Any story that’s going to be any good is usually going to change.
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.
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.
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.
The stories mentioned in this review can all be found in ‘Selected Stories‘ – a gorgeous collection that is published by Vintage Books.