Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What a writer does

During recent bouts of insomnia, I've been reading through Alice Munro's Selected Stories. Unfortunately, the stories don't put me to sleep.

I'm always surprised when I mention Munro to people and they admit that they've never heard of her, despite her repeated publications in the New Yorker and her short story collections. (But I hadn't hear of her myself until John Morris, during a workshop at the Writers Center years ago, told us to read Munro to learn the craft of short story writing.)

Perhaps it was because I was reading at 2 a.m., but the description of what a writer does/is, near the end of the story, "Material," seemed so profound that I sat up in my recliner. In the story, the first-person narrator is looking back on her previous marriage to a writer/professor. He has taken a character they both knew during their marriage and turned her into a short story, an act, the narrator says, where the woman has been:

...lifted out of life and held in light, suspended in the marvelous, clear jelly that Hugo has spent all his life learning how to make. It is an act of magic... of a special, unsparing, unsentimental love. ...(She) is a lucky person... to have this done to her, though she doesn't know what has been done and wouldn't care for it, probably, if she did know. She has passed into Art. It doesn't happen to everybody.

(I would excerpt more from the passage, but I worry about Fair Use/copyright restrictions, and I don't want to give away too much of the story's end).

The wonderful irony of the story is that the narrator has turned the writer/ex-husband into material for her own story, transforming him into art as well.

Munro is a master of succinct, eloquent description, of writing about people you think you already know. "Material" includes an opening passage about writers/professors that, though published in 1973, still seems true today:

Girls, and women too, fall in love with such men; they imagine there is power in them.

(The wives of these men aren't in the audience where the men are reading, they)... are buying groceries or cleaning up messes... They have to remember to get the snow tires on and go to the bank... because their husbands are such brilliant, such talented incapable men, who must be looked after for the sake of the words that will come from them.

How wonderful that Munro, whether she had been one of those women in her first marriage (she divorced the year before this story was published) or had been feeling jealous of male writers—or whatever experience really spurred this story, she was able to convert those feelings into Art.

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