ALICE MUNRO. What is real?
Whenever people get an opportunity to ask me questions about my writing, I can be sure that some of the questions asked will be these:
“Do you write about real people?”
“Did those things really happen?”
“When you write about a small town are you really writing about Wingham?” (Wingham is the small town in Ontario where I was born and grew up, and it has often been assumed, by people who should know better, that I have simply “fictionalized” this place in my work. Indeed, the local newspaper has taken me to task for making it the “butt of a soured and cruel introspection.”)
The usual thing, for writers, is to regard these either as naive questions, asked by people who don’t really understand the difference between autobiography and fiction, who can’t recognize the device of the first-person narrator, or else as catch-you-out questions posed by journalists who hope to stir up exactly the sort of dreary (and to outsiders, slightly comic) indignation voiced by my hometown paper. Writers answer such questions patiently or crossly according to temperament and the mood they’re in. They say, no, you must understand my characters are composites; no, those things didn’t happen the way I wrote about them; no, of course not, that isn’t Wingham (or whatever other place it may be that has had the queer unsought-after distinction of hatching a writer). Or the writer may, riskily, ask the questioners what is real, anyway? None of this seems to be very satisfactory. People go on asking these same questions because the subject really does interest and bewilder them. It would seem to be quite true that they don’t know what fiction is.
And how could they know, when what it is, changing all the time, and we differ among ourselves, and we don’t really try to explain because it is too difficult?
What I would like to do here is what I can’t do in two or three sentences at the end of a reading. I won’t explain what fiction is, and what short stories are (assuming, which we can’t, that there is any fixed thing that it is and they are), but what short stories are to me, and how I write them, and how I use things that are “real”. I will start by explaining how I read stories written by other people. For one thing, I can start reading them anywhere; from any point in between in either direction. So obviously I don’t take up a story and follow it as if it were a road, taking me somewhere, with views and neat diversions along the way. I go into it, and move back and forth and settle here and there, stay in it for a while. It’s more like a house. Everybody knows what a house does, how it encloses space and makes connections between one enclosed space and another and presents what is outside in a new way. This is the nearest I can come to explaining what a story does for me, and what I want my stories to do for other people.
So when I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure. This is the hard part of the explanation, where I have to use a word like “feeling,” which is not very precise, because if I attempt to be more intellectually respectable I will have to be dishonest. “Feeling” will have to do.
There is no blueprint for the structure. It’s not a question of, “I’ll make this kind of house because if I do it right it will have this effect.” I’ve got to make, I’ve got to build up, a house, a story, to fit around the indescribable “feeling” that is like the soul of the story, and which I must insist upon in a dogged, embarrassed way, as being no more definable than that. And I don’t know where it comes from. It seems to already be there, and some unlikely clue, such as a shop window or a bit of conversation, makes me aware of it. Then I start accumulating the material and putting it together. Some of the material I have lying around already, in memories and observations, and some I invent, and some I have to go diligently looking for (factual details), while some is dumped in my lap (anecdotes, bits of speech). I see how this material might go together to make the shape I need, and I try it. I keep trying and seeing where I went wrong and trying again.
I suppose this is the place where I should talk about technical problems and how I solve them. The main reason I can’t is that I’m never sure I do solve anything. Even when I say that I see where I went wrong, I’m being misleading. I never figure out how I’m going to change things, I never say to myself, “That page is heavy going, that paragraph’s clumsy, I need some dialogue and shorter sentences.” I feel a part that’s wrong, like a soggy weight; then I pay attention to the story, as if it were really happening somewhere, not just in my head, and in its own way, not mine. As a result, the sentences may indeed get shorter, there may be more dialogue, and so on. But though I’ve tried to pay attention to the story, I may not have got it right; those shorter sentences may be an evasion, a mistake. Every final draft, every published story, is still only an attempt, an approach, to the story.
I did promise to talk about using reality. “Why, if Jubilee isn’t Wingham, has it got Shutter Street in it?” people want to know. Why have I described somebody’s real ceramic elephant sitting on the mantelpiece? I could say I get momentum from doing things like this. The fictional room, town, world, needs a bit of starter dough from the real world. It’s a device to help the writer – at least it helps me – but it arouses a certain baulked fury in the people who really do live on Shutter Street and the lady who owns the ceramic elephant. “Why do you put in something true and then go on and tell lies?” they say, and anybody who has been on the receiving end of this kind of thing knows how they feel.
“I do it for the sake of my art and to make this structure which encloses the soul of my story, that I’ve been telling you about,” says the writer. “That is more important than anything.”
Not to everybody, it isn’t.
So I can see there might be a case, once you’ve written the story and got the momentum, for going back and changing the elephant to a camel (though there’s always a chance the lady might complain that you made a nasty camel out of a beautiful elephant), and changing Shutter Street to Blank Street. But what about the big chunks of reality, without which your story can’t exist? In the story Royal Beatings, I use a big chunk of reality: the story of a butcher, and of the young men who may have been egged on to “get” him. This is a story out of an old newspaper; it really did happen in a town I know. There is no legal difficulty about using it because it has been printed in a newspaper, and besides, the people who figure in it are all long dead. But there is a difficulty in offending people in that town who would feel that use of this story is a deliberate exposure, taunt and insult. Other people who have no connection with the real happening would say, “Why write about anything so hideous?” And lest you think that such an objection could be raised by simple folk who read nothing but Harlequin Romances, let me tell you that one of the questions most frequently asked at universities is, “Why do you write about things that are so depressing?” People can accept almost any amount of ugliness if it is contained in a familiar formula, as it is on television, but when they come closer to their own place, their own lives, they are much offended by a lack of editing.
There are ways I can defend myself against such objections. I can say, “I do it in the interests of historical reality. That is what the old days are like.” Or, “I do it to show the dark side of human nature, the beast let loose, the evil we can run up against in communities and families.” In certain countries I could say, “I do it to show how bad things were under the old system when there were prosperous butchers and young fellows hanging around livery stables and nobody thought about building a new society.” But the fact is, the minute I say to show I am telling a lie. I don’t do it to show anything. I put this story at the heart of my story because I need it there and it belongs there. It is the black room at the centre of the house will all other rooms leading to and away from it. That is all. A strange defence. Who told me to write this story? Who feels any need of it before it is written? I do. I do, so that I might grab off this piece of horrid reality and install it where I see fit, even if Nat Hettleton and his friends were still around to make me sorry.
The answer seems to be as confusing as ever. Lots of true answers are. Yes and no. Yes, I use bits of what is real, in the sense of really being there and really happening, in the world, as most people see it, and I transform it into something that is really there and really happening, in my story. No, I am not concerned with using what is real to make any sort of record or prove any sort of point, and I am not concerned with any methods of selection but my own, which I can’t fully explain. This is quite presumptuous, and if writers are not allowed to be so – and quite often, in many places, they are not – I see no point in the writing of fiction.