Saturday, July 15, 2006

Alice Munro on How She Writes a Story

Alice Munro on how she writes a story:

So when I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure. This is the hard part of the explanation, where I have to use a word like “feeling,” which is not very precise, because if I attempt to be more intellectually respectable I will have to be dishonest. “Feeling” will have to do.

There is no blueprint for the structure. It’s not a question of, “I’ll make this kind of house because if I do it right it will have this effect.” I’ve got to make, I’ve got to build up, a house, a story, to fit around the indescribable “feeling” that is like the soul of the story, and which I must insist upon in a dogged, embarrassed way, as being no more definable than that. And I don’t know where it comes from. It seems to be already there, and some unlikely clue, such as a shop window or a bit of conversation, makes me aware of it. Then I start accumulating the material and putting it together. Some of the material I may have lying around already, in memories and observations, and some I invent, and some I have to go diligently looking for (factual details), while some is dumped in my lap (anecdotes, bits of speech). I see how this material might go together to make the shape I need, and I try it. I keep trying and seeing where I went wrong and trying again.

From Alice Munro, “What is Real?” (1982); reproduced in Dana Gioia & R.S. Gwynn, eds., The Art of the Short Story: 52 Great Authors, Their Best Short Fiction, and Their Insights on Writing (2006).


litlove said...

Such an interesting quote - but do you think this approach would only be possible with a short story, rather than a novel? Or is Alice Munro discussing novels too?

Kate S. said...


Munro only writes short stories, so that's the form she's referring to. She's written a couple of collections of linked short stories, one of which was marketed as a novel, but really she's never strayed from the short story. It occurred to me as I read this quotation that her description of her process may provide the answer to the question of why she's never written a novel. I'm trying to make the shift from stories to a novel myself at the moment and it seems to me that the two forms require very different writing processes. While Munro's approach clearly produces amazing short stories, I can't imagine it working for a novel. It seems to me that you'd get lost in your material. Then again, many of Munro's stories are novel-like in scope--very rich and complex--and clearly she never loses control of her material there. I'd be interested to hear views from the novelists out there on this one.