Short Story Month, Day 22: "Differently"
During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from writer Andrew Scott.
“A story is not like a road to follow, I said, it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay A story is not like a road to follow, I said, it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself, of being built of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you. To deliver a story like that, durable and freestanding, is what I’m always hoping for.”
—Alice Munro, from the introduction to her Selected Stories
Like many readers, I am always grateful to come upon the kind of story Alice Munro calls “durable and freestanding,” one that forever alters my experience as a reader. Munro has written many such stories in the last five decades. Her famous story-as-house metaphor is aptly realized in her fiction, especially in stories published after her conscious decision to abandon the epiphanic shape of stories in her first book, Dance of the Happy Shades. Her stories will endure for a number of reasons, but especially because she willingly constructs a “house” that always reveals more with each visit. Other famous stories are as intricately designed as Munro’s—James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” for example. Few short stories, though, remain “durable” after so many readings. Munro’s design choices are responsible for that durability, and readers remain excited about her work because their expectations are never easily met. We never want what comes easily, Munro reminds us, which is perhaps another reason why her fiction will endure beyond her lifetime. Reading her work may frustrate readers who do not surrender completely to her narrative control; she complicates expectations to create the kind prison William H. Gass refers to when he says that an author should work to “keep us kindly imprisoned in his language.” Her language, in this case.
“Differently,” a story from Friend of My Youth, is a fair representation of Munro’s post-epiphanic work. Her stories often contain a multitude of shapes, in much the same way a novel can simultaneously employ various shapes. This is generally what readers mean when we speak of her stories’ expansive or novelistic qualities. Many of them are quite long; some surpass forty pages. At 28 pages, “Differently” is not one of her longest stories—only the fifth-longest story in Friend of My Youth—yet “Differently” does have feel more like a novel because there are several characters whose entire lives are revealed for readers, and its narrative shapes vary widely: the journey, the gathering, and more. Munro wishes to pack entire lives, not just mere moments (or glimpses, as William Trevor might prefer), into her stories. “Differently” opens in this manner:
Georgia once took a creative-writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people. Think, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to? Think.
Munro, like the creative writing instructor, realizes the importance of understanding the reader’s expectations. Unlike the instructor, however, Munro does not hedge toward simplicity or oversimplification. She assumes that readers will rise to meet a work on its own terms, without the story needing to be dumbed down. In “Differently,” Munro is thinking about what readers should pay attention to, about that important thing. Her answer is simple: she asks that readers work to discover the importance of each story element.
One possible reason for Munro’s decision to move away from the epiphanic structure is that, after a century of encountering them in books and magazines and movies, readers can find the pattern in an epiphanic narrative and know, before the story’s ending, the ways in which the character will view the events in a new light. In short, readers’ expectations in an epiphanic story are not openly challenged. For a story to be “durable and freestanding,” for it to hold up after various examinations, it must contain “more than you saw the last time.” Epiphanic stories may have the effect of surprise during the first reading, but the epiphany is rarely as powerful the second time through, and if the story has little to offer but its epiphany, it will be hard for the story to remain “durable” through the harsh winters of time.
The plot of “Differently” is fairly simple. Georgia travels to visit Raymond. The front story—that is, the story that does not occur in flashback or memory—occurs in Raymond’s house. Georgia’s visit is the occasion for story. She and Raymond remember old times, some of which were better than others. Then Georgia leaves. During the course of that afternoon visit, which is told in the present tense, Munro weaves in decades of back story. As a result, readers are never really sure what to expect. The first section, which begins the front story, also contains numerous moments and memories of Georgia and Raymond’s pasts—shared and not. Numerous sections keep the reader guessing as to how these lives will unfold. The sections are organized associatively—Munro navigates through time as needed, and not in predictable ways.
The second section, for example, occurs one year prior to the time of Georgia’s visit to Raymond, back to the moment when Georgia learned of Maya’s death. Maya was Raymond’s wife. Georgia’s had been angry with Maya for many years because Maya slept with a man with whom Georgia had been having an affair.
At this point, the reader might think a pattern is developing, that Munro might return to the front story in Raymond’s living room, thus establishing a pattern of alternating sections: front story, back story, front story, and so on. Instead, the third section moves even deeper into the past, to when Georgia and her husband first visited Maya and Raymond’s home. The fourth section remains deep in back story, but moves forward from the third section to characterize the development of Georgia and Maya’s friendship. The fifth section continues with this, and establishes the start of Georgia’s affair; the sixth clarifies their friendship and the downfall of Georgia’s affair; the seventh section, which is longer than the previous five sections, details the emotional breakdown and distance within Georgia and Maya’s friendship.
The eighth section returns readers to the present-tense front story, the conversation between Georgia and Raymond. But quickly readers are moved through to the ninth section, to Georgia’s final memories of Maya. The tenth and final section brings readers again to Raymond’s living room, where Raymond asks Georgia how they should behave: “‘Differently,’ says Georgia. She puts a foolish stress on the word, meaning that her answer is so lame that she can offer it only as a joke.”
The moment is like an epiphany. In the hands of a lesser writer, it would become an epiphany. A lesson has been learned, although it has taken a lifetime. But then Munro moves past epiphany, having Georgia realize the uselessness of the moment, of her answer, as “she puts a foolish stress on the word.”
“Too many things,” the creative writing instructor says, and what reader would expect, upon reading such an opening, to encounter the story that follows? A writer wanting to analyze the craft of Munro’s stories can expect a long and rewarding journey. Her stories’ structures are often not easily discernible. And writers analyzing her craft are consciously trying to study how the stories are put together, remember—a reader approaching her work simply for pleasure will never know the reasons for its complicated construction. That is to say, such readers may read and re-read her stories with pleasure and wonder, trapped as they are in its kind prison.
Andrew Scott is the author of Naked Summer, a story collection, and the editor of a forthcoming anthology, 24 Bar Blues: Two Dozen Tales of Bars, Booze, and the Blues. He holds writing degrees from Purdue University and New Mexico State University, where he was twice awarded a Frank Waters Fiction Fellowship. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Esquire, Ninth Letter, The Cincinnati Review, Mid-American Review, Glimmer Train Stories, The Writer’s Chronicle, and other publications. He is the co-editor of Freight Stories, an online fiction journal, and a Senior Editor at Engine Books. He teaches at Ball State University and lives in Indianapolis.
Alice Munro Answers Your Letters
The latest “From The Archives” feature is up! Our selection is Cheryl Strayed’s essay “Munro Country,” which originally appeared in our Summer 2009 issue.
The sensation of a shared small-town coming of age is the connection that leaves Strayed feeling powerfully linked to Alice Munro. Follow along as Strayed learns the balance between embracing this link to her past and following her own path to the future.