When Alice met Jerry

Back in August, while travelling in North America, I hoped to meet an Internet friend and namesake, Heather Munro, during a changeover at Minneapolis Airport – but she couldn’t make it. So, I went to a bookshop in the airport and bought a book of short stories by another namesake, Alice Munro, instead. I had flown to Minneapolis en route from Vancouver, Canada to Kansas City, Missouri and while in Vancouver, I’d spent a couple of days across the bay in Victoria. Had I known then what I know now I would have bought the same book in Munro’s Bookshop in Victoria which was established by Jim Munro and his first wife Alice – yes, the same Alice – in 1963. But coming out of Bastion Square onto Government Street, I turned left towards the intriguingly named Trounce Alley and inadvertently away from the bookshop which was only a few doors down on the right.

At the time, I was going through a period of serious self-doubt. Not so much about my writing itself – because I’m well aware of my limitations – but about the wisdom of spending so much time writing stuff that hardly anyone will read and even fewer will enjoy. The whole endeavour appeared increasingly pointless; and yet I could conceive of no other way I’d rather spend my time. So I bought a volume of Alice Munro’s short stories in the hope that they would inspire me and teach me and enable me to derive more satisfaction from what I was doing.

Part of the problem, too, was that I had been reading books about writing in the hope that if I could master the craft of writing I would derive more satisfaction from what I produced. But the more I read the more complex and unfathomable the process of creating fiction seemed to become. Before long, and without realising it, I had amassed a litany of reasons for NOT writing; these taking the form of all the faux pas that incompetent writers commit in their stumbling attempts at writing fiction. And before long I had reached a point where, when I sat down to write I felt inhibited by all the rules I had read about and the many more rules I felt were out there, waiting to entrap me. The freedom to write I had once enjoyed had dissipated and the joy of creating had been replaced by a fear of creating something that was an abomination.

I had bought the book of short stories by Alice Munro, hoping that I could learn, by osmosis, the rhythms and cadences of short story writing from one who is regarded as a modern master of the medium. Inside the cover, however, I found a citation from the Washington Post, from which I now quote: “The stories of Dear Life violate a host of creative writing rules (my italics), but they establish yet again Munro’s psychological acuity, clear-eyed acceptance of frailties and the mastery of the short story form.” In other words, the rules I had been struggling to master, the Master breaks with abandon and impunity.

I did not finish the book; and that is all I am prepared to say about it, being far from qualified to pass judgement. But having reached that point, the future was looking even bleaker. Then I saw the documentary film: Salinger.

The Catcher in the Rye was one of three books that convinced me I wanted to be a writer. The other two were: Kerouac’s On the Road, and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. I had read them all when I was still young – they are books that ought to be read when one is young – and they combined to set the tone for much of the rest of my life. But until I saw the biopic, it was a mystery to me why Salinger had apparently abandoned writing after publishing his masterpiece.

Salinger wanted, above all else, to be a writer; and his measure of success was to be published in the New Yorker. Time after time his work was rejected; yet he persevered. In 1941, the New Yorker rejected seven of his stories and even when Slight Rebellion off Madison was accepted in December of that year, the attack on Pearl Harbour rendered it “unpublishable”. The Fates seemed to be conspiring against him. But he was determined to succeed; and eventually, the New Yorker accepted and published his short story, A Perfect Day for Bananafish in 1948.

Throughout the Forties, Salinger had been developing an idea based on the lead character in his short story, Slight Rebellion off Madison – Holden Caulfield. Now that he had finally been published in the New Yorker, an avenue for his novel opened up and The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, spending 30 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Salinger had made it. But success, apparently, was not all that it was cracked up to be; and two years later he moved out of the spotlight of New York City to the seclusion of Cornish, New Hampshire.

Salinger had been notoriously protective of the integrity of his prose, even of his punctuation; and in his seclusion, he became even more determined to write what he wanted to write, rather than fashion stories that would appeal to editors and publishers. Some might argue that this self-indulgence would lead to a deterioration of his prose. But it suggests to me that Salinger had learned one of the most important lessons in life: one should not stake one’s happiness on something that is outside one’s control.

To most people, being a writer means being published, writing books that sell; it means being acclaimed; and ultimately, it means becoming a celebrity. Initially, Salinger seemed to strive for precisely this; but ultimately, he recognised the emptiness of such ambition. He realised that he didn’t want to be a writer after all. What he really wanted to do was to write.

Alice Munro has spent a lifetime writing the stories she wanted to write and today, she was rewarded with the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Congratulations Alice.

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7 thoughts on “When Alice met Jerry

  1. And so my friend, where are you now? Writing? Just getting it down on paper and who cares what anyone else thinks?

    “The freedom to write I had once enjoyed had dissipated and the joy of creating had been replaced by a fear of creating something that was an abomination” resonated in me, echoing and making concrete, what I have been feeling about drawing and painting.

    Maybe we can both get through this.

  2. I’m sorry to hear that you are struggling too, John. Yes, I am writing again; with renewed vigour and a clearer sense of purpose. Lately, I have been revising a longer work I had all but abandoned. But I suppose the real test will come when I attempt something new.

    Do I care what anyone else thinks? Yes and no.

    I care in so much as I don’t want to waste the time of those who read what I write and perhaps wish afterwards that they had used their time better. The obvious solution to this problem, of course, is to not show my writing to anyone. But that doen’t make sense.

    I included the part about Alice Munro in my article because I wanted to demonstrate that, in the end, you cannot expect to please everyone. AM is a highly regarded writer of short stories, she has won the Booker Prize and now the Nobel Prize for literature and she has been compared (favourably) with Anton Chekov. It doesn’t get much better than that. But her stories didn’t connect with me; and the point is that my opinion doesn’t matter, and it certainly doesn’t change or lessen what she has written. And I do applaud her for sticking to her guns and writing what she likes, how she likes.

    The JD Salinger reference, on the other hand, was intended to show that ‘success’ and ‘fame’ are hollow victories after all – momentarily satisfying, but ultimately meaningless and always untrustworthy. In the end, how one feels about oneself is all that really matters.

    I am reminded of a story I heard as a child, growing up in Scotland.

    There was a young man who was learning to play the bagpipes. One day, he performed an act of kindness for a stranger who, as it turned out, possessed magical powers. To repay the kindness, the stranger promised to grant the young man a single wish, to which the young man immediately replied that he would like to become the “greatest piper the world had ever known”.

    But the stranger was wise, and he told the young man, “I can grant you talent, without fame; or fame, without talent; but you cannot have both. You must choose.”

    The young man thought long and deeply about the choice he had been given; and in the end, he chose talent over fame.

    So, to get back to your question; I do care about what people think when what they offer is constructive criticism; because I know that I still have much to learn about writing. And to paraphrase another Scot: I would that I could see my writing as others see it; becauseI can’t easily distinguish what I actually wrote from what I wanted to convey; so I’ll have to go on relying on others to help me there.

    I hope this helps.

  3. Writing, photography, drawing, painting while solitary forms of expression, and can be done solely for one’s own satisfaction, I believe are a form of expression meant ultimately to be viewed by others.

    Photography enables me to create, and I share on flickr, so that others can see what I’ve been making. And it’s gratifying when others appreciate what I’ve made. And I especially appreciate when someone mentions something in that creation of which I’m particularly fond, or had worked on diligently.

    Glad you’re writing with renewed enthusiasm. And yes, your communications help.

  4. I am so sorry I wasn’t able to see you last year, Xpat … I was in the middle of the flood-related chaos of rebuilding our home. But, in a sense, I’m also glad I wasn’t able to see you because what you did with your time instead was clearly infinitely more rewarding and inspiring than meeting me would have been. So … welcome back! I’m thrilled to be reading your words again.

    • To be honest, Heather, I didn’t finish reading Alice Munro’s short stories. There is something mystical about how we connect with each other through the arts; and equally mystical about how we don’t connect.

  5. Just finished reading, and impressed by the book, viewing “Any Human Heart,” William Boyd. Now there is a story about, amongst other things, a very frustrating life as a writer.

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