Sunday, January 14, 2007

How to Write A Short Story

By Pico Iyer

An old master gives us an exemplary what-not-to-do list in her new book

Alice Munro spins tales that show us, again and again, and with wondrous grace, how much can be done in a simple short story. Yet the 74-year-old Canadian does it by breaking every rule ever taught in a writing seminar, setting up a master class along the sidelines. Her latest--her 11th--collection of stories, The View from Castle Rock (Knopf; 349 pages), marks a departure from her usual examinations of women in rural Canada leaving home to remake their possibilities by drawing instead on family documents, historical records (from 19th century Scotland) and what feels like memoir to piece together, in 12 parts, a fictionalized chronicle of how her tough-minded clan got from the Ettrick Valley near Edinburgh to America. Yet it shows, as usual, how to draw gasps from other writers by defying the laws of gravitas as effortlessly as Michael Jordan defied those of gravity.

Pocket the $30,000 you would otherwise spend on an M.F.A. writing degree, and just consider her example(s):

1. Don't think you need special effects or big-budget drama: Castle Rock takes its initial cues from everyday letters and diaries and just lets them enjoy a new life in the imagination. A girl walking to school in rural Ontario in 1942 can be riveting--if you describe the walk in the voice of her future self, in the city, many years later.
2. Don't eschew the plain. In one typical exchange here, 38 spoken words out of 39 are just one syllable long (the exception is "cannot"). In a later story, 37 straight words last one syllable each.
3. Don't assume you know more than your characters do, or condescend, even to children. A young girl, Munro's alter ego, tells an affluent employer how, where she comes from, "children walked barefoot until the frost came in order to save on shoe leather" and people ate "dandelion leaves, nothing else, for supper." Just as we're shaking, she admits (to us only) that not all of this is strictly true--and so tells us as much about the sly, storytelling imagination of the girl as about rural circumstances that really were desperate.
4. Don't try to make your characters consistent. Life doesn't. A janitor abruptly decides he will become a writer, while his glamorous wife, selling fox capes in a big hotel, suddenly, while still young, develops Parkinson's. Munro's fiction seems uncannily true to the world because destiny plays havoc with characters' circumstances even when they don't do the same themselves.
5. Don't get beyond yourself. Wandering around a church, a narrator realizes, of belief (though it could apply to much else), "You must always take care of what's on the surface, and what is behind, so immense and disturbing, will take care of itself."
6. Don't give us a steady point of view. Describing her family's long passage across the ocean, Munro swerves like a roaming camera from one heart to the next, and the happy result is that we see all her people as they seem to themselves--but also as they look to everyone else.
7. Don't stick to what you know firsthand. A recurring theme that binds these pieces together is of people talking with the dead. This is possible, some in the book suspect, so long as you've drunk enough brandy.
8. Don't look away from anything. Blessed with a farmer's unsentimental eye, Munro offers up a clear, highly practical explanation of how you kill a trapped fox.
9. Don't be linear or too sensible. That what-happened-after-the-story-ended appendix? Put it in the middle, as in the story "Lying Under the Apple Tree," so that the end of the narrative can have its full kick and bite.
10. Don't be afraid of going where you've never been before. There may be a tad less assurance and narrative latticework in these memory pieces than in Munro's more familiar masterworks, as she experiments with different voices (old Scottish), different settings (the 19th century), different structures (one piece lasts 61 pages). Yet all the stories ultimately come back to her master themes, of sloughing off the world one knows and trying on a new life that's unimaginable.

See Michael Jordan run a fast break backward.