On Beginnings, Storytelling and Alice Munro

This is how I read an Alice Munro story:

At first, not very well.

I meander along the first few pages, take in the proper names and rural Ontario landscapes and digest them, but barely; I let my mind drift to evening plans, or writing concerns, or love.

Then, between halfway to two-thirds through the story, and sometimes even later, things shift: the girl who is realizing the limits of her gender lets the horse out of the barn; the young woman who thinks she’s getting married finds him turned up with someone else; the mother having an affair decides to abandon her young children for him. And I realize, again, that what I thought the story was going to be about was really just a setup for the drama about to unfold. I scurry, gripped, to the end.

And then I start over: I look back to the opening sentences and subsequent early sections, and finally attach meaning to all those set pieces that, the first time around, held hardly any meaning at all.

That it has taken me so long to fall in love with Alice Munro (a romance at which I am now, compulsively, whole-heartedly, at work), may not be unrelated to the fact that this type of narrative is precisely opposite from how I narrate my life.

That is, I shape stories around my experience with an unconscious, implacable and immediate persistence; I go through life as though I know where each experience will lead, as though its significance can be known, and pronounced straight away–instead of revealed, gradually.

You’ve already written the story!” a woman in my book club once observed, after she’d inquired about my love life and I proceeded to narrate a trajectory as though he and I were already married, instead of (as it were) dating for six clumsy weeks.

My eyes glazed over: of course I’d written the story, I told her. I always do.

When it comes to my current “story,” there are an overwhelming number of points at which it is tempting to start–needless to say, before it even did:

  • Walking down an East Village street in late March, speaking the words, in my head or out loud, I’m not sure, I need a boyfriend in Minnesota like I need a hole in the head.
  • Getting Bloody Marys with friends in Uptown Minneapolis before heading up to the residency, one of them announcing as we sidled from our seats: “I know the only way we’re going to get you to move back here: find you a man!”
  • Within moments of stepping inside the Cultural Center in New York Mills, the warm-faced Outreach Coordinator commenting, immediately, mysteriously: “Oh, hi! You must be the new Visiting Artist! You know, we’ve set up Visiting Artists before–and Jamie’s got a nephew!”
  • Learning, the following day, that this very same woman had, in fact, fixed up the woman I’ve already described as My Doppelganger: another New York writer who, some six years later, is still living, married, in Minnesota.
  • Seeing N, after he’d walked in during my reading that Friday, and after I’d observed his length and looks, slip out of the Center and flop around on the sidewalk–and walking outside to realize he’d done so for the benefit of his, then, eighteen-week-old lab mix puppy. (This, honestly–and to N’s half-jesting horror–is the moment at which I actually threw my hands skyward and said “Really, universe!? Is this a fucking joke?”)

In characteristic fashion, I noted each of these moments as they happened–storing them, mentally, for the point at which I would write about this short-lived, casual fling.

“Hunky, but not my husband,” I explained to the few friends with whom I kept in touch while away.

“How do you know?” they asked.

Of course, I didn’t: now, some time (a whole not even two months!) later, having fallen for him calmly and powerfully, things turned out to reveal themselves in a different way than I first thought. And all those early moments set up a whole different kind of story, make whole different kind of sense.

A different kind of sense, and a different kind of story, than they might add up to in three months or three years or–while we’re being whimsical, why not–a few decades.

So, for now, I’m not sure there’s any point in going on to tell it: all I’ve got so far are beginnings–and the happily earned faith that I can’t know where they will lead.


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