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.

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