Friday Writing Experiment No. 32: This Ordinary Magic

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Yay! Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature!

This is good for lots of reasons. A much-loved winner of much-loved writing. A writer who brings out the stories in the everyday. In Dear Life, a memoir piece about her childhood, Munro describes going to play at a friend’s house after school. The friend she calls Diane dances a Highland fling with Alice, and:

Eventually, we got thirsty and her grandmother gave us a drink of water, but it was horrid water from a dug well, just like at school. I explained about the superior water we got from a drilled well at home, and the grandmother said, without taking any sort of offense, that she wished they had that, too.

And there’s more in the next few paragraphs – a prohibition that reveals something that feels petty and turns out to be very spiteful and probably very defining – but you’ll have to read the piece to find that.

Throughout her writing we find the little surprises of ordinary life, those turns into unexpected joy, or moments laced with violence or revelation or connection. Lots of questions are asked, no easy answers are given, and something lingers.

Something key is a quality of perception: of looking, and seeing, and listening. The young (or older?) Alice in the selection above registers that the grandmother took no offence, and realises that she might have been offensive. A harmless interaction, perhaps, but one filled with harm – and lessons in compassion. And an understanding of what happened in this scene maybe only comes years later, in the moment of writing. Something is conjured up here.

Much of Munro’s art lies in the symmetry and energy of her sentences; note how the clause ‘without taking any sort of offense’ is slid between commas in the middle of a sentence in that extract above. And her sentences often rely on simple but strong word choices. Even neglected parts of speech such as prepositions have their own special powers. At the start of her story ‘Walker Brothers Cowboy’: ‘We leave my mother sewing under the dining-room light, making clothes for me against the opening of school’ – maybe it’s a Canadianism I’m unaware of, but the use of that preposition ‘against’ opens up all manner of associations in my mind, and among other things makes me most alert to her language.

This prize is also a victory that reminds us of the wonders of the short story, the literary form of most of Munro’s published writing. ‘For years and years I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel’, she says. Well, the short story is not second best, and let’s praise the Nobel judges for reminding us of that. But even if you are stuck on other forms, I do think many people writing, e.g., novels could gain important practice in the writing of fiction if they tackled some short stories along the way. And I also think that some short stories – by other people – do feel like practice too. So maybe we should also remember to write short stories for all the reasons they are so special. I repeat: the short story is not second best. (Here is one of my Friday Writing Experiments that grows out of some opining on that matter.)

If you’d like to enjoy some more of her stories, the New Yorker shares some here (but maybe skip the summaries, which can reveal too much). The New Yorker also shares some of the enthusiasm of other writers, as well as a nifty piece by one of her editors (though maybe skip the two longer extracts and the sentences just before them – those literary types and their fondness for spoilers). And (update on 13 October) the Paris Review also has a super interview in its ‘Art of …’ series. Paul McVeigh has gathered together many things Munro on his terrifically useful blog too, including audio clips, interviews, and stories.

‘Books seem to me to be magic, and I wanted to be part of the magic,’ Munro has said. For today’s writing experiment: write a piece in which you suffuse something very ordinary with something very magical. Not fantastical, not supernatural, but the magic of the ordinary. This ordinary magic could be observed in a place, a person, an object, or the view out of your window. Your form could be a story, or a poem, or memoir, or a paragraph of description or exchange of dialogue in a novel. And you probably want to be concrete and specific in what you behold.

I’m not sure how you’ll locate that magic, but let’s hope that the process of looking will help you find it.

Abracadabra!

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