10/11/2013 10:11 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

On Teaching the Work of Alice Munro


When you teach creative writing, oftentimes it will happen (it's almost inevitable) that a student will come to you and say, "I want to be like this writer. I want to write exactly like this. What do I do?" And most of the time the proper answer is, "well, go read a lot of that writer and try it. Eat what they eat. Wear what they wear. Write like them. Copy them!" But occasionally, the better answer is, "go read Alice Munro. Just go read a lot of it -- Open Secrets, Too Much Happiness, Dear Life, all of it." I tell my students you can wear what she wears but you might be wearing it already which is, of course, a silly joke but a pointed one nonetheless.

Alice Munro is familiar because she's universal. She's part of New York but she's not a New York writer; she's accessible but she's nuanced; she's a master of small stories that will change your life, whoever you are, wherever you are, and I tell my students, "that's the way you want to write. Be like that." And it's usually at this point that I catch myself. Jeez, what a tall order: be like Alice Munro.

I'm generally skeptical of any prescriptive writerly advice that says you should be one way or the other, even if it's my own advice. At best, prescriptive advice is innocuous. At worst, it's insular, possibly destructive. I tell my students, "Just go read it. Just go enjoy it and tell me what you think," and they'll inevitably come back wanting to talk about people. Not necessarily characterization or craft or people in Alice Munro's stories, but people -- all people. How they fight and fall in (or out) of love. How they manage their fears. How they sacrifice and exist. It's when my students come back talking about people instead of large, unruly, macro ideas that I know that not only has their approach to narrative changed, but they've also possibly changed as well, which is the magic of Alice Munro for a beginning writer.

Alice Munro's writing, like all great writing, teaches us to be human. It engages big questions in small spaces: What does it mean to be regional? What does it mean to be Canadian? What does it mean to be a mother? What does it mean to be betrayed?

It's the tightness of her stories that seduce and ground us away from the macro elements in her work though it's those exact same elements which inevitably come back to turn us on our heads -- the last-minute twist that can tie everything together as easily as it can tear everything apart (occasionally, at the same time). It's classic Munro for the emotional arc to become the entire arc, the whole narrative resting on human stakes. And it's these small stories, I would argue, that make Alice Munro a truly global writer, accessible to people everywhere who feel, struggle, and (fortunately or unfortunately) live and function in the mundane. Some people say Alice Munro's stories are little slices of life. I say it is life. Every life.

I tell my students that to love Alice Munro is to love other people. Not so much to fall in love with them as much as to wonder about them, ask about them like a good (nosy) relative. It's to buy into the fact that everyone is interesting because everyone has stakes in their lives. And of course there are the collective stakes, the ones between people, which make the best stories.