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.


An Ode to List Making, Mood Swinging, and Ladies Who Lit

On Tuesday afternoon, I pranced around Manhattan like an actress who had aced an audition.

I felt, literally, elated–charmed by elements of the New York landscape that, on normal days, turn me enraged: the hordes of over-layered NYU students peeling past on West 4th; the aggressively chatty man in the excruciatingly slow elevator; even my wildly overpriced tea latte, I paid for with a grin.

It was hard to imagine, I told A–meeting her to work at a crowded coffee shop on Mercer (“This place is so claustrophobic!” I beamed)–that less than twenty-four hours earlier, I had been, to not overstate things at all, in despair.

So extensive had my list of grievances been during my Monday therapy appointment that Therapist and I made the simultaneous (silly, but seasonally appropriate) suggestion that we burst into a chorus of “Dayenu:” if only one of these things had been going on, it would have been enough:

  • Leaving town, in four days, for five weeks.
  • Putting pressure on myself, during that time, to write an entire book.
  • Having had a total meltdown the previous night with my parents, in which I had, fourteen-year-old-style, run up a flight of stairs, slammed a door, crumpled, bawling, into a pile of dirty clothes.
  • Not having heard back from Ari in a full day. (Therapist and I narrowed the possibilities down to three: Hit By a Bus, Commitment Freakout, or, as turned out to be the case, Working.)
  • Not sleeping.
  • Having, that morning, as I, apparently, do, when feeling vulnerable, made myself feel more so. (Me: “I do that!” Therapist: “I noticed.” Me: “Why!?” “Therapist: “We need a few more sessions.”)

I tried to recall this list on Tuesday, while also mentally collecting another one–the reasons, I supposed, that, so soon after, I felt Fucking Fabulous.

Some attempts:

  • It was sunny.
  • Therapy had actually (imagine!) helped.
  • Ari was not dead.
  • I had spent much of the day listening to this beautiful thing.
  • I’d been unusually productive, work-wise.
  • For breakfast, I’d eaten a large, spicy coconut curry that tasted as rich and satisfying as any breakfast ever has.
“We have extreme highs and lows,” A said, nodding in recognition after I giddily crammed my body, laptop and assorted tote bags into the tiny space beside her. (“I’m schlepping workout clothes all over New York City that I don’t even have time to use!” I crowed. “And I don’t care!”)
So extreme,” I said.

I was trying to turn the exercise–my mental list-making–into a (self-) Teachable Moment.

“I feel like I’m good at reminding myself to enumerate what’s making me sad when  I feel down,” I explained. “But I don’t always do that when I feel good!”

A nodded. “Right,” she said. “I just try not to give it too much energy.”

A few hours later I careened into an airy Ditmas Park apartment for book club (yes, we call ourselves Ladies Who Lit)–the eager anticipation of which surely factored into my swinging spirits.

(These gals, I must take the chance to say, are as bright, delightful, and easygoing as they come–and it struck me last night that our collective appreciation is not unrelated to the clarity and smallness of our collective expectation: that once, every 4-6 weeks, we will spend a decadent evening drinking, eating, and catching up–and a few minutes discussing some, alternately gendered, work of contemporary fiction. It’s remarkable how much easier it is to enjoy people when all you ask of them is a few occasional hours of fun.)

“I have got to tell you guys,” I gushed, tossing my things on the floor as I unloaded beer and grapes. “Yesterday I was so down, and today I feel so awesome!”

“Ugh,” one replied, shaking her head. “I feel like that happens to me from hour to hour!”

“I know,” another chimed in. “I think most people have really erratic moods.”

“Oh,” I said, tossing my coat into the bedroom. “I guess just not everyone needs to burst into apartments and tell everyone about it.”

(What can I say–some people love math and hockey, I love basketball and dogs and telling everyone everything, all the time.)

But back to my lists: because I do like the idea that–regardless of how common those dramatic internal shifts– I can arm myself with tools, that I can walk around with a set of strategies for turning myself around: listen to Kurt Vile! Be productive! Eat Thai curry!

But I also know that A is right: that largely, our moods are outside our control. Had I run into that guy in the elevator or been swarmed by students on Monday, they would have only soured me further. Too, had I not indulged a complete adolescent meltdown, I probably wouldn’t have been able to feel good later on.

It’s basically the same idea I wrote about earlier this week, and last week too: things shift. We can’t control our emotional tides, we can only sit with them, surrender to them, know they will, soon, pass.

But it’s nice to remember, too, that small things–curry, music, perspective–can be a big help.