story, the power of words, writing
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An interview with Alice Munro

The Paris Review is one of my favourite literary sites — they have a fabulous section of interviews with famous writers and if you haven’t yet checked it out, you must (and I mean, must!) put it at the top of your list of things to do.

Last night, I came across a 1994 interview with Alice Munro. Halfway through the article I thought to myself, my god this is a lengthy article! But when I finished the last line, my mind was exhausted and all over the place. Tangled with thoughts regarding the painful process of writing and the fear of possibility losing “it”; the excitement and thrill of story  —  all I wanted to do was start from the beginning and enjoy it all over again.

Here is one of my favourite parts of the interview:

INTERVIEWER

When you start writing a story do you already know what the story will be? Is it already plotted out?

MUNRO

Not altogether. Any story that’s going to be any good is usually going to change. Right now I’m starting a story cold. I’ve been working on it every morning, and it’s pretty slick. I don’t really like it, but I think maybe, at some point, I’ll be into it. Usually, I have a lot of acquaintance with the story before I start writing it. When I didn’t have regular time to give to writing, stories would just be working in my head for so long that when I started to write I was deep into them. Now, I do that work by filling notebooks.

INTERVIEWER

You use notebooks?

MUNRO

I have stacks of notebooks that contain this terribly clumsy writing, which is just getting anything down. I often wonder, when I look at these first drafts, if there was any point in doing this at all. I’m the opposite of a writer with a quick gift, you know, someone who gets it piped in. I don’t grasp it very readily at all, the “it” being whatever I’m trying to do. I often get on the wrong track and have to haul myself back.

INTERVIEWER

How do you realize you’re on the wrong track?

MUNRO

I could be writing away one day and think I’ve done very well; I’ve done more pages than I usually do. Then I get up the next morning and realize I don’t want to work on it anymore. When I have a terrible reluctance to go near it, when I would have to push myself to continue, I generally know that something is badly wrong. Often, in about three quarters of what I do, I reach a point somewhere, fairly early on, when I think I’m going to abandon this story. I get myself through a day or two of bad depression, grouching around. And I think of something else I can write. It’s sort of like a love affair: you’re getting out of all the disappointment and misery by going out with some new man you don’t really like at all, but you haven’t noticed that yet. Then, I will suddenly come up with something about the story that I abandoned; I will see how to do it. But that only seems to happen after I’ve said, No, this isn’t going to work, forget it.

INTERVIEWER

Can you always do that?

MUNRO

Sometimes I can’t, and I spend the whole day in a very bad mood. That’s the only time I’m really irritable. If Gerry talks to me or keeps going in and out of the room or bangs around a lot, I am on edge and enraged. And if he sings or something like that, it’s terrible. I’m trying to think something through, and I’m just running into brick walls; I’m not getting through it. Generally I’ll do that for a while before I’ll give it up. This whole process might take up to a week, the time of trying to think it through, trying to retrieve it, then giving it up and thinking about something else, and then getting it back, usually quite unexpectedly, when I’m in the grocery store or out for a drive. I’ll think, Oh well, I have to do it from the point of view of so-and-so, and I have to cut this character out, and of course these people are not married, or whatever. The big change, which is usually the radical change.

INTERVIEWER

That makes the story work?

MUNRO

I don’t even know if it makes the story better. What it does is make it possible for me to continue to write. That’s what I mean by saying I don’t think I have this overwhelming thing that comes in and dictates to me. I only seem to get a grasp on what I want to write about with the greatest difficulty. And barely.

You can read the interview in its entirety, here.

S.

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