also a strong sense that there is more. Even if you wake at that final second, you are unable to stop thinking about the dream, during the day, about what might have happened – what might still be happening. And just as the way dreams start, so do Alice’s stories: in the middle of an underwater breath: you are working towards surfacing, but are also aware that there was the whole, taking a breath and coming under in the first place.

image

The stories mentioned in this review can all be found in ‘Selected Stories‘ – a gorgeous  collection that is published by Vintage Books.

Many thanks to Eric M. Vogt for awarding my short story ‘The Soft Haze of Mystery‘ the First Cup award. His blog is well worth a look.

About gabrielablandy

Some history, a bit of fiction, with me in there somewhere.
This entry was posted in Essay, Memoir and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to That tightrope moment in writing when stories either plummet or remain

  1. Judith Marriott says:

    Hi Gabs – You make me want to read Alice Munro!!! It was nice to have contact with you. I gather you have a wonderful new job – I’d love to hear about it sometime. Do email me much love Ju xx

  2. Beautiful piece, as usual. I’ve never read any Alice Munro, but if your writing is a reflection and absorption of her talents, I need to. Apparently William Maxwell should be on my list as well. Thank you Gabs!

  3. There is a tense, short story written by Alice Munro that I can’t get out of my head~ Runaway. The little goat, Flora, that disappears and reappears at a pivotal moment in the story is haunting. I keep wondering about what might have happened, what would happen in the future. Eerie, beautiful!
    Alice Munro is a gift to the universe!

    • There is something about Alice’s stories that refuse to leave you. She somehow manages to transfer her own preoccupation to the reader. Lovely little piece their about Runaway.

  4. I remember reading that wonderful piece about your pilgrimage to find Alice Munro and the unexpected path it took you down. I started to read a collection of her stories some time ago, because she’s considered such a good example of the form, but didn’t like them as much I thought I would – I think I’ll have to get that book down again and give it another go. It’s also interesting to read about her self-doubt, given her reputation.

    • I guess it goes to show that reputation isn’t always enough to keep doubt away. I’m so glad you like the other piece about Alice Munro. I do find when I am travelling I am always kept company by the thought of people reading about the ideas that are coming in!

  5. Ellen says:

    I love Alice Munro & the tightrope moment you shared. Can so relate. You’ve inspired me to read a little Alice Munro before bedtime tonight. I haven’t read her stories in a few yrs, when I was immersed in short story writing. A lovely ripple effect tonight. Thank you!

    • How gorgeous, Ellen. I wonder how you get on with your night time reading. I often find that if I hit a wall in my own writing that reading one of Alice’s stories creates a sort of dislodging for me.

  6. I’m sure she would be very proud and chuffed to see what you have written about her. I have not read her, but your description is quite tantalising. :-) x

    • It’s funny because since I stalked her last year I have begun to imagine her reading about all the writing that has come out of the pilgrimage, and whether my admiration for her would simply be just like all her other fans. It’s nice to think that just for a moment someone thinks this is special enough to be noticed by her. Thanks x

  7. diannegray says:

    I’m going on an Alice Munro pilgrimage before bedtime tonight.

    Short story writing is a true art. When I stopped writing short stories and moved to novels I thought – wow, novels are a breeze compared to short stories! ;)

    • You’re the second bedtime inspiration. Everyone will be dreaming of Alice!
      ps – I wish I found novel-writing a breeze. Am trying to stretch to a novella and feeling a little ‘unfit’ at the distance.

  8. Chris Edgar says:

    Good to see you back, Gabriela. I hope we will be treated to more of your own short stories soon.

  9. Renee Benson says:

    This is gorgeous! I love Alice Munroe, and it’s incredible that you walked the path of “Meneseteung”! I wish her style was the popular formula, ha!

  10. cathum says:

    Beautifully described. Really enjoyed this. Thank you.

  11. Jen says:

    Alice Munro grows on you. At least on me. An acquired taste I needed to mature into

  12. “Her stories are rather like dreams.” What a beautiful compliment to the writer, and something that very much peaks my interest. Going on an Alice Munro exploration soon!

  13. Jim says:

    Hi Gabriela, always good to read Alice Munro – or just read about her. I have, in my very occasional blog, a piece on one of her later stories, ‘Dimension’, that might interest you – although it isn’t a short piece :) Jim

  14. A very meaningful post. I have had some trouble getting into some of Alice Munro’s work, but I am going to go back now and take a second look.

  15. Pingback: Writing isn’t just about having an idea – you have to know what to do with it | Gabriela Blandy – The sense of a journey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s