How Does She Do It? The Mysterious Brilliance of Alice Munro

I once read an interview with novelist Jonathan Lethem, in which he said that if you read one book a week, that meant you’d read fifty books a year.  Multiply that by the number of years you think you have left to live, and that’s how many books you get to read for the rest of your life.

Which makes picking the next book you want to read a pretty weighty decision.

As I get older, I get a bit pickier about the fiction I choose to read, not only because of the mathematical equation above, but also because the writers I read are my colleagues and teachers.  I read for pleasure, but also for instruction and inspiration.  And hopefully for that rare chill you experience when you read a passage of writing that strikes a chord of human recognition, when a writer manages to hit upon a deeply human moment that reminds us of what it is to be alive.

There are plenty of good books out there, plenty of fine writers.  But how often is it that you read something that makes you stop where you are and blush because you see yourself, and not always in the most flattering light?  You think, I’ve felt that way.  I’ve done that.  I’ve been there.  And sometimes, I wish I hadn’t, though I have to admit that I have.

I suppose it’s almost a cliche for a fiction writer and a teacher of writing to rave about Alice Munro, but that’s what I’m doing here, because she’s one of the few writers alive who so regularly strikes that proverbial chord in every book I’ve read of hers.  I recently finished reading an early collection by Munro titled Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, and as I put it down, I asked myself:  How does she do it?  Why is she so brilliant?  And, selfishly, how can I capture some of that magic?

From a technical standpoint, her craft is unmistakeable on every page, the word choices, the telling details, the characterization, the structure of her stories.  If you’re a student of writing, you couldn’t go very far wrong in studying her work to learn about craft.

But then there’s something else.  Something that I’m not entirely sure can be taught or even learned.  It’s wisdom.  The stories of Alice Munro, though they are not didactic lessons, are incredibly wise.  Flannery O’Connor once said that the meaning of the story can’t be reduced to a sentence, that the whole reason for a story being a story is because it’s an experience that can’t be shared in any other form but the one it takes.  Munro’s stories are like that.  Each one plunges you into a strange experience, sometimes skipping back and forth through time, sometimes jumping from one seemingly insignificant scene to another, according to a pattern that only seems random–until at the end of her stories, the underlying structure comes rushing into focus.

It’s a bit like life.  What does it all mean?  Hard to say, but you can bet that that sense of meaning becomes clearer only when you’re closer to the end of the story than the beginning.

Why Writers Love to Hate the MFA

This morning, my husband told me there was an article about MFA programs and why they’re controversial among writers in the New York Times.  “Is it that time of year again?” I groaned.

Just as we can count on spring to follow winter or gas prices to rise after they fall, so too can we depend on a periodic regurgitation of some variation of the “Is it worth it?” MFA article to appear in a publication near you.

In fact, I found the Times piece interesting and informative, telling us not just what this debate is about but also questioning why it even is a debate.

On the other hand, I found many of the comments left by readers somewhat less informative, full of the usual vitriol that MFA-haters reserve for people who commit the dastardly crime of pursuing their love of writing within an academic setting.

Here are some of the charges leveled at MFA programs.

1.  They’re cookie-cutter machines, stamping out writers who are all exactly alike.  Yeah, like Michael Chabon, Lorrie Moore, Junot Diaz, David Foster Wallace, Edwidge Danticat, Nathan Englander, Karen Russell…  I guess those writers are all exactly alike.

2.  You could learn everything you learn at an MFA program on your own.  True, though it would probably take you much longer to do so unless you’re very disciplined and very gifted.

3.  Not everyone who gets an MFA gets published.  Not everyone who gets an agent gets a book deal.  Not everyone who gets a book deal actually gets their book published.  Not everyone who get gets their book published gets their book published successfully.

The aphorism “I never promised you a rose garden” applies here.  No MFA program should promise any student anything beyond an education.  By the way, MBA programs should also refrain from making those kinds of promises.

4.  Some of the teachers at MFA programs aren’t good at their jobs.  Some of the students at MFA programs aren’t serious.  Some of the students who get MFAs are unhappy with their program.  Name me one thing in life that scores a 100% satisfaction rate.  Some teachers are better at their craft than others.  Some students go to MFA programs though they would probably do better in some other educational model.  Not every match is a perfect one.  Why should that tarnish the experience of other students–even, yes, unpublished ones–who were happy with their MFA programs?

5.  The reason to get an MFA is to make connections or get an agent to take you seriously.  I’ve worked in publishing.  I know plenty of people who work in publishing.  If they think your project can make them money, they are going to take it on regardless of whether you can claim to have an MFA.  And there are plenty of ways to make connections that don’t involve getting an MFA.  Go to conferences, attend book parties and schmooze, work in the publishing industry, become an active freelance writer, on and on…

6.  MFA programs are too expensive and they can leave you in debt.  Yes, they can (unless you get a fellowship).

Once I met a Dutch video artist, and I asked him what he did for work.  “Work?” he said, startled, as if he hadn’t yet learned that word in his otherwise fluid English.  “I get grants from the government.  Every year, they give me a new grant to make art.”

Let’s be real here.  We live in a highly capitalist country that does not give annual grants to people to make art.  Publishers are not charities–and neither are universities, sadly.

The rule of caveat emptor applies here.  If you think you can’t handle the costs of an MFA program (which by the way, include living expenses), then maybe that program isn’t the right one for you.  When performing these calculations, don’t bet on a six-figure book deal at the end of it to bail you out.

My Conclusion:

I’ve been a student and a professor in MFA programs, and basically, here’s the deal.  MFA programs are composed of writers who’ve had some success and are now passing on what they’ve learned to other writers who want to get better at what they do.

I have no vested interest in any student of mine writing in the way that I write.  In fact, if anything, I should have a vested interest in having them write differently from the way that I write–less competition that way.

There are other ways I could make money, but I choose to teach because I’m so grateful for what I was taught, for the mentors who were so kind and helpful to me, and I aspire to pass that same help on to others.  And I’m always learning, all the time, how to be a better writer and a better teacher, from my students.  I don’t think I’ve perfected either vocation yet, but I keep trying.

I remember talking once with a friend who couldn’t understand homophobia.  “What’s the big deal?” he asked.  “If you don’t like homosexuality, then don’t be a homosexual.”  I would say the same philosophy works for MFA programs.  If they’re not for you, then don’t go to one!  Easy.  So then why all this fuss?

My suspicion is that just as many homophobes are people who have unrealistic notions of sexuality in general, people who waste their time harboring grudges against MFA programs are people with unrealistic and overly romanticized notions of the way art is made.  Maybe the true object of their bitterness is not a way of learning but life itself because it has not conformed to their starry-eyed dreams of how they hoped it would turn out.


I Still Pick You

There’s an anniversary card on my desk, from my husband, upon the second year mark of our marriage (and the thirteen-year mark of our relationship).  It reads:

“I still pick you.”

That message is a good summation of my relationship to my career in writing.  Norman Mailer once said about being a writer, “You’re there to be shot at, and that’s part of it.” True in his time, and true in ours, when there are so many new ways a writer can get shot at.  Why list them all here?

Occasionally I get tired of being shot at, so I give up writing.  I try different careers.  I give my journal and my drafts in progress the cold shoulder.  I pretend my bookshelf, crowded with beloved texts, is only an element of my interior decor.  I spend hours baking elaborate desserts.

And then eventually, I crawl back to working with words.  I read something that moves me to want to return to the conversation.  Or I’m struck by a thought or an image that I want to explore through language.  It’s as if when I pick up my pen, I’m righting a universe that’s gone awry.  How many other careers give you the chance to do that?

The other day, I standing at the front desk of a discount brokerage firm.  Usually CNBC is playing on the flat screen television on the wall, blaring out facts and figures at high volume, but on that day, the cable wasn’t working.

“It’s actually kind of nice not to have those guys yelling at me all day,” said the man working at the desk.

It occurred to me:  there are worse ways to spend your life than sitting in a quiet room, trying to string words and sentences together.

So, writing, after all these years, after all these ups and many more downs, after a lifetime of anguish and self-doubt and occasional inspiration and exhilaration, I still pick you.

Should I Get an MFA?

A number of people have been asking me this question recently–is it worth it for me to get an MFA?  I was wondering about this sudden flurry of questions about it until it dawned on me that of course, application deadlines are looming.

So here is what I think.

I’m an MFA graduate myself, from Columbia (about a decade ago), and I absolutely loved my program and my experience there.  I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I should also note that I received several fellowships and some help from parents, so I was able to graduate debt-free.  Also, I was determined to soak up as much as I could as a student, do I any time there was homework, I did it even when I didn’t understand why it had been assigned.  If a professor recommended a book, I read it, even if I didn’t enjoy it or see the value in it at the time.  I went to readings and panels and presentations and applied for internships.  In short, I learned–and I felt alive.

I do believe that anything you learn in an MFA program you can learn on your own, but that it would require a great deal more time and a lot of self-discipline and initiative.  To make up for the conversation you’re not having with other writers, some published and some who will be, you would need to read book reviews and literary journals and literary blogs.  And you’d need to read extensively, what’s classic as well as what’s current, in your genre and out of it.  Be an equal opportunity seeker of inspiration.  (Fiction writers, are you reading poetry?  Poets, are you reading science fiction and thrillers?)

The other thing an MFA program can give you as a community that can develop into a network of friends and colleagues whom you can reach out to for support and informed critique.  Again, you could look for these people on your own, but if an emerging writer were to contact me and ask me to read their 300-page novel, I’m much more likely to say yes if that person is a student of mine than if she’s someone I’ve never met.

MFAs are not for everyone and not all MFA programs are for everyone.  If you’re on the fence about going, here are some considerations:

1.  What kind of MFA program can you afford, and what kind of location can you afford to live in while you’re there in school?

2.  What is the program of study at the programs you’re considering?  What do they offer besides critiques of your work?  (Just as influential if not more than getting your work read and marked up is studying the works of others who’ve gone before you.)  What opportunities are there to learn about other genres of writing?  (You’d be surprised to know that if you become a published author or a teacher of writing, you’ll have to know a little something about other genres.  I often find myself teaching non-fiction, journalism, composition, even poetry.)

3.  Are there opportunities to teach or edit a magazine or intern in some way?

4.  Once they accept you, is your program offering you any kind of fellowship or stipend?  Do they call you and/or return your calls when you ask about your acceptance?  Do they make you feel wanted, or do they make you feel like you’re just filling out the class so they can teach the students they really want?

Here are some things I wouldn’t worry about or would worry about differently:

1.  Who’s on the faculty.  Faculty often come and go, and that shining star you dreamed of meeting may be gone by the time you get there, or may be so besieged by students you may not meet her or may turn out to be a stuck-up jerk.  Worry instead about the teaching philosophy of the program, the type of people who teach there and how they’re encouraged to teach rather than who specifically is there.

2.  Is my program famous?  A degree from a nationally renowned program can look good on an agent query letter, but that’s about it.  I used to work for an agent, reading query letters from prospective writers, and we might take a second look at a query from a grad of one of these programs, but we rejected plenty of them.  On a regular basis.  Worry instead about the vibe of the program.  Would you be happy there?  Would you fit in there?  If the classes they offer and the type of faculty who are there and the types of students who are there seem right to you, then you’ll probably learn a lot, whether the program has a famous name or not.

3.  Will I meet literary agents while I’m there?  Please.  Meeting an agent is not a guarantee of getting one, and meeting one too soon, when you and/or your work isn’t ready, can be soul-crushing.  Remember, you’re there for one thing:  to learn.

4.  Am I too old to go to an MFA program?  The right question is, am I too young–by which I’m not talking about chronological age but mindset.  Am I too inexperienced, too closed to new ideas, too rigid in my thinking?

Finally, consider both traditional and low-residency programs (full disclosure, I teach at a wonderful low-res program called Stonecoast).  You may be able to keep much of what you like about your life as it is currently, get more individual attention, and pay less by going the low-res route.

Talking and Writing

This month, I filmed a cooking video to accompany my article in Poets & Writers on the links between fiction and food writing.  As a somewhat avid consumer of cooking videos (and like most writers, a tad narcissistic) I was curious to see the final product.

I loved the video itself, which was cut and spliced in an entertaining way I could never have imagined while the filming itself was taking place.  After having been there and then seeing how the filmmaker cut up and reorganized the actual events, I feel like I’ve had a lesson in the art of storytelling.

Seeing and hearing myself talk reminded me of what Flannery O’Connor said about reading her own writing, that it’s like chewing the carpet.  Is that what I sound like?  Is that what my face looks like when I talk?

Maybe if I were ten or more years younger and continually posting pictures and videos of myself on various social media, I might not be so shocked.  Something to keep in mind as I write characters of various ages…

Rereading Mrs. Bridge

I’m currently working on an article for Poets & Writers Magazine about some of the technical innovations of a novel that’s been highly influential on my own work:  Mrs. Bridge. I was motivated to write about the book after its author, Evan S. Connell, recently passed away. As I’ve been studying the book’s craft, however, I’ve been struck by how differently the book’s content reads to me as a man approaching middle age.

I first read Mrs. Bridge as a teenager, then chafing against what I saw as the limits of suburban life. Encountering the book then, I read it as a warning against succumbing to middle class mores. It was almost like a sermon about the dangers of leading a conventional life and the emptiness of just going along to get along. The novel’s heroine, an increasingly bored and frustrated Midwestern housewife who’s so lost she doesn’t even recognize her own despair, seemed to me a model of everything I didn’t want to be.

Reading the book now, however, I recognize in Mrs. Bridge’s dissatisfaction and depression a bit of my own, a bit of everyone’s in fact. The lives of an artist and of a housewife, it turns out, are not so dissimilar. In fact, I wonder if as we get older, all our lives take on a similar hue. We question how we’ve wound up where we are. Have we taken the right path? Are we really useful to anyone besides ourselves? Why, in our spare moments, do we feel so frighteningly bored?

Therein lies part of the genius of this novel: that if you read it carefully, you’ll see that everyone in it is a little bit lost.  Even the seemingly liberated character of Ruth, Mrs. Bridge’s daughter, who lives in New York, works with gay people on a literary magazine, and sleeps with whomever she chooses, experiences a subtle sense of regret about her life’s choices–so subtle in fact, she’s only half-awake to it. The only character who seems even close to fully awake to her own feelings, Grace Barron, meets a tragic end that Mrs. Bridge chooses to whitewash in her own mind.

This is a novel that will make you think you’re laughing, when really you’re crying.

Anxiety: Influential and Otherwise

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a presentation on Harold Bloom’s book The Anxiety of Influence at the Stonecoast MFA Program, where I teach. Bloom’s theory is that no act of artistic creation exists in a vacuum–all works of art are created in reaction to earlier influences, are in fact a kind of Freudian rebellion against artistic forefathers and foremothers.

As I described the book’s theories, I was struck by how anxious many of my students felt as they considered rejecting their influences. “But how could I possibly teach Joyce Carol Oates anything?” “Tobias Wolff–he’s perfect.  How could I find anything wrong with him?”

What I find most striking about The Anxiety of Influence, however, is less the “influence” part of it than the “anxiety” part. To his mind, anxiety is the chief characteristic of creation. If you don’t have anxiety, he argues, you’re not creating art. Anxiety is what you want. It’s the productive disease that drives artists to create, while the seemingly longed-for health leaves you in stasis.

Lately, we as writers and maybe all of us as human beings have had plenty to feel anxious about. But perhaps there’s something heartening in Bloom’s theory that can help us face these feelings. You can feel anxious and dive into a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, or you can feel anxious and ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?”  “Where can I go from here?”  The answer may not come in a minute or an hour or even a week, but it will come, if we can be patient and still enough to linger in that moment of questioning and uncertainty, to wait for it and when it comes, to listen.

Pruning My Bookshelves

I’m going to be moving in the near future, and once again, I turn my attention to my bookshelves to ask the fateful question:  Do I really want to drag all these with me to my next new home?

Yes, The Brothers Karamazov’s a classic.  But do I really intend to reread it anytime soon?

Cynthia Ozick’s essays in Quarrel & Quandary alternately inspired and infuriated me.  Do I really want our dysfunctional relationship to continue?

And as for Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse…  No, that is non-negotiable.  Where I go, she goes.

Years ago, I had a dream of having a home office with shelves from floor to ceiling lined with all the books I’d ever read.  These would symbolize worlds I’d entered, voices I’d allowed to enter my brain for a week or two, characters I’d met, whether I’d liked or hated them.

After a few moves, however, I decided this was an expensive–and heavy– dream to maintain.  Since then, I’ve kept only the books that for whatever reason had some meaning to me.  The others fell by the wayside.

Now as I get older, I’ve gotten pickier.  I no longer need the physical company of books I’ve enjoyed or learned from.  Now I’ve begun asking myself–will I really ever look at this again?  Do I need to?

And so these days, I’m becoming a ruthless editor of the titles on my shelves.  Which books can I let go of?  And which ones could I never imagine myself being without?

Competent but Boring

A few years ago, I sat in a room of published authors who were reviewing fiction applications for an MFA program. As we read, we separated the applications into three piles:  Yes, No, and Maybe.

While taking a break, a few of us were trying to figure out what exactly it was that separated those applications that excited us and the ones we weren’t sure about.  One person said, “It’s not that the ‘maybes’ are so awful.  In fact, they’re often quite competent.  But they’re boring.”

In fact, this description, “competent but boring,” could apply to a number of works of fiction I’ve encountered in recent years.  Nothing wrong with them.  But nothing there that made me want to pick them up again once I’d put them down.

But what precisely was it that accounted for this lack of excitement, this boring competence?  It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, when I attended a talk by literary critic James Wood, that I got something that sounded like a possible answer.

In his talk, Wood analyzed the history of literature through the lens of consciousness, in other words, how writers have handled the challenge of rendering thought on the page. Wood shared far too many valuable insights  to enumerate here, but one of the central ones was that in what he called “dead” fiction, thought is singular, consistent, and entirely unlike life. The words may be believable and in all the right places, but that’s exactly the problem.  They mean exactly what they mean, and nothing more.

However, in more lively writing–Wood shared examples by Muriel Spark, Virginia Woolf, and Norman Rush–the meaning shifts from sentence to sentence, sometimes word to word. Whether in close third person or first person, the narration reflects the complications and inconsistencies of consciousness, the way we say, “I’ve never been happier” when we’re actually quite sad.  Or the way we look at a friend and say, “He needs help,” when really we’re the ones who need help.

Think about how in your own lives, how often is it that you say exactly what you mean?  Now think about listening to your friends.  Do you always take what they say at face value?  In fact, do you ever take what they say at face value?

To me, this is the truth that competent but boring fiction fails to recognize. Characters who are recognizable as human beings move realistically through scenes.  They wake up, they shower, they eat breakfast, they drive to work.  They even have moods.  But all these things are stable, consistent, and, fatally, too easy to predict.

You may be feeling a faint flush of recognition here, maybe even a bit of shame.  If so, I’ll just add that as Wood was analyzing this “dead” fiction, he was careful to say, “This is us.”  In other words, these are natural mistakes to make and we’ve all made them.  The good news is that if we open our eyes to our own boring competence, we have a chance to do some work that is exciting and unpredictable, even to its creators.

Writing is… Depressing?

Recently I wrote a friend, “If I were not a writer, life would be ideal.”

She wrote me back, saying, “This is my new mantra.”

There is something about the writing life that by its nature creates discontentment.  We all know about the difficulty of finding inspiration, the long hours sitting alone in a quiet room with nothing but your thoughts which Just Will Not Come when bidden, the constant stream of rejection, the pain of the editing process, and then the indignity of chasing down those always-late all-too-meager paychecks.

And that’s the good part of it.

But beyond these “practical” considerations, there is a side to writing that isn’t often addressed.  It’s a depressing thing to do.  You have these gorgeous visions in your head, of stories and places and people.  And then when you sit down to write them up, the meagerness of your words reveal or at least hint at the underlying meagerness of your ideas.  What seemed like genius in your brain appears stilted, half-baked on the page.  And maybe, a part of you can’t help thinking, not only is your work lacking in genius, but so too are you.

It’s all too easy to conflate who we are with what we do.  We do something we call “bad,” so we think we are something bad.  How crazy is that?

How to get out of this trap?

In her classic book on writing and inspiration, If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland talks about the importance of writing bad work.  Her argument, stated much more elegantly in her book than here, basically boils down to this:  If while writing, you’re worried about how good you are or were or might be, you’re doing something (most likely feeding your ego), but you’re not really writing.

If writing means anything to us as writers, it has to be for its own sake, for its own rewards.  Otherwise, we might as well being doing something useful, like digging ditches.  And what are those rewards?  For me, one of the most important has been getting to hear and express my own voice, getting to know who I really am and what I really think, as opposed to the running soundtrack in my head of self-doubt and self-pity that I can all too easily tune into when I’m not careful enough…