Authors: Alice Munro
A team of horses, pulling a sleigh, was moving onto the scales. The sleigh was piled high with sacks of grain. The man who was driving the team had a winter cap pulled down on his head, fur-lined flaps over his ears. The horses were heavy workhorses, still used then on some farms. In a few years such horses would have vanished. The farmer would be taking the grain to the chopping mill. He would get a slip from the scales operator stating the total weight. The net weight would be arrived at by subtracting the weight of the empty sleigh. There was some mud tracked onto the snow around the scales, a scattering of hay and grain from other loads, and a fresh mound of horse manure on which the snow immediately melted.
This description makes the scene seem as if it was waiting to be painted and hung on the wall to be admired by somebody who has probably never bagged grain. The patient horses with their nobly rounded rumps, the humped figure of the driver, the coarse fabric of the sacks. The snow conferring dignity and peace. I didn’t see it framed and removed in that way. I saw it alive and potent, and it gave me something like a blow to the chest. What does this mean, what can be discovered about it, what is the rest of the story? The man and the horses are not symbolic or picturesque, they are moving through a story which is hidden, and now, for a moment, carelessly revealed.
How can you get your finger on it, feel that life beating?
It was more a torment than a comfort to think about this, because I couldn’t get hold of it at all. I went back to stringing out my secret and gradually less satisfying novel.
I never wrote a story about the man and the horses. It doesn’t work like that anyway. The scene which is the secret of the story may not seem to be close to what it’s “about.” For instance, the story “Open Secrets” is “about” a girl who disappears on an overnight camping trip, and the ripples set up in the community by her disappearance. There you have the central incident, the “what happens” of the story. But the scene that I could not do without, the scene that seems to hold the most essential key to the story (but not necessarily to the plot), is the one in the back yard, with the dog. The woman, the dog, the deranged man, the pump, the heat, the pain of the boil. I don’t mean that these are things put into the story and that they seem to work well, I mean that they were there from the beginning and it was to an extent because of them that I was able to discover or invent the rest of the story.
“Open Secrets” is a story not included in this book. And perhaps this is a good time to mention that the decision about which stories were to be put in, and which left out, was not always based on preference, but on length and adequate representation of different periods in the writing.
The story I am working on now owes its existence mostly to a long, straight path, a hard-beaten dirt path running between a double row of spruce trees. I know now who walked that path and where they were going, but in the beginning there was just the path.
I don’t talk about these beginnings or essentials very much, because they are hard to explain and tend to fade anyway after the story has been put out in the world and become a stranger to me. But I can tell you that in “Walker Brothers Cowboy” it’s the father speaking to the tramp, and in “Simon’s Luck” it’s the girl in her costume dress bending over the kittens, and in “A Wilderness Station” it’s the splendid silent voyage of the Stanley Steamer—about which I now know a host of details that the story’s architecture wouldn’t support. In “Labor Day Dinner” it’s the car without its headlights on, shooting through the intersection, a deadly fish in the night.
I can far more easily recall, and can truthfully tell, that “Friend of My Youth” came from a conversation about old games and crokinole, which led to two sisters and a husband, the Cameronian church, a half-painted house. Then as I wrote the story there was an unexpected expansion to my mother’s story and the way my mother saw life and the way I see it—the way I see
life. Anecdote and autobiography can weave together in this way. There is always more than one starting point, and once you’ve found one you’re pretty sure to find others. Both “The Albanian Virgin” and “Carried Away” came from a single unsubstantiated story—that a librarian from the town where I live now had been kidnapped during a trip to Europe before the First World War by “bandits in Albania.” This led to my reading about Albania, particularly in the Virago Press book by Edith Durham, who travelled there in the early twentieth century. In her book I learned about the institution which allows a woman, by pure and simple renunciation of sex, to take on the freedom and prestige of a man. So I had two women—the one who went to Albania and the one who stayed home and worked in the library. But the story of “Carried Away” also worked itself backwards from the remembered makeshift bus depot with kitchen chairs set in rows in the dirt of a back yard.
“The Turkey Season” started off from my memory of a real person (this doesn’t very often happen). He was a kind, ironic, disillusioned, and probably lovesick man who was the cook in the summer hotel where I worked as a waitress when I was nineteen. I moved the story out of the hotel and into the Turkey Barn because I had found a remarkable photo taken of the “gutters” who worked there with my father—a photo which seemed to have captured the peculiar closeness and competitiveness, the reckless rough jokes, the boisterousness and stamina that bind people together temporarily in such jobs. It was a great help, too, that I have a brother-in-law who was able to take me step-by-step through the turkey-gutting process, in the most accurate and elegant detail. He learned it at agricultural college.
In “Miles City, Montana” and “The Moons of Jupiter” I have used, with some alteration, incidents and emotions from my own family life. “The Progress of Love” started off from a story about a faked hanging, put on to throw a scare into other members of a family. (If you live in a small town you get stories like this dumped in your lap all the time—the unofficial history.) “Simon’s Luck” came from a story told me at a party by a man who had been hidden in a railway car, as a Jewish child in France during the Second World War. “Images” came from two true memories—the muskrat under water, and the roofed-over cellar I went past every day on my way to school. A bootlegger and his wife lived there—and they weren’t the only people to have contrived shelters like these during the Depression. So it was strange for me to find this cellar treated, in a critical essay, as a symbol of my rejection of anything transcendental, and particularly of Christianity. I had thought that it was simply a snug, economical, slightly eccentric solution to a housing problem.
In “Royal Beatings” I turned to unacknowledged history again. Not exactly unofficial history, because the anecdote of father and daughter, the vigilante punishment handed out for suspected incest, comes right out of a nineteenth-century newspaper. But the town in which this happened, and where I grew up, now claims that no untoward incidents ever took place within its boundaries, and that prostitutes, bootleggers, and unhappy families were pretty much unknown—all being, according to an editorial in the local paper, products of my own “soured introspection.”
This is all about beginnings. But that, in fact, is the easy part. Endings are another matter. When I’ve shaped the story in my head, before starting to put it on paper, it has, of course, an ending. Often this ending will stay in place right through the first draft. Sometimes it stays in place for good. Sometimes not. The story, in the first draft, has put on rough but adequate clothes, it is “finished” and might be thought to need no more than a lot of technical adjustments, some tightening here and expanding there, and the slipping in of some telling dialogue and chopping away of flabby modifiers. It’s then, in fact, that the story is in the greatest danger of losing its life, of appearing so hopelessly misbegotten that my only relief comes from abandoning it. It doesn’t do enough. It does what I intended, but it turns out that my intention was all wrong. Quite often I decide to give up on it. (This was the point at which, in my early days as a writer, I did just chuck everything out and get started on something absolutely new.) And now that the story is free from my controlling hand a change in direction may occur. I can’t ever be sure this will happen, and there are bad times, though I should be used to them. I’m no good at letting go, I am thrifty and tenacious now, no spendthrift and addict of fresh starts as in my youth. I go around glum and preoccupied, trying to think of ways to fix the problem. Usually the right way pops up in the middle of this.
A big relief, then. Renewed energy. Resurrection.
Except that it isn’t the right way. Maybe a way
the right way. Now I write pages and pages I’ll have to discard. New angles are introduced, minor characters brought center stage, lively and satisfying scenes are written, and it’s all a mistake. Out they go. But by this time I’m on the track, there’s no backing out. I know so much more than I did, I know what I want to happen and where I want to end up and I just have to keep trying till I find the best way of getting there.
I should mention here that I don’t always have to do all this work by myself. An editor who is also an ideal reader can work with you on these final shifts and slants in a seamless, amazing collaboration. Charles McGrath and Dan Menaker, at
The New Yorker
, have helped me wonderfully in this way—particularly in “The Turkey Season” (Charles) and “Vandals” (Dan).
I wrote an essay several years ago for my friend John Metcalf, in which I said something that got a surprised reaction from readers—and their surprise surprised me. I said that I don’t always, or even usually, read stories from beginning to end. I start anywhere and proceed in either direction. So it appears that I’m not reading—at least in an efficient way—to find out what happens. I do find out, and I’m interested in finding out, but there’s much more to the experience. A story is not like a road to follow, I said, it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It has also a sturdy sense of itself, of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you. To deliver a story like that, durable and freestanding, is what I’m always hoping for.
But mark, madam, we live amongst riddles and mysteries—the most obvious things, which come in our way, have dark sides, which the quickest sight cannot penetrate into; and even the clearest and most exalted understandings amongst us find ourselves puzzled and at a loss in almost every cranny of nature’s works: so that this, like a thousand other things, falls out for us in a way, which tho’ we cannot reason upon it—yet) we find the good of it, may it please your reverences and your worships—and that’s enough for us
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
my father says, “Want to go down and see if the Lake’s still there?” We leave my mother sewing under the dining-room light, making clothes for me against the opening of school. She has ripped up for this purpose an old suit and an old plaid wool dress of hers, and she has to cut and match very cleverly and also make me stand and turn for endless fittings, sweaty, itching from the hot wool, ungrateful. We leave my brother in bed in the little screened porch at the end of the front veranda, and sometimes he kneels on his bed and presses his face against the screen and calls mournfully, “Bring me an ice-cream cone!” but I call back, “You will be asleep,” and do not even turn my head.
Then my father and I walk gradually down a long, shabby sort of street, with Silverwoods Ice Cream signs standing on the sidewalk, outside tiny, lighted stores. This is in Tuppertown, an old town on Lake Huron, an old grain port. The street is shaded, in some places, by maple trees whose roots have cracked and heaved the sidewalk and spread out like crocodiles into the bare yards. People are sitting out, men in shirtsleeves and undershirts and women in aprons—not people we know but if anybody looks ready to nod and say, “Warm night,” my father will nod too and say something the same. Children are still playing. I don’t know them either because my mother keeps
my brother and me in our own yard, saying he is too young to leave it and I have to mind him. I am not so sad to watch their evening games because the games themselves are ragged, dissolving. Children, of their own will, draw apart, separate into islands of two or one under the heavy trees, occupying themselves in such solitary ways as I do all day, planting pebbles in the dirt or writing in it with a stick.