Alice Munro (born in 1933) has written multiple award-winning short story collections like Dear Life, Runaway, and Too Much Happiness.
Here are five of her marvelous quotes about the writing life!
1. I can’t play bridge. I don’t play tennis. All those things that people learn, and I admire, there hasn’t seemed time for. But what there is time for is looking out the window.
Honestly any fun hobby you partake in can work its way into your storytelling. Anything you’re interested in or passionate about can play a role in the occupation of your next protagonist or be featured in a pivotal scene at some point during a narrative. The problem is that many of us don’t have time for activities like bridge and tennis. I enjoy playing golf, but when you play eighteen holes it sort of turns into your entire day. And in twenty novels, let me tell you, there hasn’t been much about golf ever written.
So do what makes you happy and then maybe feature some of that stuff in your stories, but if you don’t have a lot of time, sometimes all you really do need is a few precious minutes to stare out your window and dream. Dream about potential stories you could write. Dream about characters. Dream about possibilities. Living your life helps with your writing, but so does sitting in a dark room and just looking out the window. Do what you need to do to make some good ideas start flowing, and you’re well on your way.
2. Sometimes I get the start of a story from a memory, an anecdote, but that gets lost and is usually unrecognizable in the final story.
I’ve never heard an author express this particular thought before, and I’m so happy to finally find it because this happens all the time. I’ve written a lot of books throughout the years and I would say about half of them started with a memory or an anecdote, or a personal experience that had some kind of long-lasting effect on me. I even wrote a novel once that’s a borderline autobiography disguised as a work of fiction, with just enough thrown into its story to make it an experience different from my own.
The trick is that even when you get super personal in your storytelling, you need to eventually, after you’ve completed your first draft and you’ve spent months and months revising and editing and tightening and polishing, forget all about that initial idea. You in no way want to be married to that memory or anecdote to the point where you move some things around in your story or change scenes and character arcs. Let the story take you where it wants to take you. And just let whatever started the story in the first place slip from your mind.
3. Some of the stories I admire seem to zero in on one particular time and place. There isn’t a rule about this. But there’s a tidy sense about many stories I read. In my own work, I tend to cover a lot of time and to jump back and forward in time, and sometimes the way I do this is not very straightforward.
Alice Munro is certainly one of the most famous short story writers of her generation. In her long, celebrated career she’s never written a novel — what is often thought to be the standard of fiction writers — and has instead embraced the short story art-form her entire life. And when it comes to the short story, so many people think the only way to write it is to zero in on one specific time and place.
I’ll admit that’s the way I write most of my stories. In a dozen or more I’ve written in the past few years, most of them focus on one character in one place in a very short window of time. Part of me worries if I open up the story even a little bit, it’ll turn into a novel, because so many of my short story ideas in the past have ultimately expanded to novel length.
But the truth is you can write your short fiction any way you want. Munro liked to cover a lot of time and jump forward and backward. She likes to avoid being completely straightforward in her storytelling, and you know what? That’s what makes her work so groundbreaking. You’ll never get anywhere as a writer playing by the rules and doing what’s expected of you. Try something outside the box and maybe that will be the story that gets a fast sale and publication!
4. Why do I like to write short stories? Well, I certainly didn’t intend to. I was going to write a novel. And still! I still come up with ideas for novels. And I even start novels. But something happens to them. They break up. I look at what I really want to do with the material, and it never turns out to be a novel.
This is so interesting to read because I’m the polar opposite. I’ve started short stories before that ballooned from five thousand words to fifteen thousand words and then later became novels. I’ve sat down in the past to write a flash fiction short story that eventually became a seven-thousand-word behemoth.
Munro, on the other hand, has at times sat down to write a novel and then found that the narrative simply worked better in the short story format. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s important as a writer to designate how long your story should be. Not everything should be a novel. And there are certainly many kinds of stories meant to be written in a shorter format.
Take advantage of the short story format to experiment and try new genres and new ways of writing. You might not want to take a big chance on a novel for six months or longer, but you can certainly take a big chance on a short story that only takes you two weeks to write. Again, your story idea should tell you how long it wants to be, so embrace whatever length that next narrative of yours is intended to be.
5. I’m always trying. Between every book, I think, ‘Well now, it’s time to get down to the serious stuff.’
Ain’t that the truth? And how inspiring is it to hear this from Alice Munro, one of the most celebrated short story writers to have ever lived? I’m usually feeling the way she does about 200 pages into the first draft of my latest novel, when it’s not quite matching the initial vision I had in mind, when I’ve screwed things up big time three chapters in a row. I think to myself, I’ve failed, it’s over, maybe I can fix some of this in revisions… and next time I can get down to the serious stuff.
We all want to grow as writers. We want to improve in our craft. We want to get down to the serious stuff sooner or later. Sure, the book or short story we’re working now is fun and all, but don’t worry — we’re going to try harder next time and get more serious. What we’re writing now isn’t very literary, but the next one will be. What we’re writing now is more of a popular kind of entertainment, but that next one I write next year will be the one that’s finally embraced my critics and audiences alike.
Keep telling yourself this as much as you want, but here’s the reality: whatever project you’re working on right now is the serious stuff. If you’re dedicating part of your day to a new creative endeavor that comes from your heart, that you feel passion for, that you hope to one day enter the world for people to see and feel, you’re already being serious. Just because you’re not writing the world’s most literary novel doesn’t mean that entertaining fantasy story you’re writing now isn’t doing serious work.
If you’re working hard on your writing every day and doing everything you can to improve, if you’re getting rejected a lot and feeling failure often, if you’re getting up each morning and trying again anyway, you’re a serious writer, and you’re going to make it one day. Just believe in yourself and keep going.