I Don’t Know How She Does It

We need to talk about Alice Munro. Oh, how we need to talk about Alice.

On most subjects, it is difficult for me to pin down my “favorite” thing: meal, drink, movie, color – there are just too many different categories, people. Who could possibly be so decisive? But when it comes to writing, I have no such difficulty. Of the thousand or so different authors I’ve read, for my money, Alice Munro is the best.

Alice is a Canadian who writes fiction, mostly short stories, and she has earned the highest respect of virtually all literary critics and most successful writers. Think of a writer you love (go ahead), and I can almost guarantee that not only are they familiar with Alice, they are at least slightly in awe of her talent. The perennial literary darling Jonathan Franzen calls her “the Great One.” In a 2004 piece in The New York Times (which was ostensibly a review of Alice’s book Runaway, but which was actually a lengthy essay on Alice’s sheer awesomeness), Franzen said this:

“She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion. For as long as I’m immersed in a Munro story, I am according to an entirely make-believe character the kind of solemn respect and quiet rooting interest that I accord myself in my better moments as a human being.”

Whenever Alice pens a new short story, it is snapped up by one of the most prestigious publications in the world. Her work is included in nearly every annual “Best of the Year” story collection. In 2009, she won the Man Booker International Prize (given for a lifetime body of work), only the third person to have done so.

Yet Alice Munro is not a household name – and to serious readers, this is a serious affront.

Here is how it is between Alice and me: I don’t know how she does it. And I couldn’t care less. (I spent about five minutes, once, trying to figure out her technique, and then I wisely gave up.)

Can I at least describe what Alice does? I can try, but the problem there is, unless you are actually Alice herself, you don’t possess the literary talent to do her work justice. Quoting her directly is a better method of illustrating what she does.

Well, since you asked.

From the 1997 compilation of her best work, Selected Stories:

“The doctor, the heart specialist, said that her heart was a little wonky and her pulse inclined to be jumpy. She thought that made her heart sound like a comedian and her pulse like a puppy on a lead. She had not come fifty-seven miles to be treated with such playfulness but she let it pass, because she was already distracted by something she had been reading in the doctor’s waiting room.”

And from another story:

“Stella wonders where this new voice of Catherine’s comes from, this pert and rather foolish and flirtatious voice. Drink wouldn’t do it. Whatever Catherine has taken has made her sharper, not blunter. Several layers of wispy apology, tentative flattery, fearfulness, or hopefulness have simply blown away in this brisk chemical breeze.”

And here is the final paragraph of one of my favorite stories, “Material”:

“Gabriel came into the kitchen before he went to bed, and saw me sitting with a pile of test papers and my marking pencils. He might have meant to talk to me, to ask me to have coffee, or a drink, with him, but he respected my unhappiness as he always does; he respected the pretense that I was not unhappy but preoccupied, burdened with these test papers; he left me alone to get over it.”

It is often noted that Alice’s short stories contain more depth than most full-length novels. Not only does she waste no paragraphs or sentences, she seems to waste no words. But her prose is not terse, like Hemingway’s; it is rich and full, it breathes and floats and is full of warmth.

It’s also as sharp as a dagger.

There are no zombies in Alice’s work, no explosions or natural disasters, no fantastic plots, very few murders. This is not how she keeps a reader turning the pages. Alice generally writes about simple people: housewives and grandparents and bewildered young women and children, in the most normal of settings: in cars, on farms, in retirement homes or back porches or shabby living rooms – but in the middle of this perfect ordinariness, she (as one reviewer put it) “flays” her characters, exposes their inner lives in ways that are shocking in the sense of recognition they stir in the reader.

Even if you have never been in these situations yourself, you think, “Yes! Yes. That is exactly how it is.” Even if you have never met anyone like these characters, you believe that Alice has pegged them perfectly.

Within a sentence or two, Alice gives you exactly enough information to completely understand how each character operates and what motivates them. This is in no way an easy skill. There are very few novelists who can do this, and none do it as well as Alice Munro.

Virtually all of her stories are sprinkled with the kind of sentences that most talented writers are happy to craft a few times in their entire careers. Like:

“Because if she let go of her grief even for a minute it would only hit her harder when she bumped into it again.”

Or when a character narrates this:

“This was the first time I understood how God could become a real opponent, not just some kind of nuisance or large decoration.”

Who the freak writes like this?!

The author Pat Conroy, in explaining his love of reading (and great writing), says this:

“I cheer when a writer stops me in my tracks, forces me to go back and read a sentence again and again, and I find myself thunderstruck, grateful the way readers always are when a writer takes the time to put them on the floor.”

Which nicely illustrates the difference between mediocre writers – or even good writers – and great ones. If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between “literature” and every other kind of fiction, I believe that would be it. Average writers may have the ability to capture me with a story, but they do not write stunning sentences that put me on the metaphorical floor with their beauty.

Alice Munro does this, to a greater degree than any other writer I’ve read. In fact, if I was going to be stranded on a deserted island, and could only have one work of fiction with me, I’d choose her Selected Stories.

Yeah, she’s that good.

Look, Alice doesn’t have to be your favorite writer. You don’t have to love her work as much as I do. Her stories don’t have to be your “cup of tea.”

But, my dear fellow writers: if, while reading Alice’s best work (and Selected Stories or Runaway are excellent places to start – or shoot, check out her story “Dimension,” here), you do not at least recognize the level of skill she possesses, if you do not see the genius of what she’s doing – well then, in my opinion, you have some more work to do.

That’s all.

Have you experienced the writings of Alice The Great? And which authors put you “on the floor” with their writing?


The Snipers

This post is about poetry…now just hold on, there.

You’re not going anywhere, Dear Reader.

(By the way, if you can give me the reference for my title, without reading any further, leave me a comment and tell me so. And I will be duly impressed.)

April is National Poetry Month in the United States. Here is a great website giving details about this event – please note the endearing invitation to “Join thousands of individuals across the U.S. by carrying a poem in your pocket on April 14, 2011.” (Whole thousands?)

Anyway, I want to celebrate poetry this month because, in many respects, the craft just “don’t get no respect” these days. And no attention, either.

For a long time, I didn’t care that much for poetry – which is odd, for someone who loves words and language as much as I do. But it was partly because a significant percentage of published poetry makes no sense.

At least to me.

Every time I pick up one of the literary magazines (Tin House, I’m looking at you) and flip through it, I crash into a poem that makes me want to rip my own hair out. Because it Has. No. Meaning.

For example:

The jackdaw raises his crested head
And calls forth
From the necklace of bone around my neck
He calls
They call
Is this what I have wrought?

Okay, I just made that up. But you get my point.

I realize the fault must be mine. My oldest brother lives for these kinds of poems. When I stand in the bookstore and read them aloud to him, fuming about their nonsensical-ness, he always says, “Oh, no, that makes total sense. I get it.”


I think the other reason I bypassed poetry for a long time is this: it requires far more attention than a novel, or even a non-fiction book. When reading a poem, you have to set everything else aside and give it your full concentration, and you have to read it through a few times, and give it a chance to sink in.

Only then do you realize how breathtakingly good it is.

Poets have to make every single word count; they have to slay you with truth and emotion in only a few lines.

In fact, the best poems contain some of the finest writing in the world.

In his brilliant sci-fi novel Hyperion, Dan Simmons has one of his characters say this: “Words are the only bullets in truth’s bandolier. And poets are the snipers.”

And that’s as good a description of it as I’ve ever read. A great poem can slam you in the gut, take your emotional breath away as no novel can.

A few weeks ago, I picked up the April issue of the Oprah Magazine, which is dedicated to poetry. It contains all sorts of articles, interviews, and essays on poetry – and of course, there are lots of poems.

So to start off Poetry’s special month, here are a few random things I loved in that issue of the magazine.


In a rare interview with the famous, elderly poet Mary Oliver, she is asked: “How do you know when something is a calling?”

She replies: “When you can’t help but go there.”


There is an article on the current U.S. poet laureate, W.S. Merwin, who lives in Hawaii and is deeply passionate about the earth. Here’s one of his gems:

On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree

what for
not for the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time

with the sun already
going down

and the water
touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing

one by one
over its leaves


After his mother’s death in 2009, Timothy Shriver found comfort in Emily Dickinson’s poem “Exultation Is the Going.”

Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses – past the headlands –
Into deep Eternity –

Bred as we, among the mountains
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?

Holy. Crap. (And by the way, writers of the world, unless you can do it that brilliantly, please don’t try to make your poetry rhyme. It’s not pretty.)


Okay, I have to leave you with one final, exquisite poem, by Naomi Shihab Nye. This might be my favorite thing in the issue.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

The Littlest Bookworm

A Mama friend recently asked me to recommend some books for her fifth-grade daughter (who is reading at a ninth-grade level, but the teachers apparently want her to stick with fifth-grade books, which sounds to me like some sort of crime against learning, if not against humanity, but never mind.)

The number one thing that fostered my interest in reading, as a child, was something that is not (I’m sorry to say) very practical for the modern family. And that was this:

We didn’t have a television in the house. Ever. From the time I was born, until I went off to college.

This arrangement posed some minor problems, of course. Whenever we went to a friend’s house, we kids would park ourselves in front of their TV and stare, slack-jawed, as though it were a five-headed creature from another planet. We absolutely could not be pried away from it, for love or money or new bicycles or anything. Continue reading

Chicks Who Can WRITE

You can tell a lot about a person by the literary company they keep. Or at least, that’s one of my many theories.

If you’re a writer and you want to improve your own skills, you HAVE to read great writing. Here is a short list of my favorite female authors: chicks who (in my opinion) can write circles around almost everyone else. (Dudes Who Can Write will come in another post.) These women write sentences that are so crazy-good, I often stop and read a particular one over and over.

My own arbitrary criteria for this list are: the writer must be living, and I must have personally read and enjoyed at least 2 of their books. This eliminated a whole lot of one-hit-wonders whose books I LOVED. I’m limiting this post to 10 writers.

With most of these chicks, you can scarcely go wrong by picking up something they wrote. Here they are, in no particular order, along with my personal favorites of their work. Continue reading

Writing that rocks – A Fine Balance

Oprah and I have a bit of a checkered past.

I mean, no, we don’t technically have a relationship. If we did, I probably wouldn’t be hanging out on Twitter, or blogging. I’d probably be filming road trips with her and going on month-long vacations to Italy, and I’d have a nanny and a chef and a make-up artist, and I’d wear designer clothes and I’d eat really, really well…

Just look at Gayle.

I’m sorry, where were we? Continue reading