Nonfiction | June 01, 2009
Featured as an Editor’s Pick, Feb. 1, 2010:
The sensation of a shared small-town coming of age is the connection that leaves Cheryl Strayed feeling powerfully linked to Alice Munro. Follow along in her essay “Munro Country” as Strayed learns the balance between embracing this link to her past and following her own path to the future.
One afternoon when I was twenty-five, I opened the lid of the black metal mailbox that was bolted to the front of the house where I lived and found a plain white envelope addressed to me in a grandmotherly scrawl from an address in British Columbia. It was January in Minneapolis and cold-really cold-but I pulled my gloves off anyway and tore the envelope open and stood on the frozen wooden stairs to read the letter inside. Dear Cheryl, it began in the same hand that had addressed the envelope:
Your letter and story were forwarded to me here in B.C. where I am staying until April-near to 2 of my daughters and my one grandchild. I want to say that I was moved and delighted by the Horse and Blue Canoe. It’s a wonderful, unexpected kind of story and I wouldn’t change a hair on its head. (That’s what my favorite editor always says to me before he proposes about 50 changes.) You are quite right to stay out of academic life if you can. Are you eligible for any grants? If you were in Canada I’d certainly urge you to apply for one from the Canada Council. You must continue writing but you do have lots of time. You’re two years younger than my youngest daughter. I wasn’t writing nearly so well at your age.
With great good wishes-Alice Munro
A shaky, sickening glee washed through me and then drained away almost immediately, replaced by a daffy disbelief: Alice Munro had written to me.Alice! Munro! Those two words were a kind of Holy Grail to me then: the lilting rise and fall of Alice, the double-barreled thunk of Munro. Together they seemed less like a name than an object I could hold in my hands-a stoneware bowl, perhaps, or a pewter platter, equal parts generous and unforgiving. They bore the weight of everything I loved, admired and understood about the art and craft of fiction, everything I ached to master myself.
She wasn’t the only writer I loved, of course. Raymond Carver, Edna O’Brien, William Faulkner, Mary Gaitskill and Flannery O’Connor had each been profoundly important to me. From them and many others, I learned how to write. I studied their stories and novels, their sentences and scenes, excavated their plots and characters and descriptions and then attempted to do what they did all by myself on the page. From a purely craft standpoint, Alice Munro was at the lead of that pack in my mind, a virtuoso among virtuosos, but it wasn’t her virtuosity that made her different from the others to me. Not her dazzling narrative authority or her gorgeously unvarnished prose, not her telescopic density or her breathtakingly intricate descriptions of the way her characters thought and lived and behaved. What made her different to me was another thing entirely, and it wasn’t about style but subject and, even more precisely, it was about Alice Munro herself. It didn’t matter that she was Canadian and thirty-seven years older than I and that her life was, in dozens of particular ways not like my own. When I read her stories, I felt like she’d lived my life.
The fictional world that she has spun in a fair portion of these stories has a name: Munro Country. It’s the real-life Huron County, in southwestern Ontario, where Munro spent her girlhood and returned to live in middle age. In stories she’s written for what’s approaching fifty years, Munro evokes this hardscrabble place with searing specificity: its ramshackle farms and rutted roads, its small towns and social institutions and the complicated and contradictory, proud and humiliated, vain and self-effacing people who populate it.
I got my first taste of Munro Country when I readDance of the Happy Shades, her first book, which was published in 1968, the year I was born. I’d found it on a sale table at a used bookstore near the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where I was a student. I bought it because it looked interesting and it was marked down to something like two dollars and because I was twenty and consumed at that age by a kind of roving, voracious hunger to shuck off the sunny, small-town beauty queen that I seemed to be and to become instead the earnest writer that I knew lived inside me. I felt instinctively that reading just about any work of serious fiction I could get my hands on would help me make that transformation. I didn’t know anything about Alice Munro when I paid my two dollars and shoved her book into my bag. Didn’t know that by then she’d published six books and was well on her way to being celebrated as “our Chekhov”-a comparison made first by the writer Cynthia Ozick but immediately embraced by her peers. Didn’t know she’d won numerous major awards and appeared regularly in the New Yorkerbecause I didn’t, at that time, read the New Yorker. I didn’t even know the New Yorker was a publication that anyone beyond the city limits of New York City would have an interest in reading. I only knew this, once I sat down to read the stories in Dance of the Happy Shades: those stories knew me.
They knew my mother too. And my stepfather and sister and brother. They even knew our two dogs, our one-horned goat named Katrina and the hens and the horses that lived in our yard. They knew the odd, picked-on boy who drowned in a lake one summer evening outside the town where I grew up and the flamboyantly feminist counselor who came from the Twin Cities to work at my school and only lasted one year. They knew the fundamentalist Christians who lived in falling-down houses and rusted-out trailers who wouldn’t let their kids listen to music and the friendly old veteran who owned a rock shop and pushed himself around in a wheelchair after he lost both of his legs in the war. They knew, it seemed, the whole of Aitkin County, Minnesota, where I came of age. Its three tiny towns and dozens of far-flung townships, its long, lonesome roads and endless swamps, bogs, woods and lakes, its bars and businesses and wild and domesticated beasts, its farms and fishing holes, its corn feeds, county fairs and city councils, its deer hunters and demolition derbies, its tractor pulls and taciturn old-timers, its Finns and Ojibwes and back-to-the-land hippies, its hot, mosquito-ridden summers and brutally cold winters. But most of all, those stories knew me, the eager, curious, grandiose girl who grew up in the midst of this and wanted out as fiercely as she wanted to hold on to it forever.
I’d never felt known in quite that way by fiction-by anything, perhaps. I’d identified with characters and situations, of course; had plenty of moments, as a reader, of revelation and understanding and connection. But what I felt about Alice Munro after reading her stories went far beyond those things: I recognized her. Felt pinned and pierced by her, burned and branded by the truth and beauty of her words. I love Alice Munro, I took to saying, the way I did about any number of people I didn’t know whose writing I admired-meaning, of course, that I loved her books. And I did. I devoured each of them after my chance discovery of Dance of the Happy Shades, my love intensifying with each volume. But I loved her too, in a way that felt slightly ridiculous even to me. It wasn’t an obsessive stalker’s love, though it did make me ache a little when I thought about it too much. It wasn’t that I wanted anything from Alice Munro. I didn’t expect her to love me back. It was that I longed to express my love for her. To explain, somehow, all the layers of things we had in common-the small towns and the corduroy roads, the experience of being the prodigal daughter in a place where daughters were not raised to be prodigal-and make her understand what her work had meant to me.
What I felt for Alice Munro was not something I was used to; I’d never been much of a fan. As a girl, I didn’t cover my walls with posters or pictures of idols, the way most of my friends did. I’d never written a letter to a stranger I admired. And writing to Alice Munro seemed impossible anyway. Where would I send the letter? How could I find the words to express myself in full? Time passed, she published another book and I went on silently loving her, studying her stories, trying to write my own in imitation of her. She was scheduled to read at a museum in Minneapolis, and I bought a ticket, but she canceled at the last minute. And then, when I was twenty-two, my mother died and everything I felt for Alice Munro darkened, deepened.
Her mother had died young too, and she haunts the pages of Munro’s stories the way my own mother began to haunt mine. I read Munro through my sorrow, rereading certain stories and scenes over and over again, memorizing particular sentences. Class and culture and cold country climates had bound me to Munro, but they had nothing on dead mothers. Ours had died differently-hers around sixty, after a long illness with Parkinson’s disease, mine at forty-five, of lung cancer, only seven weeks after she was diagnosed-but I sensed viscerally that the losses Munro and I had suffered had gouged us in the same way. The fictional motherless daughters in her stories told me so. The sad, subtle ways they turned their heads, the glitteringly sharp laughter that tamped down the memories of the mothers they didn’t have, the way they could never be free, never released, never shucked clean of the mothers who were loved or unloved, who had been wrong or almost always right, who lived on and on no matter how many years passed without them. And I understood more deeply the living mothers in Munro’s fictions too. So often they seemed to be the same one, in story after story. The same enterprising, intellectually striving, socially thwarted, subtly unconventional and mildly whimsical woman, who, in spite of everything, had no choice but to get dinner on the table or the cows milked at dawn, and, always, there’d be wash to do.
Which was, to put it plainly, the story of my own mother’s life.
I tried to write that story, the one of my mother’s life and my own, mimicking Munro. Of course I failed, so I wrote whatever I could get down on the page. I wrote and wrote, read some more. I read and I wrote. At twenty-four, I finished a story that I thought was perhaps good enough to be published, so I sent it to a contest in England, and months later I got a phone call from a man in London, telling me that it had won. The prize, the man explained, was a Parker pen, a check that amounted to twenty-two hundred U.S. dollars and two copies of the book in which my story would be published. “One for you,” he said with his British accent, “and one for your mum.”
I hung up the phone and cried my heart out. I was happy about the prize. I was grateful for the money. I wasn’t crying because of those things. I was crying because I didn’t have a mother, or a father, for that matter. Because I didn’t know what to do with the second copy of the book that contained my first published story.
“She writes about me!” my mother had once proudly proclaimed to her own mother about my first efforts as a writer-stories I’d written in college and had let her read. The three of us were riding in the car, driving to Duluth, where my mother would die in a month.
“I do not,” I’d scoffed bitterly. I was twenty-two, past the stage where it seemed that every cell in my body longed to push my mother away, but her giddy insistence that my budding literary career bore any relation to her riled the old teenager in me back to life. I was furious and humiliated, regardless of her cancer. “I write about all kinds of things, not just you,” I hissed, though it wasn’t true. Each of the stories I’d written had, in fact, thinly fictionalized versions of my mother at its center.
“Okay, honey,” she said soothingly, unperturbed.
That exchange played itself out horribly in my mind for years-one of the few regrets I have about what happened between the two of us in my mother’s last days-and it played itself out again as I wept in my living room on the afternoon I heard my story had won a prize.
The story is called “The House With the Horse and the Blue Canoe,” a barely fictionalized account of a hard and beautiful time in my girlhood, when my family lived in a dilapidated farmhouse that adjoined a pasture that enclosed our horse, Lady, and her makeshift water trough. The trough was a blue canoe my family had smashed up one winter using it as a toboggan on the big hill nearby that went down to a lake named Grace. The house was on the side of a well-traveled highway, so when people asked where we lived, all we had to say was “the house with the horse and the blue canoe,” and everyone knew where we were talking about. In the story I wrote about the things that happened the year I was ten: how my stepfather fell from a roof and broke his back and how this led to us eventually having to move out of the farmhouse because we couldn’t afford the rent. How in his months-long convalescence my stepfather carved and then painted an entire village of wooden figurines to populate the miniature log cabin that my mother put out each Christmas and how my mother sang “O Tannenbaum” to us as she lit the Christmas lights. It’s not so much a story as a gathering of reminiscences, an elegy for the family I used to have, the one that died with my mother. And there was only one person on earth I wanted to read it: Alice Munro.
When I received my two copies of the book a few months later, I drafted the letter. It’s lost to time, but I remember sitting at my computer for hours, composing each sentence, questioning each word, crafting the letter as painstakingly as I did my stories, trying to tell her everything but also reign myself in, to express my fervor without scaring her off. I included the copy of the book that was meant for my mother. I told her that I knew it was highly unlikely she had time to waste on reading my story, which, by the way, began on page 121, but if she was interested-she might be interested-well, then she should just go ahead and read it. I did not expect her to write me back. I knew she was far too busy to write me back. I was sure she received a deluge of letters from the likes of me, and how could she possibly write us all back, what with the demands of her actual writing, but if she would like to write me back, she should feel free to do so.
On the envelope I wrote her name above only the words “Clinton, Ontario, Canada.” Having grown up in the country, where letters are sometimes addressed with the confidence of an absurd insularity-“Joe, who lives past the dump,” say-I gambled that anyone who worked at the post office in Clinton would know where to find the now world-famous author. I mailed my letter and story to her on December 20th.
On January 18th her reply appeared in my mailbox.
I stood on the porch reading it and then I went inside and read it some more. I was leaving the next day for a writing residency at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming, and I took the letter with me, neatly folded and in the envelope it had come in. I propped it on my desk in my studio and gazed at it for long stretches. It never occurred to me to write Munro back, to keep in touch, to attempt to parlay our exchange into something more. To do so seemed to me a violation of the gift she’d given me in her reply; it would be taking a mile when all I really needed was an inch. Her letter traveled with me, in me, for years as I wrote and tried to write, the best lines from it-I wouldn’t change a hair on its head and it’s a wonderful, unexpected kind of story and I wasn’t writing nearly so well at your age-humming inside of me like an ancient gong.
By the time I turned thirty I’d begun publishing stories and essays, but I still hadn’t managed to finish the novel I’d claimed to be writing for years. So I did what I’d told Alice Munro in my letter that I would not do-I applied to graduate school to get my MFA in fiction writing, despite her agreement that I was “quite right to stay out of academic life” if I could. I couldn’t. I’d been working mostly as a waitress for more than a decade, writing on the side. I’d won grants and gone to writing residencies every chance I got, but those things hadn’t allowed me the shelter I needed to complete a book.
I went to Syracuse University and was mentored by a string of stunning writers and good souls-George Saunders, Mary Caponegro, Arthur Flowers and, in my final semester, Mary Gaitskill, who’d been a shining star in my constellation of literary influence. Each of them, along with my talented classmates, helped me further down the path, told me things that I needed to know, and still there was always Alice Munro, teaching me by the frank force of her fiction-how she moved her characters in and out of a room, how she conveyed an emotion or a moment just so. She was my most important mentor, though I’d never laid eyes on her, until finally, at the end of my first year of graduate school, I got my chance.
She was participating in the New Yorker Festival in Manhattan, appearing in a double-header with Richard Ford. I took the train to see her on an uncharacteristically hot day in early May, traveling five and half hours from Syracuse to Penn Station. Then the subway to the Lower East Side and a short painful walk to the Angel Orensanz Foundation, the sandals I hadn’t worn since the summer before raising blisters on my tender heels. The Angel Orensanz Foundation is a stylishly dilapidated former synagogue that dates back to the nineteenth century. I handed over my ticket just outside its gaping neogothic doors and walked inside, feeling silent and solemn amid the din of a hundred conversations all around me. I found a seat to the side of the stage, a few rows back. The room was cavernous and packed. Tickets had sold out months before. “Sarah Jessica Parker married Matthew Broderick here,” the woman next to me said as I scanned the faces near the low stage, trying to spot Munro. And then the lights dimmed and the crowd hushed.
Richard Ford came on first. I watched him in profile, handsome and lean in a purple blazer and white shirt. He read “Reunion” by John Cheever and then his own story called “Reunion.” I listened raptly, almost forgetting Alice Munro. I’d always admired Richard Ford too; his book Rock Springswas among those I’d read again and again. When he finished, Alice Munro walked elegantly onto the stage, her smile shy and bright, her hair soft and white. She wore dangling black stone earrings and a matching black stone necklace that sat close to her throat. Her cream-colored dress flowed bridelike to the floor, topped by an equally long black vest that closed with one button at her chest.
The sight of her knocked me sideways, the way so many of her stories had. At the sound of her voice, I wept. I’d not expected this. Futilely, I searched my purse for a tissue, as unobtrusively as I could, mortified by my tiny gasps and copious tears. I gave up and wiped my face with my bare hands and tried to concentrate on her words. She was reading a story called “Nettles,” the crowd breathing with one breath. I weaved in and out of listening and quietly weeping, the tears seeping ridiculously out of me, despite my inner pleadings that I get a grip. Later, I’d laugh when I told this story. I’d say that when I saw Alice Munro, I understood for the first time all those screaming, inconsolable girls in old footage of the Beatles in the ’60s. And yet that wasn’t what was happening at all. I wasn’t crying for joy or excitement or because I was overcome with emotion to see someone I loved from afar. I was crying because something had come to an end. I knew it only in glimmers-it would take years until I fully understood-that a spell cast long before had been broken the moment Alice Munro walked onto the stage.
Of all the lines she’d written in her letter to me, of all the phrases that had repeated and hummed like a gong in my head, there was one that hummed more persistently than the rest: You’re two years younger than my youngest daughter. Such a neutral statement, and yet I couldn’t keep myself from coloring in the lines. In the country called Munro, I’d subconsciously staked a fantastical claim. I could be her daughter, I’d sometimes think, remembering those words she’d written about how close I was in age to her youngest. I’d have been the final one, kindred and kept and adored.
I didn’t really think I was Alice Munro’s daughter, of course. I’m not talking about delusion. I’m talking about longing and instinct and the eternal ache of a girl who lost her mom. About the way life, like a Munro story, unfurls and then turns back on itself in the most unpredictable, inexplicable ways, ambiguous and overlapping, perpetually at odds with itself. About how I loved Alice Munro more excruciatingly than I ever had in that moment she walked onto the stage and also how, in that very same moment, I began, finally, to let her go. Not Munro, the great writer, whom I continue to learn from and admire, but Munro the maternal mentor, from whom I simply had to move on. Munro Country had been my motherland for years, but by then, at thirty-two, hip-deep at last in my own novel, I understood that in order to write my book, I had to set out into territory that was all my own.
These realizations didn’t come to me in great, lucid waves as I sat listening to “Nettles” while scrambling for something with which to blow my nose. They were not an epiphany. Instead they were ephemeral and shadowy, as if a bird had darted in and then disappeared into a dark corner of that cavernous room. At the sight of her, I only knew that I knew things I could not yet say. If you’d asked me why I was crying, I’d have told you the story about the girls and the Beatles in the ’60s..
When she finished reading, she sat in a chair on the stage to receive her admirers. I hung back, dry-eyed and chastened, lingering toward the end of a long line. As I waited, I rehearsed what I would say when it was my turn. I love your work! Your books have meant so much to me-to my development as a writer. Actually, you probably don’t remember, but you wrote me a letter. You read a story of mine. You said you wouldn’t change a hair on its head! I swapped the words and phrases around in my mind, the same way I do when I’m writing-expanding and deleting, trying to craft an opening sentence that would draw her in and make her want to stay. But as the line inched forward, I could feel the words crumbling inside of me, becoming more inane with each step in her direction. Should I even mention the letter? I wondered. Surely she wouldn’t remember the letter. And doesn’teveryone say they love her work? I tried to think of a single thing to say that she hadn’t likely heard a thousand times before and came up with nothing. No matter what I said, I believed, my words wouldn’t stick. I could feel them falling already, leaden and clichéd, straight from my mouth to the floor.
One person approached her and then left and another and another, until at last the person who stood in front of me stepped forward. It was my turn next, I realized, with a fluttering in my gut, and a minute or two later, Alice Munro’s eyes met mine. She gazed at me with the same bland, agreeable and guardedly receptive expression as she had all the others, and in the flash of a second, I knew I wouldn’t speak to her. There had been so many words between us already. Entire sentences she’d written that I’d etched into my brain. Gestures conveyed just so on the page. Those girls who laughed glitteringly. Women who turned their heads in sad and subtle ways. They were hers. They were mine. About the savage love I felt for them, there was both too much and nothing to say.
I gave her a small wave and then shifted my eyes and walked away.
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