Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Writing Inspiration: Alice Munro on Writing

 As you've doubtless heard, the Nobel Prize-winning short story writer Alice Munro died this week at the age of 92.   I can't add anything to the obituary except to say her stuff is great; go read it.

The Paris Review has opened access to its interview with her, and there are, not surprisingly, gems in there about the writing life (below, with a few comments):  https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1791/the-art-of-fiction-no-137-alice-munro

1. On Henry James: 

Do you ever revise a story after it’s been published? Apparently, before he died, Proust rewrote the first volumes of Remembrance of Things Past.

MUNRO

Yes, and Henry James rewrote simple, understandable stuff so it was obscure and difficult.

Comment: Yes. Yes, he did. THANK you. 

2. On having a regular writing time: 

Have you ever had a specific time to write?

MUNRO

When the kids were little, my time was as soon as they left for school. So I worked very hard in those years. My husband and I owned a bookstore, and even when I was working there, I stayed at home until noon. I was supposed to be doing housework, and I would also do my writing then. Later on, when I wasn’t working everyday in the store, I would write until everybody came home for lunch and then after they went back, probably till about two-thirty, and then I would have a quick cup of coffee and start doing the housework, trying to get it all done before late afternoon. [There's more in the interview.]

3. On notebooks:

You use notebooks?

MUNRO

I have stacks of notebooks that contain this terribly clumsy writing, which is just getting anything down. I often wonder, when I look at these first drafts, if there was any point in doing this at all.

Comment: This totally justifies the three Leuchtterm 1917 notebooks I just ordered by mistake on Amazon. 

4. On creative writing classes: 

Because you didn’t like teaching fiction?

MUNRO

No! It was terrible. This was 1973. York was one of the more radical Canadian universities, yet my class was all male except for one girl who hardly got to speak. They were doing what was fashionable at the time, which had to do with being both incomprehensible and trite; they seemed intolerant of anything else.

Comment: Um. I'll just leave that hanging out there & hope that creative writing classes are no longer like this. 

It was good for me to learn to shout back and express some ideas about writing that I hadn’t sharpened up before, but I didn’t know how to reach them, how not to be an adversary. Maybe I’d know now. But it didn’t seem to have anything to do with writing—more like good training for going into television or something, getting really comfortable with clichés.

 Comment: To the creative writing bros: You want some salve for that burn? 

5. On renting a space to write, as John Updike & others have done:

That seems reminiscent of your early story “The Office”: the woman who rents an office in order to write and is so distracted by her landlord she eventually has to move out.

MUNRO

That was written because of a real experience. I did get an office, and I wasn’t able to write anything there at all—except that story. The landlord did bug me all the time, but even when he stopped I couldn’t work. This has happened anytime I’ve had a setup for writing, an office. . . . So I had all this time, and I was in this office, and I would just sit there thinking. I couldn’t reach anything; I meant to, but it was paralyzing.

6. On her current writing practices:

INTERVIEWER

We didn’t ask you questions about your writing day. How many days a week do you actually write?

MUNRO

I write every morning, seven days a week. I write starting about eight o’clock and finish up around eleven. Then I do other things the rest of the day, unless I do my final draft or something that I want to keep working on then I’ll work all day with little breaks. 

INTERVIEWER

Are you rigid about that schedule, even if there’s a wedding or some other required event?

MUNRO

I am so compulsive that I have a quota of pages. If I know that I am going somewhere on a certain day, I will try to get those extra pages done ahead of time. That’s so compulsive, it’s awful. But I don’t get too far behind, it’s as if I could lose it somehow.

Comment: Tell us the quota! For Updike, it was three pages a day; for Graham Greene, 500 words.  Tell us to inspire/shame us into matching you.

7. And finally, on walking: 

How much do you walk?

MUNRO

Three miles every day, so if I know I’m going to miss a day, I have to make it up. I watched my father go through this same thing. You protect yourself by thinking if you have all these rituals and routines then nothing can get you.

 The entire interview is worth reading, but for now, I have to go walk my three miles so nothing can get me.

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